Morteza Dehghani: “Analyzing the debate over the Construction of the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’”

November 5, 2011 | Seattle, WA

Speaker: Morteza Dehghani
Host: Annual Meeting of the Society for Judgment and Decision Making (JDM 2011)

There is evidence that striking differences in the very definitions of morality are at the root of many social-ideological differences within a country. Haidt and Graham (2007) propose that liberals and conservatives in the US have very different ways of seeing the social environment around them, and rely on distinct moral structures and ideologies. Consequently, several important differences have been noted in the political rhetoric employed by these groups (Lakoff 2002, 2008; Marietta 2008, 2009). Lakoff (2008) argues that the type of language used in political discussions is of utmost importance because it “is far more than a means of expression and communication… It organizes and provides access to the system of concepts used in thinking” (p. 231). In other words, the language in these discussions often conveys the value systems adhered to by liberal and conservative groups. In this paper, we analyze conservative and liberal blogs posts, and their corresponding comments, related to the construction of a Muslim community center close to Ground Zero. Most of the controversy and debates surrounding the issue took place online and thus this methodology seemed quite apropos. Using two different statistical text analysis techniques, we show that there are significant differences in the use of various linguistic features, and in choice of words, between liberals and conservatives. The aim of the first experiment was to see if the differences in language use and choice of words are great enough that blog posts can be automatically classified as conservative or liberal using a machine learning technique. If we are able to classify these blog posts, then we will be able to determine the indicative features of each group using feature analysis and gain insight into what makes the blogs conservative or liberal. Our results indicate that choice of words used by these two ideological groups were distinct enough that our system was able to classify their blog posts as conservative or liberal with an accuracy of 85.6%. Feature analysis revealed that the most distinctive aspect of either liberal or conservative blogs is not the description, or the ideology, of the in-group, but rather the use of words related to the negative portrayal of the out-group. Similar to Haidt and Graham (2007), Lakoff (2002) argues that the ideologies of conservatives and liberals embody their value systems and personal conceptions of morality. Instead, our results show that at least in political debates, the ideas that make these groups liberal or conservative, are stereotypes of the out-group. In the second experiment, by examining posts in different time blocks, we show that there was an increase in words related to affective processes and anger over time, especially for conservatives. We argued that this increase is potentially related to the use of sacred rhetoric, as there was a significant correlation between anger and the use of religious words. The use of sacred rhetoric has been linked to the emergence of sacred values (Marietta, 2008; Dehghani et al., 2010), as values that get tied to religion more easily achieve a sacred status (Marietta, 2009). In conclusion, by analyzing over 3000 conservative and liberal blog posts related to the constructions of Park51, our results confirm significant differences in the use of language, and its resultant emotions, between the two groups. Language use in these blogs reflects ideological differences between liberals and conservatives. We believe the ability to perform this type of mass text analysis and to track changes of different psychological processes over different periods of time, as they naturally unfold among diverse cultural groups, can provide new insights which arguably cannot be achieved in an experimental setting inside the lab.