The mathematics of manipulation

As many of you may have heard, Venezuela has just been through (and may still be going through) a very close and contested presidential election. The country is evenly divided in two pieces (which president-elect Maduro described as “two halves, but one is bigger”). As is common with an election like this, both sides can become very emotional and easily manipulated by all sorts of false information. In this post, I will share a couple of examples (one from each side of the political spectrum) of mathematical manipulation that struck me as good reasons why having critical quantitative thinking is so important.

The first example is courtesy of government-run television station VTV. It is a simple bar chart showing the results of the election.

No translation needed. The two main presidential candidates and their vote tallies.

No translation needed. The two main presidential candidates and their vote tallies.

Like the graph shows, Maduro won the election with 50.66% of the vote, while Capriles had only 49.07% of the vote. Now, the numbers in the chart are correct, but the graph has nothing to do with them! If you think about the fact that most people will react to the image more than the numbers, you can see that this is a clear example of manipulation of mathematics. I’m not saying anything about politics here, simply about the numbers. Sure, Maduro’s number is larger, but I’m not sure what scale they’re using. I guess you truncate the graph at 49 and then only look at how much more than 49 each person got? Still, it’s an interesting choice, and a clearly deliberate one.

The second example comes from the opposition. There have been many claims that the close result (pictured above) warrants a recount, and many people in the opposition claim that there was election fraud. At any rate, close results like this make people suspicious, and susceptible to wrong information. There have been lots of legitimate-seeming claims floating around, but this image found its way to me via facebook, and really annoyed me.

A chart tallying percentages state by state, claiming that Capriles won.

A chart tallying percentages state by state, claiming that Capriles won.

The chart gives a tally of the vote state by state (I have not verified each tally, but this information would be available in the official page of the CNE, or National Electoral Council). The numbers pictured on the right are the averages of the percentages pictured on the left (this I actually checked manually). Given that in Venezuela we have a plurality voting method (you count the votes and add them up), it doesn’t really matter what the result was in each state (unlike in the US, where it does). More importantly, this gives equal weight to each state, regardless of their population.  So for example, Amazonas, which had 73 thousand voters, counts the same as Miranda, which had around 1.5 million voters. At any rate, this is not how votes are counted, so it is not very useful information (at least as evidence of wrongdoing).

It is worrisome that both of these things can go unchallenged. The main thing I want to say with this post is that people should be more prepared to question numbers (like the opposition chart) and should be more comfortable with representations of data (like the government bar chart). This way, it would be much more difficult to be manipulated by the media, politicians, and anything posted on the internet. In my case, I will certainly use both of these charts as examples next time I teach our Intro Stats course at Bates.

How about you, dear readers? Do you have any good examples of mathematical manipulation in the media you would like to share? It doesn’t have to be about the Venezuelan election! Share your favorite examples in the comments section below.

NOTE: After reading a couple of comments, I feel I should reiterate that this is not a discussion about politics or even about the source of the material, it is about how we, as consumers of information, need to be mathematically critical of whatever is sent our way. Please refrain from making any comments on politics (and interpreting this post as anything more than just calling for awareness about mathematics). There are other better venues for that.

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4 Responses to The mathematics of manipulation

  1. Avatar PABLO ESTEVEZ says:

    Mira esta joyita Adriana: No tengo idea de que hace ese 90% ahí, y mucho menos de donde salió ese 13673934.

    Un abrazo!

    • Avatar Adriana Salerno says:

      Here is another example, but you have to speak a bit of Spanish to read the calculation. Basically, they start by saying that 90% of Venezuelans voted, but as Pablo points out, this number seems to be in someone’s imagination. Thanks for sharing Pablo!

  2. Avatar Ricardo Teixeira says:

    And Fox Group:

    (Axis starting at 94)

    (15 looks 4 times bigger than 7)

  3. Avatar Manuel Rivera says:

    I heard a joke which might actually have some interesting
    philosophical content. It was about Maduro’s comment about the halves:
    “Venezuela’s elections and politics are governed by a logic similar to
    that in non standard anaylisis”.

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