When does organised action turn into ‘gaming the system’ in online engagements?

It can be difficult to define the line at which organised responses to an online consultation or engagement change from being legitimate activity by an interest group to ‘gaming’ the system to influence the outcome.

For that matter it can be just as difficult in a paper-based or face-to-face process. Just who does a lobby group with the Minister’s ear really represent, who is funding that thinktank releasing white papers, and who is organising and transporting people to a public protest of function (such as an anti-carbon tax rally or to a Olympic Torch relay)?

Should the line be drawn between personal self interest and financial interest?
How about when a financial interest is often just as personal, such as an impact on wages or jobs?

Should the line be drawn between organisations who fund activities versus those who involve volunteers only?
Even though this might marginalise people who can’t afford a day off without compensation – making protests a well-off person’s tool.

In this context, I’ve been watching the progress of Hangout with the Prime Minister. This initiative hosted by OurSay, an independent and non-partisan organisation that supporting democratic engagement between public figures and the public, Deakin University and Fairfax Media (who have promoted it through their newspapers) involves selecting three user submitted questions to ask the Prime Minister, based on an online vote.

The actual event occurs tomorrow (Saturday 21 July). It involves the Prime Minister meeting with the three top questioners to ask their questions on a live webcast – and hopefully have them answered.

The real interest for me is in how questions were submitted, promoted and voted up through the process.

OurSay has been doing this for awhile and has a fairly robust system. Anyone with internet access can register to the site (directly or via services like Facebook and Twitter) to ask questions and to vote for existing questions.

People may ask as many questions as they like, but may only vote seven times, dividing these between questions however they like (or blowing all their votes on a single question if they want).

There’s different ways to view questions – by most recent, oldest, highest number of votes or comments – and generally the process is run simultaneously. People can ask questions and vote all the way through the process (though this does bias questions asked earlier as they have more time to gather votes).

For the Hangout with the PM, voting closed on Thursday 19 July with almost 2,000 questions asked and 109,000 votes cast (according to Fairfax). Assuming people spent all their seven votes, this means at least 15,500 people took part.

The top three questions were on same-sex marriage, on defense pensions and on school chaplains (submitted by the President of the Atheist Foundation of Australia). The top question was submitted three weeks ago, and rose to the top slowly. The next two were submitted only four days ago, and rose very quickly.

So, leaving aside the potential for people to register multiple times and vote (which OurSay has a policy and some mechanisms to manage), where does gaming the system come in?

I’ve watched two particular incident associated with this HangOut which could be considered gaming – but may not be.

The first involved Andrew Bolt, a newspaper and TV commentator with a large following amongst politically conservative Australians.

On Tuesday 10 July Bolt blogged in support of a question at OurSay about the impact of Australia’s carbon price on global warming “By how much, measured in thousandths of degrees Celsius, will the Earth’s temperature be reduced through the carbon tax?”

Within four hours this had become the top question on the site, driven by Bolt’s supporters flocking to support the question.

Bolt bolstered this with a post the next day, Vote for an answer at last, where he commented that thanks to the support of his readers they’d gotten two questions into the top three.

Bolt’s involvement was proclaimed by OurSay as a success, as covered in Crikey, OurSay gets a boost via a Bolt from the blue.

The second incident involves Get-Up who, six hours before the Hangout closed, sent an email to supporters prompting them to vote for an asylum seeker question:

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, when will our government stop placing asylum seeker children in detention? We could hear an answer from the PM on Saturday – but there’s only a few hours of voting on questions to go. Can you place your vote for this question?

The question in question asked “Dear Prime Minister, when will your government stop placing asylum seeker children in detention?”

This time I was quick enough to grab a couple of screenshots of the question as its votes increased.

The first screenshot, about 30 minutes after Get Up’s email was sent, showed the question with 3,178 votes.

The second, taken two hours later, placed the question with 6,467 votes. That’s an increase of nearly 3,300 votes (or between 470 and 3,300 people voting).

Now how did the questions supported by Bolt and Get Up do in the final analysis?

The tally is in the image below, however Bolt’s two supported questions came 5th and 6th with 8,308 and 6,919 votes respectively.

The question supported by Get Up came in at 7th spot with 6,467 votes (which would have made Andrew Bolt happy).

The top three questions received 12,749, 10.933 and 10,756 votes respectively.

You can see the tally below.

So were the efforts by Bolt and Get Up attempts to game the system, or legitimate uses of organisational power? Were other efforts at gaming going on that we’re unaware of?

Both are hard to answer and, ultimately, it is impossible to prove a negative (that no gaming has occurred).

However we do need to keep thinking about what defines ‘gaming’ and similar activities such as ‘atroturfing’ and consider whether the actions of interest groups unfairly distorts the outcomes of engagements.

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