Proponents of a potential Calgary bid to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games say the City of Calgary’s online engagement platform is ripe for manipulation by bots and its results should not be considered.

“We don’t want to point the finger at any specific group. We don’t want to say that this group is doing it or that group is doing it,” said Stephen Carter, volunteer ambassador with the Yes Calgary campaign. “ All we’re saying is, because the precautions weren’t taken by the City of Calgary and their engagement team, this can happen right now.”

“The engagement process, right from the beginning, has been fairly flawed in our opinion. Trying to engage people and give them information is one thing, to enable a process where it can be so easily taken over, taken advantage of, that’s very frustrating. And it was something that was easily avoided just by taking a couple of simple precautionary steps.”

As of Friday, the City of Calgary’s Olympic Bid Public Engagement website’s poll show 82 per cent of respondents are against a hosting bid.

Carter says the Yes Calgary campaign alerted the City of Calgary of its online vulnerability but its concerns were dismissed.

“This is a complex political issue with people who are for it and people who are against it. Not all of the people who are against it or who want to see Calgary fail necessarily are Calgarians. There are other people who may have an interest in trying to undermine the IOC or trying to undermine the Olympic protest or trying to undermine Calgary as a city who is bidding. Those outside actors could very easily set this type of bot up and change the outcome.”

Councillor Evan Woolley, chair of council’s Olympic Committee, issued the following statement to CTV Calgary on Friday regarding the concerns of Yes Calgary:

"We’re confident in the online engagement tool. It’s been an effective, protected and standard way our citizens have, and can, provide their input and opinions into the work we do to make life better in our city. The online feedback we get from this exercise will be part of the overall engagement report, which will also include input from the public open houses, workshops and our pop up events. The different ways we capture citizen-input through the online engagement, whether through sentiment tracking, the ideas wall or the questionnaire, gives us a good picture of citizen opinion. It also allows us to see what consistent themes come up from the opinions and thoughts of citizens who participate in the engagement. Council is looking forward to the engagement summary report, which we expect to be released in early November.

  1. The City’s online engagement is set up to screen for bots. It also minimizes the opportunity for bots, by providing people the chance to share their unique ideas.
  2. We have not seen bot use or evidence of bot use in this engagement program.

Wooley confirmed to CTV Calgary that the engagement website is only one medium of feedback being gathered and admitted that the system is not perfect. He says themes from the feedback gathered from the website will be provided to council.

Cam Raynor, a Yes Calgary supporter, says the City of Calgary’s online engagement form is susceptible to a computer script that submits comments while imitating a normal person browsing the internet. He adds the script could be written by anyone with basic programming knowledge and the programmer could be located anywhere in the world.

“It can be taught to find the different spots on the form, they always appear in the same location,” explained Raynor. “It makes it fairly simple to click on the right spot, to submit the comment, to write in a comment.”

Utilizing website testing software, Raynor demonstrated to CTV Calgary’s Shaun Frenette how the City of Calgary’s engagement commenting form could be manipulated. Raynor says there are precautionary measures, including user verification designed to halt bots, that the City of Calgary should have installed to prevent potential abuse.

According to Carter, response to the City of Calgary’s engagement on social media has been suspect and the reaction to posts garner a much stronger reaction than he would expect.

“If you look even at the number of comments that are on the City of Calgary’s own Facebook page after they do an Olympic engagement, it is far-and-away outsized of any other issue that they talk about so it doesn’t really make sense. Even when they say they’re going to charge you for more garbage collection, it doesn’t get nearly the impact that the Olympics does.”

“I think that the Olympics are important, I do, but I don’t think Calgarians necessarily think it is in a way that the bots would seem to have us think.”

Erin Waite of ‘No Calgary Olympics’ says members of the campaign opposing a Calgary bid are focused on ensuring the public is fully informed ahead of November’s plebiscite as it’s not know what consideration the other aspects of the City of Calgary’s engagement process will receive in the decision.

“City councillors have said they don’t know how that information will be used. They’ve got lots of information to look at in terms of property tax, revenue issues and other concerns that related to how Calgary could manage hosting an Olympics,” said Waite. “I have no idea how they’ll be weighting the feedback they hear from Calgarians.”

Waite hopes all citizens do their homework and decide for themselves whether an Olympic bid is a good thing for Calgary to take on.

“Bottom line is it is an individual vote and people need to weigh all the information available and put some good thought to this and consider it for themselves. Should they be listening to what other people say? Hopefully not.”

“We don’t see this as a project that’s good for Calgary right now but people will come to their own conclusion on that.”

The City of Calgary’s plebiscite on a potential bid to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games will be held November 13. The summary of results from the City of Calgary’s engagement, including responses garnered online, are expected to be presented to council in early November.

With files from CTV’s Shaun Frenette