How Bad Is the Trolling Problem on the GOP’s Suggestion Site? Not as Bad as You Think.

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Two days ago, the GOP rolled out a social voting website called “America Speaking Out,” which allows users to upvote and downvote policy suggestions in a number of different categories, like “Fiscal Accountability,” “American Values,” and “National Security.” Like clockwork, within a day, the site became an Internet laughingstock, as bloggers and reporters, including Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank, excavated the site for the absurdest suggestions they could find and concluded it was riddled with crazy people and trolls presenting fake, inflammatory opinions. Our sister site, Mediaite — which dug up plenty of gems in this vein — concluded that “it appears the Republicans in the House were a little too optimistic about the kind of discourse one finds on the internet.”

I’m no GOP apologist — I’ve turned a critical eye towards other GOP web operations in the past, and I’m not thrilled to hear that America Speaking Out is being funded with taxpayer dollars — but after looking at a sample of 100 ideas submitted on America Speaking Out, it is my contention that the site is actually working a lot better than its critics are giving it credit for. By my count, a strong majority of the suggestions drawing the most user interest are, whether or not one agrees with them, good faith, sincere proposals.

What, then, accounts for the snark towards the site? If you want to go through the raw feed of proposals, before they’ve been voted up and down, you’d better strap on your trollerskates.

America Speaking Out has five main suggestion categories: American Prosperity, Fiscal Accountability, American Values, National Security, and Open Mic. Going through the top 10 suggestions by user interest in each category, I counted a total of only 12 trolls out of 50. (To be more specific, I counted 11 trolls and two ambiguous suggestions, the weight of both of which I halved.) A 24% trolling rate may not be ideal, but in Internet terms, it’s not all that bad: While the rate might be even higher if mods weren’t deleting highly voted fake suggestions, it at least shows that the community is doing what it’s supposed to do and considering things on their merits. In fact, some of the suggestions wouldn’t be out of place on a generally thoughtful online discussion site like Reddit or MetaFilter.

While some feared the site, which the GOP claimed it would operate nonpartisanly, would become an astroturf operation, there wasn’t a particularly strong conservative bias among the suggestions that attracted the most interest: If anything, it was libertarian, with marijuana legalization, balanced budget proposals, and abortion rights protection among the repeat suggestions. (You can view the full list of 50, and see our grades for them, in the Appendix.)

Where the trouble began was in the “most recent” list, where trolls’ fake inflammatory suggestions hadn’t yet been touched by mods or voted down by earnest users of the site. There, using the same methodology as before, 33 out of 50 suggestions appeared to be the work of trolls — 66% trollery, and only 44% earnestness. Them’s failing grades.

Just a few:

  • “We should build a giant space station with a “megalaser” capable of destroying the planet. If the terrorists attack the USA, we can fire the “Death Moon”, and blow up the entire planet. Fear will keep the other countries in line!”
  • “Melt farm implements and turn them into guns.”
  • “Jello fish, rendered without red. Kamikaze trees solicit never! We must generic audit for within stricture. Where? You! Daft. Indeed.” (???? — Ed.)

The GOP has had a rough go in its online efforts: Flanked by derision from liberal bloggers and suspicion from more ideological conservative bloggers, it has few vocal fans, and its past efforts have managed to combine arrogance and naivete in their assumption that the GOP can triumph over a medium in which they make novice mistakes. But America Speaking Out, while by no means perfect, has been somewhat unfairly tarred with the same brush. It’s a Web 2.0 clone site, sure, but by and large it does what Web 2.0 sites are supposed to do, and buries silly suggestions and pushes up occasionally interesting ones.

(title image adapted from KingMassa’s Photobucket)

See Appendix for the full log of America Speaking Out suggestions.

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