Last month, Boston’s Kiss FM radio station terminated its “Taylor Swift’s Biggest fan” contest after the public chose a “creepy” potential winner who wanted to smell Taylor Swift’s hair in public. (See more here.) The radio station determined that a 39-year-old man named Charles had risen to the top of the leaderboard because of vote farming in contravention of the contest rules. The radio station disqualified him and terminated the contest without choosing a winner.
Vote farming problems are not new to Taylor Swfit promotions. In late 2012, Chegg and Papa John’s Pizza refused to award a Taylor Swift appearance to the Horace Mann School for the Deaf. While the school had not engaged in vote farming, practical jokers on the Internet had farmed votes for the school, perversely finding it amusing to send a concert to a school for the deaf. The sponsors disqualified the school and chose another winner. (Swift did donate $10,000 and sponsors matched her donation since the school, itself, was not to blame for the vote farming.)
What exactly is vote farming? The term refers to contestants’ unethical use of widespread social media campaigns to solicit votes from strangers and influence the outcome of a social media contest. Sometimes, it can be difficult to assess whether a contestant has engaged in unethical vote farming as opposed to honest social media publicity to gain votes. While asking your friends and family to vote for your entry is acceptable, paying strangers to vote for your entry is clearly not. Usually, however, contestants and contest sponsors can sniff out unfair, deceptive, dishonest, or inappropriate behavior.
As the public makes more sophisticated use of channels like Reddit and 4Chan for practical jokes and unscrupulous efforts to win prizes, social media contest promoters need to protect themselves from vote farming and ensure their contests’ legitimacy. Indeed, brands want their winners to receive prizes fairly, and they want winners that reflect well on the brand. (See my post here about why it is important to vet winners of social media contests and sweepstakes, particularly if the brand plans any publicity in connection with its winner selection.)
To protect itself, a brand should craft rules that reasonably anticipate the possibility of vote farming. The Kiss FM radio station relied on its rules to announce that its “Taylor Swift’s Biggest Fan” contest had been “compromised” when terminating the promotion. The radio station’s announcement read:
Disapprovingly, we have determined that the integrity of the “Taylor Swift’s Biggest Fan” contest has been compromised. In accordance with our contest rules, effective immediately, the contest has been terminated. We apologize to all of our loyal listeners who have participated.
The station did not cite to a specific section of its contest rules in its announcement. The following provisions in the contest rules may have provided the legal framework by which it chose to terminate the contest:
- If a contestant receives multiple and/or irregular votes from the same user or users, regardless of the source, the Station reserves the right to disqualify the Contestant its sole discretion.
- By participating in the voting portion of any contest, each voting participant agrees to be bound by the official contest rules.
- If the contest includes the use of an internet tool and the internet voting process fails to operate properly or appears to be tampered with or tainted with errors, fraud or unfair practices, the Company reserves the right to use another means to determine the winner(s), i.e. random selection or appointing a panel of judges. All decisions of the judges are final.
- If, in The Company’s opinion, there is any suspected or actual evidence of fraud, electronic or non-electronic tampering or unauthorized intervention with any portion of this Contest, or if fraud or technical difficulties of any sort (e.g., computer viruses, bugs) compromise the integrity of the Contest, The Company reserves the right to void suspect Entry and/or evaluations and/or terminate the Contest and award the Prize in its sole discretion.
Without such rules, the radio station might have had to award the prize to the “creepy” man, not only making Taylor Swift uncomfortable, but also likely creating negative public relations for the contest’s sponsors.
Drafting contest rules to give ultimate discretion to the sponsor takes some finesse. Vote farming does not have a specific definition, and as social media progresses, trolls have developed new methods of “tricking” the system. Originally, vote farming consisted of mass deployment on social media and perhaps using robotic voting methods. Recently, it has progressed to encompass vote swapping (Coca-Cola used a vote farming provision of its rules to disqualify a lawyer from a contest for offering to trade votes in contests) and practical joke voting, such as in the Horace Mann School for the Deaf situation. A contest promoter cannot anticipate every scenario that would encompass vote farming. For maximum protection, contest rules should go further than the Kiss FM contest rules did. They should permit the sponsor full discretion to determine if vote farming or some mechanism for vote inflation has jeopardized the promotion’s outcome. In addition, the term “vote farming” should have a broad definition that has been drafted by the brand’s attorney.
Brands can take other steps as well to ward off trolls and vote farming’s impact. While public voting is a crowd-pleaser and may increase participation in the contest, best practices dictate that the public not be completely in charge of a contest’s outcome. In addition, contest designers should use leaderboards strategically since this format is an invitation for fraud. Legal counsel can help determine the best way to apportion the public vote into the winner selection process and to craft judging criteria that the legitimacy of a contest.
When a brand terminates its contest early or disqualifies a winner, it risks alienating some of its followers. On the other hand, brands need to structure their contests and rules so they have the discretion to maneuver around illegitimate vote farming that can make the outcome of a contest unfair.
For more about preventing legal mistakes in social media sweepstakes and contests, click here.
© Kyle-Beth Hilfer, P.C. 2013
DISCLOSURE: This article does not constitute legal advice. If you have specific questions about vote farming or running a social media contest or sweepstakes, please contact this post’s author or another attorney.