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Software Scans for Spin in Speeches

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Posted on Sep 18, 2008
Bush
White House photo / Paul Morse

Humans may be susceptible to methods of persuasion that play on the emotions and circumvent logic, but computers are another story. Enter a software program that purports to detect “spin” in politicians’ speeches by using a complex (albeit man-made) algorithm to hunt for truth-stretching words and phrases.


New Scientist:

Technology is here to help. Software programs that analyse a person’s speech, voice or facial expressions are building upon the work of researchers like Ekman to help us discover when the truth is being stretched, and even by how much. “The important thing to recognise is that politicians aren’t typically good at out-and-out lies, but they are very adept at dancing around the truth,” says David Skillicorn, a mathematics and computer science researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “The 2008 election has so far given us plenty of chances to see them in action.”

Skillicorn has been watching out for verbal “spin”. He has developed an algorithm that evaluates word usage within the text of a conversation or speech to determine when a person “presents themselves or their content in a way that does not necessarily reflect what they know to be true”.

The algorithm counts usage of first person nouns - “I” tends to indicate less spin than “we”, for example. It also searches out phrases that offer qualifications or clarifications of more general statements, since speeches that contain few such amendments tend to be high on spin. Finally, increased rates of action verbs such as “go” and “going”, and negatively charged words, such as “hate” and “enemy”, also indicate greater levels of spin. Skillicorn had his software tackle a database of 150 speeches from politicians involved in the 2008 US election race (see diagram).

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By Interactive TV, February 28, 2011 at 4:31 am Link to this comment

Spin is the word in capital letters. All e commerce and modern marketing techniques use software to enable variations of the announcement or article. Integrity and quality of the article is the question, not the tool in which we use to reach a broad audience.

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By ocjim, September 18, 2008 at 9:47 pm Link to this comment

How about detecting the serial lying of Palin and McCain. That software would go off the charts for both of them.

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By Janice P., September 18, 2008 at 4:35 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama ranked #1 on the spin. Look at the diagram.

They called him the King of Spin!

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By Stephen Smoliar, September 18, 2008 at 1:58 pm Link to this comment

Bullshit detection is going to end up like spam detection.  As soon as one person comes up with an algorithm to identify it, another will come up with a way to circumvent the algorithm.  Back when he was at Yahoo!, Udi Manber claimed that recognizing spam in electronic mail involved an arms race that kept escalating.  Does Skillicorn have any motivation for the eternal vigilance that will be necessary to keep his algorithm effectively up-to-date?  (Yes, eternal vigilance is the price of bullshit-free communication!)

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By GW=MCHammered, September 18, 2008 at 1:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, but can the software remove the offending spin? TV and radio would suddenly fall silent. I’d pay good money to the company that IDs spin then permanently deletes the offender. Ain’t none of Bu$hCo shit funny anymore.

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