Is your online consultation being gamed?

If you’ve ever suspected your online consultation process is being gamed by your community then fear not!

The truth is, not only is this extremely time consuming and rarely impacts overall outcomes, but it is also glaringly obvious when someone attempts to influence your consultation process.

This article will give you some tips to help identify when this might be happening and look at some of the best ways to ensure you have reliable consultation data.

Suspicious Forum Behaviour

Most of the time, attempts to game or sway your online consultations are fairly easy to identify.

One of the most common things  to look out for is repetitive commenting and cascading likes in a forum thread.

Participants usually do this with the belief and intention, that doing so, will mean greater support for their position or point of view.

An example of this can be seen in the image below.

Here you can see a participants attempt to influence the discussion by making multiple, almost identical comments in an attempt to validate their own point of view.

One of the tell-tale signs which suggests this might be the same person is to look at the similarities in the usernames.

Each username is essentially a variation of the same name or there is a similar pattern to them.

Unfortunately for this participant, this kind of activity generally has very little impact on overall decision making as comments and concerns will generally be evaluated by far more than just the volume of mentions.

Multiple Ideas SubmissionsLook for multiple ideas submissions.

Another space where participants sometimes try and game consultations is during an online ideation process.

By creating multiple ideas, which are virtually identical, participants believe they will generate more support and credence for their idea than if they had of just offered their idea once.

In order to make a real impact to overall outcomes however, a participant would need to register many times, requiring them to go through the authentication process with multiple email addresses.

It’s fair to assume that most people don’t have the patience to go through this kind of activity, so at worst you might only see this occur a couple of times before a user will just give up.

EngagementHQ has inbuilt spam filters which stop a user spamming multiple ideas in quick succession and the tool also blocks participants from voting more than once on an idea and not at all on ideas which they have submitted.

Survey Stacking

Unlike forum and ideation spaces, surveys have very different interaction characteristics, meaning that suspicious or gaming behaviour isn’t visible from a public perspective.

Instead, survey contributions can be interrogated via a surveys report.

Important things to look for in your surveys report include; multiple contributions from the same registered user, the appearance of an anonymous user id against multiple submissions and contributions containing the same survey responses submitted within a short timeframe.

Survey report showing multiple submissions from the same user

Survey stacking is a common fear among many engagement and research professionals, but with the right controls in place and knowing what to look for, you can have confidence in your data.

What should you do?

If you notice this type of behaviour occurring on your site there a several things you can do.

Firstly, you don’t need to worry.

If you suspect behaviour to skew your process has occurred, make sure to mention it in your reporting as well as how you dealt with the multiple submissions.

Unless it is clearly obvious that a participant is trying to get the better of you it’s important not to make accusations of a user.

Instead, try these best-practice tips to ensure your data is the most reliable.

  • Always ensure you select “Registered Participants” when setting up consultation activities online. A registration and verification process is the best way to ensure verified data is being collected in your activities. It’s a painstaking process for someone to create multiple accounts and try to skew your consultation in their favour. Unverified participation allows participants to pretend to be someone they’re not and this can potentially lead to being inundated with multiple responses from the same person.
  • If you are using a survey, set it to “single submission” only. This will ensure that only registered users can contribute and can only leave one response.
  • If you suspect someone is logged in or commenting on their own comments or ideas, why not try and provoke a new line of questioning. By inserting yourself into forums and comment streams as a facilitator, it’s easier to make yourself more visible and steer a conversation. This can help avoid a situation where everyone simply agrees. You might say something as simple as “Your support for this idea has been noted… what do you think about… or…how might we?…”. Seeing yourself as a facilitator of an online conversation space is a simple way to protect conversations from being hijacked.
  • Use triangulation to test your data and ensure accuracy. Triangulation means testing your engagement question/s in several different formats including in face-to-face settings, via community reference groups and also online via your engagement portal. Having these different input environments allows you to identify the commonalities between your feedback and helps you better makes sense of your communities views and opinions. By doing this, no one individuals attempt to skew your process in any single medium will be successful.

Using these tips will greatly help you have confidence in your consultation process and data.

The truth about IP addresses

Finally, we finish this article with a crucial point about how IP addresses can be used to prevent online consultation gaming to occur.

Some online engagement companies will have you believe that IP addresses are a fail-safe way to identify and protect your organisation from participants trying to sway online consultations.

The truth is, IP addresses can only go so far in helping to identify individuals and their locations.

Here are some reason why IP addresses aren’t the holy-grail of tracking suspicious users.

  1. A public IP Address (Internet Protocol) is usually network assigned to a group of devices on an access point. This means more than one participant or registered user could share the same IP address.
  2. The prevalence of VPN (Virtual Private Networks) clients means that many people now seek to mask or hide their IP address by routing it through many different locations. This means that a person could register multiple times and an IP log wouldn’t help you identify them as they could have different public IP’s for each individual registration. For a recent example of the failings of IP addresses read about the ‘Sophisticated’ Efforts used on Facebook to hide identities in attempts to sway US mid-term elections.
  3. Mobile devices are assigned different IP addresses by service providers and generally change depending on the mobile tower you are connected to. This also won’t be useful in helping you identify participants who are trying to sign up multiple times via their mobile devices.

The bottom line

Suspicious behaviour is easy to identify and you don’t need to worry.

If you have used a range of different methods for engagement as well as a robust “registered participants only” online process, it will be very hard to influence your final outcomes.

Make yourself part of the process as a facilitator and have faith in your ability to digest and report on your data.

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