Feathers have been flying lately about a couple of online ballots posted on ABCNews.com after the recent ABC-sponsored presidential debates in Iowa. The alleged “winners,” if you choose to buy into these compilations of clicks, were Republican Ron Paul and Democrat Dennis Kucinich. Cue howls of outrage from their respective partisans, protesting that ABC hasn’t adequately reported the so-called results.
As my 12-year-old would say, chillax.
The reality is that these things are not polls or surveys, nor does ABC News identify them as such. They are called “online ballots.” They’re posted to encourage a sense of community and participation. But while the clicks they receive are tallied, they never are percentaged. And they’re supposed to carry this disclaimer: “Not a scientific survey. For entertainment only.”
Hold that thought – “for entertainment only” – as we dig a little deeper. Because ABC policy goes further, to require that any subsequent use of these ballots, beyond simply posting them, must note their vulnerability to outside manipulation.
That’s the real issue with online click-ins. Pointing out that they’re produced by self-selection and thus not reliably representative of any broader population is true, and fatal; but it sounds like a technicality – a talking point for the Sominex-sponsored Third International Colloquium on Inferential Statistics. More fatal (so to speak), because it’s at once easier to grasp and more immediately threatening, is the fact that these things can be, and often are, intentionally manipulated by groups or individuals with an interest in the outcome.
It happens all the time. People who want to stuff the ballot box just forward around the click-in’s URL, burying it in an orchestrated cascade of votes for the favored person, position or point of view. Others go a step further, building automated voting bots that jack up the tally for the pre-selected winner. Did this or that debate "winner," say, get clicks from 15,343 people – or from one person clicking 15,343 times? It can be impossible to tell.
Often we don’t know for sure when campaigns to manipulate online ballots occur; there aren’t always smoking guns. We have, though, found a posting on a meetup.com page, urging readers to vote for Paul in the Iowa debate ballot ("Ron Paul Winning ABC Debate Poll! Vote Now!") and to distribute the link elsewhere. The call to arms: “Lets keep RON PAUL ON TOP!” (sic). And Kucinich links to the ballot from his own campaign website; the headline reads, “Kucinich's Lead Keeps Increasing – ABC Debate Poll.”
None of this is remotely new. With the help of a hyperactive online community, Alan Keyes smashed the opposition as winner of a Republican debate in New Hampshire in December 1999, with 49 percent (against five opponents) in a Fox News/Vote.com online ballot. Sadly for the clickers, Quinnipiac University conducted a real poll (that is, a representative, random-sample telephone survey) on the same debate; Keyes got 13 percent, far behind John McCain (who, as it happens, went on to win the primary).
Nearly a year later, on Oct. 4, 2000, the day of the first presidential debate in the general election, Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson sent an e-mail to his entire membership, urging the nation’s Republicans to click in on ABCNews.com and CNN.com ballots to show their support for George W. Bush. That night, 58 percent in the ABCNews.com ballot picked Bush as the debate’s winner; by contrast, in actual polls by ABC News, Gallup and NBC News, he got 39, 41 and 36 percent, respectively. (Our prohibition on percentaging click-ins came later. Its aim simply is to make them less attractive to would-be manipulators.)
Some members of the FreeRepublic.com online community even have a name for this – they call it "freeping" – and when their side is losing they go so far as to "reverse freep," boosting the other side's vote to make the result so lopsided it's unbelievable. "REVERSE FREEP…the fix is in…they are cheating so vote for Kerry…99-1 invalidates online polls since they are invalid anyway," read one posting in the heat of the 2004 presidential campaign.
The gamesmanship goes far beyond election politics. For some it's a business: then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's settlement in a payola case against Universal Music Group in 2006 disclosed that UMG had paid a "request company" to "jack TRL (MTV's "Total Request Live") for Lindsay (Lohan)." I’ve got a thick sheaf of manipulated online ballots on everything from Tom Cruise to Don Imus to Drum Corps International. (Some joker jacked the results of the lineup ballot for their 2005 Masters of the Summer Music Games in Murfreesboro, Tenn. How low can you get?)
Rich Morin, former polling director at The Washington Post, wrote a priceless description of the issue nearly a decade ago, featuring, among others, Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf as People magazine’s Most Beautiful Person of 1998. (The piece still lives here, in what Morin presciently called “the world’s newest and most cluttered attic.”)
Today it’s online click-ins; in an earlier time it was 1-800 call-ins. Back in 1990, for instance, USA Today invited its readers to call in and say whether they liked or disliked Donald Trump. We love the Donald, came back the headline – a smashing 81-19 percent rout in Trump’s favor. At least until a correction appeared in the paper a month later, reporting that an audit had found that 5,640 of the 7,802 pro-Trump calls had come from precisely two phone numbers at an insurance company in Cincinnati owned by an admirer of Trump’s. Thank heaven for redial.
For all its internet fizz, then, this really is just old snake oil in new bottles. Sometimes it's fun and games. Other times it rises to a more serious level – misinformation, even downright disinformation. If it's your thing, click away. Just remember: When it comes to online ballots, if there’s a buck to be made or a point to be scored, chances are very good that someone, somewhere, has a finger on the scale. It's not remotely a scientific survey. And it is, decidedly, for entertainment only.