46% of responses to Calgary's online Olympic poll deleted due to pro-bid 'bot activity'
6,000 responses had to be scrubbed, says public engagement team
The 2016 U.S. election may be the most famous instance of bots being used to sway public opinion on a vote, but it looks like savvy programmers were also attempting to change perceptions of Calgary's Olympic bid.
City council's Olympic assessment committee heard Tuesday that nearly half the responses to an online poll on whether Calgary should bid to host the 2026 Winter Games had to be scrubbed from the results due to "bot activity."
The public engagement team told council that 6,000 responses, 46 per cent, had to be deleted due to bot activity.
7700 respondents. (46% of online respondents were scrapped as bots) <a href="https://t.co/m82cuTZooS">pic.twitter.com/m82cuTZooS</a>—@CBCScott
The majority of the scrubbed comments were in favour of a bid, the consultants said.
Voting bots are automated software programs that imitate human voters in online polls or surveys. The tools can be deployed en masse to input multiple responses to online forms if there aren't precautionary security measures like CAPTCHA codes in place.
The bot activity peaked on Oct. 26, close to the end of the engagement sessions. The city's public engagement initiatives ran from Oct. 2 to 28, both in town halls around the city and online. More than 7,700 people weighed in online.
Bots were identified by replies coming from the same IP addresses, that used similar or duplicated language and had close time stamps, the city said.
The team reviewed responses manually to look for deliberate misuse patterns, the report said, since there are some legitimate reasons for responses to come from the same IP address — such as multiple people using a library or office computer.
42 per cent polled strongly against bid
Of the responses that were determined to be by actual Calgarians, not bots, 42 per cent were strongly against a bid and 21 per cent were strongly in favour.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said if the bid moves forward after the public plebiscite, the information gathered during the public engagement can be used to improve the bid process. But he's not concerned that the majority of those polled were against.
"I think it's difficult to draw conclusions of how the public feels in total based on that report because it really wasn't its intent," Nenshi told media following the assessment committee meeting.
Online engagement 'can be problematic'
Online polls have come under increased scrutiny as vote-bots have become so increasingly available that there are even free scripts posted online to help people maliciously affect the results of unsecure votes. But, the city said it's doing its best to stay on top of the technology and guard against automated vote manipulation.
Nenshi said the city is always looking to find better ways of doing engagement, as in-person open houses can also present challenges for parents and those who work in the evenings. But, he said the bots are concerning.
"We're finding the online engagement can be problematic as well," he said.
The 90-page report on what the city heard during its public engagement sessions is available on the city's website.
Advance voting on the non-binding plebiscite on whether or not the city should proceed with a bid for the Games is already underway, with final voting day on Nov. 13.
LIVE EVENT: CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall
If you live in Calgary, find out what you need to know before you cast your vote in the Nov. 13 plebiscite by tuning in to the CBC Calgary Olympic Games Plebiscite Town Hall.
Featuring a knowledgeable panel and hosted by the Calgary Eyeopener's David Gray, we will hear from both sides and take questions from the audience. Panellists include:
It'll take place at Calgary's new Central Library (800 3rd St. S.E.) on Wednesday, Nov. 7, starting at 6 p.m. All of the reserved tickets have been claimed, although there will be rush seating available at 6:15 p.m. as capacity allows.
Didn't get a ticket? Never fear, you can tune in by:
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