Thanks to Us, the Leaders' Debates Will be a Complete Waste of Time

By Liam Butler on at

Jesus. This election’s going to be a slog, isn’t it? I’ve never seen so much debate about a debate. There’s been more twists, turns, and utter banality than you’d expect on a guided tour of Swindon’s Magic Roundabout.

At the time of writing, debategate has finally been put to rest. David Cameron has agreed to participate in a seven-way Battle Royale tonight. There will also be a five-party opposition jamboree held in his absence. That said, it could have all changed again by the time I publish this piece. But sod it, I’m not updating it any more.

A lot of effort has gone into making these debates happen, and even more into making sure they’re fair. It might all be for nothing. Why? Because of the confirmation bias that exists in all of us: the tendency to cherry-pick facts that agree with your worldview, and reject those that don’t. After all that effort to make a fair and balanced debate, it probably won’t make any difference whatsoever.

A number of studies have highlighted just how much homosapiens love to think that they’re right.

Two economists, Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse M. Shapiro, analysed the political slant of over 400 newspapers in the US. They wanted to see which factors might determine the extent to which a paper is left or right wing. What was the biggest factor? The owner, surely? With those blatant political agendas that they’re trying to shove down the sheeples’ throats. Surprisingly not. The most reliable predictor of a paper’s bias was whether the region had more left or right wing voters. Makes sense: if readers aren’t buying because the views aren’t to their taste, the paper goes bust.

Granted, a lot of those papers were local publications. What about the moguls with the vast media empires? The ones that don’t seem to care if their papers are haemorrhaging money at a rate that would make Mickey Carroll look prudent? Rupert Murdoch is quite open about having tried to shape the public agenda (in a “limited way”) on topics such as Iraq.

The media mogul question is an interesting one: can a powerful grip over the media change the hearts and votes of the population? What if the previous study had been asking the question the wrong way round? Could the populace have already been brainwashed by the media by the time those academics started poking around? Probably not.

Relationships between media and governments don’t get much more cosy than that which existed under Silvio Berlusconi. When he became Prime Minister of Italy for the second time, he found himself in an interesting position.

BerlusconiGETI’m sure he’s found himself in lots of interesting positions.

His company owned the majority of privately owned TV stations, and he had just assumed control of Italy’s answer to the BBC. It is estimated he controlled around 85-90 per cent of what Italians watched. This became the subject of a study published by the (US) National Bureau of Economic Research [Link 5]. Predictably, it found that most news channels’ content shifted to the right during this period. With traditional media bias thinking, you would expect that this brainwashed voters into becoming more conservative. In fact, this didn’t happen: the left-wing Italian voters just changed the channel. If their favourite channel became too right wing for their tastes, they went and got their news from elsewhere.

The problem with a lot of media bias discussion is that it assumes that we, the public, are passive and easily swayed. These studies suggest otherwise. I’m not a developmental psychologist, nor am I Noam Chomsky; I can’t say how our biases are initially formed, nor how they can be gradually manipulated. What is clear is that we approach most situations with our minds already made up, and while it’s not impossible for our views to change, we don’t make it easy. A paper published in 2010 suggests that in the face of evidence contrary to our views (for example, a retraction in a newspaper), many will double-down and assert an even stronger belief in their original convictions. This is also known as the ‘backfire effect’. So much for the rational mind.

correction(Source: @pdmcleod)

Back to the debates. I’m all for political parties being given a fair amount of airtime, but these ‘debates’ aren’t really debates. The leaders aren’t going on there to change anyone’s minds on issues. I doubt anyone in the audience is going to come away with a radically different idea on the best way to fix the economy, inequality, or the environment.

Confirmation bias can be overcome, but we approach contradicting evidence with much more scepticism. It takes time to change viewpoints, much longer than a debate sandwiched between an episode of Emmerdale and the News at Ten. All of the leaders, especially the ones from large parties, know that if they voice a challenging opinion they risk making people switch off – or worse, triggering the backfire effect. Perhaps if the leaders had spent the last couple of months discussing issues, instead of arguing over whether or not there should be an empty chair, there would have been time for the parties to make well-argued cases to the electorate. That might, might have been convincing enough to overcome voters’ confirmation bias before the election.

Instead, we’re going to have a debate that will be little more than a centrist speed-dating exercise: question, inoffensive answer, move on to the next table. This production has been brought to you by the colour beige. Cue credit music by Mumford and Sons.

Liam Butler runs the blog Angry Flat Cap. He can be found tweeting @angryflatcap.