ReConstitution 2012: Visualizing of the Language of the Debates in Real Time

A playful interactive app analyzes the presidential debates to tell you if the candidates sound like liars.

A playful interactive app analyzes the presidential debates to tell you if the candidates sound like liars.

"We wanted to offer a tool for people to objectively look at the debates, as opposed to deal with pundits, who come on immediately after and with no data tell you who won or lost the debate," John Rothenberg explains in this short video from the Creators Project. His emphasis -- "with no data!" -- is indignant. Rothenberg and the rest of the team at Sosolimited, an art and technology studio founded by a group of MIT grads, decided to build an interactive web app to provide a radically different perspective on the debates.

ReConstitution 2012 is a dizzying display of animated typography, color-coded words splashing across a web page as the debate progresses. You can follow the first debate in real time, fast forward (x2) or super fast forward (x10). The program runs a statistical analysis of Obama and Romney's words to highlight those associated with positive and negative emotions, or even lying. Click on "stats" to compare the candidates on "positivity" or "shit they repeat" -- words like "tax" and "small business," of course. The candidates are also placed on a sliding scale from "truthy" to "deceptive," based on how much their language patterns match those statistically associated with lying or telling the truth. Using "we" instead of "I," for example, is supposedly a sign of deception.

Can software really provide any insight into whether or not a candidate is being honest? The app hardly seems that scientific, but that's not really the point. "It's not designed to be this super serious analytical tool. It's much more about, in a kind of fun, playful way, bringing out moments that happen in the debate," Rothenberg says. Sosolimited's Justin Manor says there's a subversive angle here too; "I think it's interesting to use technologies like this, that are being used on all of us -- big companies and governments are scanning everything we write and building profiles for us. If we can do that to some people that the world knows, it's sort of turning the lens around."

Sosolimited created the app in partnership with the Creators Project, Tim Branyen, and Bocoup, drawing on the research of Cindy Chung and James Pennebaker at the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Head to the ReConstitution 2012 page to take the app for a spin.