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Did SeaWorld stuff ballots for 'Blackfish' poll?

Doug Gross, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • SeaWorld computers poured votes into an online poll about the park
  • Orlando paper asked whether CNN's "Blackfish" film had changed opinions
  • More than half of early votes traced to an Internet address were from SeaWorld IP
  • The park says concerned employees are responsible for the votes

(CNN) -- Maybe it's not surprising that in SeaWorld's hometown of Orlando, an online poll showed overwhelming support for the theme park in light of a recent documentary that has raised questions about its treatment of killer whales.

What has turned heads, though, is the fact that more than half of the votes appeared to have come from a computer, or computers, at SeaWorld itself.

The CNN documentary "Blackfish" traces the controversial history of killer whales in captivity, leading up to the 2010 killing of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau by the 12,000-pound orca Tilikum, a whale previously associated with the death of two other people.

On December 31, the Orlando Business Journal posted an unscientific poll asking, "Has CNN's 'Blackfish' documentary changed your perception of SeaWorld?"

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By midday Thursday, the paper reported, an overwhelming 99% of respondents said "no," their opinion of the beloved park had not changed.

What the Journal discovered upon a closer look, though, was that 54% of those 328 votes had been cast from a single Internet Protocol (IP) address.

An IP address is an identifier that can represent either a single computer or a connected network of them.

The address in this case? SeaWorld.com.

"Not sure if this will become another belly flop for the theme park giant, but this surely couldn't have been part of its public relations campaign," the Journal's Richard Bilbao wrote in a story exposing the vote.

The survey results have since swerved the other way. By midday Friday, 70% of the poll's more than 1,700 respondents had said "yes," with only 30% saying no.

SeaWorld denies that the flood of "no" votes from its computers was a case of digital ballot-box stuffing.

"It's important to note we have more than 6,000 team members in Orlando, between three parks and our company headquarters," spokesman Nick Gollattscheck said in an email to CNN. "I think anyone would expect that an Orlando publication would be read and responded to by some of those team members. ...

"Our team members have strong feelings about their park and company and we encourage them to make their opinions known. If a poll is posted regarding SeaWorld, our team members have as much a right as anyone else to vote and express their opinion. We're unsure why that's being questioned here."

In a statement to the Business Journal, Gollattscheck specifically denied using a "bot" to cast votes in the poll.

A "bot" is an automated tool that can be set up on a computer to perform a repetitive task, like voting repeatedly in a digital poll.

"Blackfish," directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and acquired by CNN at the Sundance Film Festival, first aired on October 24. Since then, SeaWorld has faced a considerable public-relations backlash.

Musicians including Willie Nelson, Trisha Yearwood, Heart, Cheap Trick and Barenaked Ladies have canceled planned concert appearances at the park while other artists, like Joan Jett and Edgar Winter, have asked that their music no longer be used in shows featuring the sound-sensitive orcas.

An online petition at Change.org asking country singer and "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery to cancel a March 1 show there has nearly 30,000 signatures.

SeaWorld has said "Blackfish" focuses on a small handful of events from the park's 39-year history and ignores the park's contributions to education, preservation and animal research.

CNN's Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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