Saturday 10 December 2016

Why internet polls such as the 'Boaty McBoatface' campaign can't be trusted

Published 24/03/2016 | 02:30

The €250m research ship.
The €250m research ship.
Taylor Swift
Mountain Dew
Justin Bieber
Rick Astley
Chuck Norris
Ronnie O'Brien

Boaty McBoatface is just the latest in a long line of votes to be hijacked by online pranksters.

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What do you get when you cross a €250m ship, oceanographic research in the Antarctic, a particularly British type of whimsical humour, the vice-like grip of irony in this post-modern world, and that strange but inevitable process whereby the internet transforms adults of normal intelligence into giggling idiot children?

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it's not. Or rather, it is - but also the true story of Boaty McBoatface.

The as-yet-unnamed quarter-billion vessel is currently being built in Liverpool for government agency the Natural Environment Research Council; when completed in 2019, it will study various cold-related things in the Antarctic as part of a Cambridge survey.

And the silly handle is down to the NERC's decision to allow the public to choose, by online vote. English broadcaster James Hand threw out Boaty McBoatface for a laugh; the online hordes piled in with depressing predictability, voting for the joke name so often that they crashed the website.

Boaty McBoatface currently leads the poll (which closes on April 16) by 27,000 votes. Hand has apologised for starting all this. A commentator in a leading UK paper defended the vote-hijack by declaring, rather tragically, "I'd much rather make a joke than risk looking earnest."

Britain, if you ever wondered why you no longer rule half the world, look no further. In some ways, though, the fault lies not with the smug sheeple of social media, but the NERC themselves, for recklessly allowing an internet vote decide the name. Online polls almost never go the way you want them to. Companies, institutions, publications, products and, now, British scientific research-type people have all fallen victim to the hijack…

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In 2012, a very overweight Belfast man named Roland Bunce was the clear winner in a public vote to pick a model for clothing company Next. It actually would have been nice to see someone representative of the general population, rather than the usual ectomorphic space-aliens who strut along the catwalk. Sadly, Roland withdrew from the competition after a deluge of abuse and threats.

Taylor Swift

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The same year, Reddit and 4Chan keyboard warriors hijacked a poll to choose a school for a Taylor Swift gig, ensuring that the Boston-based Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing came top. Hilarious, I know. There was a sweet ending to this sour tale, though, as Swift donated $50,000 to the school and all the pupils got free tickets to her next gig in the area.

Justin Bieber

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The two greatest horrors of the present day - North Korea and Justin Bieber - almost came together in some sort of Satanic coalescence in 2010, when an internet poll asked people which country they most wanted the Canadian talent-vortex to perform in, and 650,000 people voted for the bizarre Communist dystopia. Beebs didn't travel in the end, which was a shame: he and Kim Jong-Un could have compared hairstyles.

Pitbull

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Fellow musician - is that the right word? It feels somehow wrong - Pitbull showed a commendable sense of humour about himself when a similar stunt, by comedy website Something Awful, saw him playing the most remote city in the US: Kodiak in ice-blasted Alaska.

The performer went ahead and did the gig, accompanied by one of the two eejits responsible for the #ExilePitbull hijack.

New York Mets

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Staying with quasi-musicians, 80s hero Rick Astley was metaphorically resurrected eight years ago, when a sports club's poll got gamed. The New York Mets - a baseball franchise, it says here - asked people to pick a new theme song. Presumably they were hoping for something macho and inspirational, like Eye of the Tiger or that "Woo-hoo!" one by Blur.

Unfortunately, online pranksters steered Rick's algorithm-generated classic Never Gonna Give You Up to the top. It was booed on the opening day of the season. A bit unsporting, you'd have to say.

Mountain Dew

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The US soft drink - no, we'd never heard of it either - asked the internet to name its new variety/flavour in 2012. Suggested monikers included "Hitler did nothing wrong", "Diabeetus", "Soylent Green", "Gushing Granny" and "Fapple". At least two of those, we're pretty sure, are rude.

Slovakian politicians

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Party-poopers rejected "Chuck Norris" as a name for a new cycling and pedestrian bridge near Bratislava in 2012. Officials ignored the overwhelming victory of the world's gnarliest, beardiest man, instead calling the construction The Freedom Cycling-Bridge. In fairness, this was in honour of people killed attempting to escape communism during the Cold War - probably more deserving than the star of Walker, Texas Ranger and the Delta Force series of movies.

Time magazine

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Possibly the greatest ever poll prank had an Irish connection. In 1999, as part of its end-of-the-millennium wrap-up, Time magazine launched a Person of the Century online vote. Irish footballer Ronnie O'Brien, for a while, led the race ahead of Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King.

This came as a big shock to the magazine, who'd never heard of him, and to virtually everyone else on the planet, who'd also never heard of him. Time eventually wised up and removed Ronnie from the contest, sniffing that "whimsical candidates will not be counted".

Irish Independent

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