Saturday, January 4, 2014

Call It The SeaWorld Effect

One of the more intriguing phenomena of the Internet age is the so-called Streisand effect, named for an attempt by the famous singer to prevent dissemination of photographs of her home in Malibu. The attempted suppression, however, drew a whirlwind of publicity… and widespread distribution of the very photographs she didn’t want made public.

Tilikum, one of the stars of "Blackfish"
A case in the news this week is a first cousin to this syndrome. This fall, CNN produced and aired a documentary entitled “Blackfish.” I haven’t seen the film, but I suspect I have a pretty good idea what it’s about, especially after reading the account of Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity author David Kirby. The broadcast concludes, apparently, that SeaWorld is guilty of manifold transgressions, including cruelty to the very sea mammals it purports to be championing. Needless to say, the show wasn’t intended to send viewers flocking to SeaWorld.

That TV special got some good ratings, but still attracted fewer than a million and a half viewers: less than one half of one percent of the total population. (A lot more have no doubt seen it seen it became available on Netflix.) Curmie, interested in animal rights but not much of a TV viewer, wasn’t even aware of the documentary until yesterday, in fact. And why did it come to his attention then?

Well, the Orlando Business Journal posted an online poll asking “Has CNN’s ‘Blackfish’ documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?” This is where I turn the commentary over to Richard Bilbao of that publication:
As of midday Jan. 2, the results were staggeringly in favor of those saying the film hasn't had any impact on their perception of the parks — roughly 99 percent siding in SeaWorld's favor. 
With all the heat SeaWorld has been receiving over the past couple of months, including the loss of musical acts, I decided to make sure the numbers weren’t skewed by some computer bot set to constantly choose “No.” 
But imagine our surprise when we noticed that one single Internet Protocol Address (IP Address) accounted for more than 54 percent of the votes, or about 180 of the total 328 votes. IP Addresses are typically unique Internet identifiers given to a computer or series of devices — say a multi-computer network in your office.
And who’s the owner of the domain name and company that address belong to? and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.
In another post, Bilbao reports the response SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck:
Our team members have strong feelings about their park and company, and we encourage them to make their opinions known. 
We have three parks and our corporate offices in Orlando. You would expect that we would have a lot of team members in Orlando — and throughout our company — who would vote. If a poll goes up regarding SeaWorld, our team members have as much a right to vote as anyone else, and vote they did. We don’t have a ‘bot’ — each of those votes that came from SeaWorld were cast by a team member who is passionate about who we are and what we do.
Fine. I know that the computer in my office has a different IP address than the one in the office of my colleague next door. But I’m no IT guy, and maybe the talking head guy’s comments are honest. Maybe there was a corporate effort to strongarm employees into voting; maybe not. But whether or not this was a conscious attempt to skew the poll or not, it did: in the opposite direction. At the time of Bilbao’s initial article, the poll was going overwhelming in SeaWorld’s direction: 99%, in fact. Even if all the votes from SeaWorld were discounted, the votes were still 95% (!) “No,” that the film had had no effect.

And then the perceived manipulation went public… and then viral. As I write this, the percentage of those answering “Yes” has swelled to 80%. Yes, 80%, up from 1%. That takes a lot of voting. I’d be willing to bet that a fair number of those poll participants a). didn’t know there was such a thing as the Orlando Business Journal before this week, let alone ever read it, or b). have never seen “Blackfish.”

No, the reaction was purely visceral. Whether SeaWorld did anything wrong—either in terms of the content of the film or with respect to the poll—matters little. It appears that they did, and that’s enough to get people riled up. Unscientific polls, which this one freely admits to being, get hijacked all the time. Advocacy groups of every political description openly call on their supporters to do exactly that, as if “winning” a completely irrelevant online ballot meant anything at all. [Curmie is aware, by the way, of the irony of making this comment while in the process of conducting an utterly unscientific online poll for the Curmie Award… but vote anyway: nominees here; ballot in the upper right corner of this page.]

What has happened, then, is that the poll has been transformed from inconsequential to completely useless in terms of reflecting public opinion. Still, it offers considerable insight into the way the American psyche operates. And a lot more people are aware of the existence of the movie now, and of the conclusions it draws.  The incident also suggests that, volitionally or otherwise, SeaWorld made a whale of a mistake.

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