Loops, goons & wackaloons: A meaningless little popularity contest on Twitter gets ugly
Sunday January 31st 2010, 4:04 pm

If you use Twitter, you’ll hardly have been able to escape notice of the Shorty Awards over the last month. Billed as ‘the Oscars of Twitter,’ the Shortys invited Twitter users to vote for their favourite short-form commenters in a number of categories.

To prevent gaming the vote, the Shorty rules specified that votes had to come from Twitter accounts established before the 1 January 2010 beginning of the competition, disqualified votes from accounts used primarily for voting and those configured for ‘protected tweets’ where tweets were not visible on the users’ pages and also disqualified those where no reason was given for nominating a Twitterer. The voting was completely open; anyone can audit the votes- and even though the competition is now closed, votes can still be audited by the public. However, the totals displayed in categories which have gone through a final audit have been adjusted to exclude invalid votes

The competition in the Health category was astonishingly fierce. Twitter has attracted an unusual number of ‘alternative/natural medicine’ proponents who use the system to spam up evidence-free, unproven treatments and half-baked hypotheses on healthcare. About a week before the end of the competition, the Health category was being led by popular woowoo vendors Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com and Chicago-based ‘osteopathic physician’ Joseph Mercola of Mercola.com. Both of these characters promote or make a living selling myriad unproven ‘natural’ remedies, discredited cures like homeopathy as well as spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about vaccination, the purported carcinogenic horrors of mobile phone use and mind-numbingly regularly blame imaginary ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracies and other shadowy powers for suppression of their kitchen-cupboard cures for all that ails. This lead did not go unnoticed by skeptics and proponents of evidence-based medicine and proper science.

Twittering skeptics thus nominated Sydney-based PhD microbiologist, heart disease researcher and commenter on the Australian Skeptics podcast, the Skeptic Zone, Dr. Rachael Dunlop, known on Twitter as @DrRachie, in the Shorty Awards’ Health category– and it was game on.

Despite the woo promoters’ repeated dismissals of the Shortys as ‘meaningless’ and ‘stupid,’ Adams and Mercola repeatedly exhorted their followers to vote for them via their websites, Facebook fan pages and Twitter. Mercola’s Facebook page alone lists more than 64,000 followers; he boasts some 17,000 followers on Twitter. Dunlop had a mere couple of hundred Twitter followers with a week remaining in the Shortys voting. A group of Australian skeptics got organised and shifted voting for Dunlop into overdrive, quickly outpacing both Adams and Mercola, marking @DrRachie in the top spot. With just a few days remaining in the vote, Dunlop had close to double the number of votes of then-second-placing woocrank Mike Adams.

Being that the voting was publicly auditable, Aussie skeptics did just that, revealing a huge percentage of rule-violating votes for ‘Health Ranger’ Mike Adams. My own audit of a portion of Adams’ then total of 530 votes found 104 out of 160 votes in my sample as invalid. Several skeps reported the irregularities to the Shorty Awards. As a result, the Shortys team disqualified Adams from the competition entirely. This rebuke prompted Adams’ to publish a completely spectacular sour grapes dummy-spit, in which he ‘exposed’ the Shorty Awards as ‘fraudulent’ and further went on to run a completely unsupportable and unreferenced diatribe in which he attacked ‘what skeptics believe,’ risking creating a black hole from the incredible density of strawmen he collected in one point in space.

Panic set in amongst snake oil hucksters, doubtless sensing a threat to their income models, which are based on sales of wackiness like ‘negative ion generating’ Himalayan pink salt lamps, tanning beds which so totally don’t cause melanoma and more assorted woowoo than could fit in a thousand orgone boxes. Unable to demonstrate replicatible evidence for causes and cures, Mercola ramped up ad-hominem attacks on Dunlop, with Mercola going so far as to try to discredit her as an “overweight non-physician“, “little known,” a “vaccination pusher” and an “Australian shill for drug companies.” The ‘little known’ bit might have been accurate before the Streisand effect multiplied the number of Dunlop’s Twitter followers by a factor of 10.

Australian skeptics then audited Mercola’s tally, revealing significant numbers of invalid nominations and reported the findings to the Shortys team. With three days remaining in the competition, between 0300 and 0500 UT on 27 January, Mercola’s vote rate of around 20-30 per hour suddenly exploded to 650 per hour, boosting his total by 1300 to a sum of around 2700, pushing Dunlop into second place with about 1000. The voting rate for Mercola just as suddenly fell back to 20-30 per hour. Mercola attempted to explain away the spike by claiming to have emailed 2 million of his supporters, asking for votes. It’s as likely that the well-defined spike were automated votes from a script or ‘bot.’

With about 35 hours remaining in the competition, the Shortys team audited the Health category, deducting around 1600 votes from Mercola’s tally and about 350 from Dunlop’s, returning Dunlop to the top spot with a margin of about 200. The voting closed at 11:59:59pm US PST with Dunlop winning by a margin of 120. Another audit, post closure, deducted a further 24 votes from Mecola, pushing Dunlop’s winning margin to 144.

This vote in the Shortys is only the first round; a number of nominees who attracted strong popular votes will be selected by a panel to be entered in another round to determine the ultimate winners.

Woe unto woo.


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