Monday, 21 November 2011

The Worm Has Turned

As I type this, it's roughly an hour and a half until the TV3 leader's debate featuring the Roy Morgan Reactor (also known as "The Worm") and I'm really scared.

I'm scared because MediaWorks, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to release a smartphone application to gather data from the public on their 'emotional response' to the candidates as they speak.

The last time technology like this was used in a leader's debate was on TV1 in 2002. Peter Dunne received a phenomenal boost in support following that debate due to a surge in the Worm whenever he uttered the words 'common sense.' This lead to his party returning 8 MPs to parliament, whereupon they did absolutely nothing.

Oh, that's a slight exaggeration. They did establish a "family commission." Whose first act was to rule that a family in modern New Zealand didn't necessarily mean the "Mother, Father, 2.5 Christian Kids" that United Future was hoping for. I think it's been scrapped since? I haven't heard about them for a while.

Regardless, it took 3 years for kiwis to realise that the Peter Dunne Revival Show wasn't exactly what they thought they were voting for, and the party hasn't returned that many MPs since.

But this time, I'm scared because John Key is a smarmy git, popular even though his headline policy of asset sales is unpopular. I'm scared because Goff's face isn't as symmetrical as Key's, and that's a factor in how people think. And I'm scared because smartphones are expensive, and as such, Mum and Dad Millionaire are more likely to have them than Labour's traditional voter base of people who cannot afford smartphones.

I'm scared because more people will hear about this debate than watch it.

Under the cut is a copy of a complaint that I laid with the Broadcasting Standards Authority on the 10th of November and with the TV3 complaints department on the 11th. It'll be interesting to see how much of what I fear comes to pass.

Date: 21/11/2011
Time: 19:00:00
Channel: TV3 (TVWorks Ltd)

Standards breached:
Election Programmes Code E2 Distinguishing Factual Information from Opinion or
Election Programmes Code E4 Misleading Programmes

Reason(s) for breach:
Dear Sir or Madam

TV3 has announced it's intention to revive the controversial practice of "The Worm," known commercially as the Roy Morgan Reactor, which effectively neutered political debate and grossly distorted the result of the 2002 election.

More people will hear about the debate than watch it; as such it is critical that the media be held responsible for irresponsible coverage and analysis. To paraphrase the TV3 statement regarding the upcoming debate, retrieved from on November 10, 2011, they intend to gather data using a "Roy Morgan Reactor" device from both an in-studio group of 100 "uncommitted" voters, as well as gather data from viewers watching at home via a downloadable smartphone application.

As a voter who does not own a smartphone, I find this an alarming breach of the explicit and implicit standards set down for election programmes.

 To wit: The "Roy Morgan Reactor" device and associated practices, standards, software, hardware, and the use thereof in an election context (hereafter referred to collectively as "The Worm") breaches standards E2 "Distinguishing Factual Information from Opinion" and standard E4 "Misleading Programmes".

It breaches these standards in the following ways:

  • The "Worm" does not promote critical thinking
    The "Worm" does not distinguish between factual information and opinion
    The "Worm" is inherently misleading
    The "Worm" is inherently undemocratic
    The "Worm" does not give an accurate, true reading of voter's true opinions
    The "Worm" is open to abuse in interpretation.
    The "Worm" masquerades as a democratic, egalitarian tool to promote free speech, when in reality it imposes high barriers to entry to the political process.
In the 2002 election, Peter Dunne was able to manipulate the "Worm" by repeatedly saying "Common Sense," which is a statement that seems simple but is in reality very, very complex. In the analysis after the debate, media commentators talked more about the way the "Worm" spiked when he used these words, rather than talking about what Peter Dunne thought "Common Sense" was.

This is a clear case of the inability of "The Worm" to distinguish between fact and opinion, and its inability to provoke critical thinking.

The 2002 leader's debate also showed that the "Worm" is inherently misleading and undemocratic. It relied on a very, very small sample size and produced a skewed result, and did not accurately reflect an informed opinion of the sample group, instead returning a spike in 'warm fuzzies' upon the user's hearing a buzzword or catchphrase.

To illustrate the way in which "The Worm" is open to abuse in interpretation, I would like to present a test broadcast of the system shown on "Campbell Live," on Friday, November 4, 2011 at 7:30pm. I have been unable to find footage of the test on publicly available Internet media, but the test consisted of a montage of recent events during which home viewers were invite to record their responses on the Smartphone version of "The Worm."

During the test, this "worm" peaked during footage of the Italian Prime-Minister, footage of the All Black's winning Rugby World Cup performance, and fell during footage of Phil Goff.

After the test, the news-reader (not John Campbell, but a stand-in) summed up the results as (paraphrased) 'you don't like the Italian PM, you like the All Blacks, and you don't like Phil Goff.' This is an inconsistent interpretation of the data- if the graph is consistently interpreted, the viewers must have "Liked" Mr Berlusconi as much as they "Liked" the All Blacks. Instead, TV3 chose to interpret the graph as they liked it, obfuscating the real data.

 Please, stop TV3 from committing electoral abuse this year. The 2002 election, in the end, turned on two words- "Common Sense"- but the 2011 election is too important to not think about and talk about the issues. Stop "The Worm," and give politics a chance to breathe.

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