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Spinning Compass: you’re not just nuts, you’re Liberal!

Posted by padams under All, Election 2011, Election 2011 Media commentary, Media Commentary

Paul Adams

The CBC’s Vote Compass feature, which claims to help you figure out which of the five political parties most closely aligns with your views and values, has been a phenomenal box office success. Almost 700,000 people have already used the interactive feature on the CBC’s website as I write, and the number is growing by more than 100,000 a day. While the growth may settle down as we move into mid-campaign, you’d expect another surge as voters get closer to having to make their final decision on May 2.

Like anything popular — Justin Bieber round my house for example — it has critics as well as enthusiasts. Today the Ottawa Sun ran a story headlined CBC Vote Tool Flawed: Prof, quoting a Queen’s political scientist, Kathy Brock, as saying she used several strategies —  giving the same answer to every question (e.g., “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree”) — and always came out Liberal. Similarly, someone (obviously a Tory) has posted a video purporting to illustrate that the Vote Compass is “totally rigged” towards the Liberals.

The Sun quotes a researcher who worked on the project as saying that since the questions are deliberately split between the left and the right of the spectrum, if you give the same answer to everything you end up in the middle. In other words, if you strongly agree that Canada should get out of Afghanistan immediately and that military spending should be increased, that the problems with oil sands are exaggerated and that there should be a carbon tax, you are not only nuts, you’re a Liberal!

Part of Prof. Brock’s argument is that the Vote Compass doesn’t seem to take into account that the Conservatives are more centrist than they once were. Would it be unfair of me to infer from that that she is saying if you are nuts, you might also be a Conservative? Of course it would.

Interestingly, the complaints about the Vote Compass are not just on the right. There’s a Facebook group called CBC – Take Down the Bogus “Vote Compass” which seems dominated by lefties. Here, one of the complaints is that many New Democrats who take the test find that they are actually closer to the Greens according to the Compass. Similar complaints can be found on Rabble.ca

The CBC has a FAQ explaining the Vote Compass, though I could not find the more detailed methodology in the application as promised. It is clear that it is not telling anyone how to vote. It is simply trying to give voters a way to get engaged in the election, and consider their own views in relationship to those of the parties.

In an internal memo today, CBC-ers were advised: “The parties are positioned on the map according to their own public policies on the 30 issues (these are all sourced in a transparent way on the site, and every party was given the chance before the campaign started to challenge where they were assigned on each statement). It is those policies that place them where they are on the map. It so happens that the Liberals’ policies put them closer to the “axis intersection” than any other party…so if you end up using the same answer every time, you end up being identified as closest to the Liberals.”

It does seem unlikely that the Vote Compass was deliberately skewed towards either the Liberals or the Greens. And it seems a strange sort of complaint that if you try to trick the system by punching in an implausible set of answers, it produces a paradoxical result. If you really do strongly support the view that the federal government should have a role in matters of culture in Quebec and that Quebec should be an independent state, it may be that it is beyond the powers of the CBC to help you.

Still, the CBC should probably explain a little better how the thing works. One question I have is whether the program will be adapted to recognize the policies and debates that unfold during the election campaign. Maybe I start off as a Green, but just can’t resist that Tory income-splitting plan, hoping, presumably, that I live that long.

But really, loosen up, people. When you do those things on Facebook — If you were a vicious criminal what kind of horrific crime would you commit? — do you really find yourself committed to the result? If the Vote Compass tells you that you are a Green or a Liberal, and you reel back in horror, or at least mild indigestion, maybe you should trust your gut. Just thinking.

And if you really have never thought much about politics, maybe this little application will get you started.

I’m not going to tell you where the Compass pointed me — way too embarrassing. But when I changed my issue set — originally I said they were all important, but that’s just me — it seemed to think I should consider the Bloc Quebecois, a temptation I am resisting, and not only because I live in Ontario.

Paul Adams is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton. He is a former Parliament Hill reporter and worked in the polling industry. You can follow him on Twitter @padams29