Hijacking online public policy debates: Is it really a problem?

Is Hijacking online public policy debates really a problem? Yes, there is a small risk that someone might take it into their head to try to hijack your online public policy dialogue. But is it significant enough to draw a line through “online engagement” as part of your engagement strategy? Resoundingly, no.

Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

We are running a consultation for the Minister for the Hunter about the future of the rail spur into Newcastle. So far the majority of respondents are in favour of the line’s removal – or at least replacement with a lighter form of rail, though it must be said the consultation has some time to run and its too early to begin to interpret results. Nevertheless, early results have led to cries of conspiracy from some who are campaigning to keep the line who have always claimed that they represent the community view.

I have seen assertions that the system must be stacked in favor of the developer who is proposing that the line should be removed (even though we have been engaged by a Minister who has openly opposed their plans) and other more general allegations of organised contributions by ‘development interests’.

This is where I find the whole thing rather interesting. Who are these ‘development interests’? If they are people in our community who favour development surely they have as much right to contribute to the discussion as anyone else.

Nevertheless the allegation stands of ‘developer interests’ rallying support for their cause as if this is somehow evil or at the very least very unsporting behavior.

Imagine my amusement then when I found we had received around 100 hits from a link on a site called Rail Page. Have a look at the site, to give you a quick sample:

Ron D says:

Going by the poll on that link, I would say that the greedy developers are employing people to write on the developer(s) behalf, and possibly getting people to use several different usernames. But it is odd how their (SIC) has been a big jump for the developers, especially in such a short time.

May I suggest that if you want to fight to keep the rail as heavy rail to Newcastle, to sign up, and vote in that poll.

And Marlor adds:

It’s pretty obvious that the site is currently being dominated by developer interests. There are too many people there that are very much “on message”, and any pro-rail comments instantly get rated negatively to a massive extent.

I’d suggest that a new thread be created in this forum to publicize the website amongst the rail community (the URL is buried here on page 20).

Also, somebody really needs to get out to all the stations on the Hunter Line this week and post some notices about the website. By the time most commuters find out about it, it will be the end of the month and discussion will be closed.

Let me be clear that I have no problem with what these guys are doing – by driving more traffic to the consultation they will ensure that we get a full range of input. This is a good thing. But is it just me or is there an enormous amount of hypocrisy in this? These guys are, on the one hand dismissing those who disagree with them as ‘developer interests’ and are crying foul that the forum is being skewed by them, while on the other hand they are trying to encourage rail buffs from around the nation to join the debate and are even contemplating leaflet drops at stations!

What would the rail buffs think if the developer started handing out leaflets encouraging people to sign up to the forum – surely that would condemned as some sort of grubby underhand tactic typical of developer interests.

I’m sharing this in part because I think there are some great arguments for online engagement in this story. The most obvious is that because we reach people that other consultation methods just don’t. This means, as we have seen before, that previously accepted community positions are often revealed as not being representative of the community at all.

However, what really interests me is the psychology of groups who are so threatened by opposing views that they will condemn them as a conspiracy when the behavior they suspect their opponents of is pretty much matched by their own.

Our experience with Bang the Table is that ‘developer’ and other establishment interests are always being accused of all sorts of shenanigans by other interest groups, but genuine shenanigans (which are rare) are just as likely to emanate from community based groups. Could it be that some groups are so convinced of their own views that they think that the ends justify the means? And I wonder, do they really think that they represent the masses out there or just that they ‘know what’s best’ for them?

It is no wonder that the community has become so apathetic about government and civic participation when even simple issues are often shrouded in layers of suspicion, conspiracy and intrigue introduced by those who cannot stand to not get their way.

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