There’s an elegantly unadorned paragraph nestled in Time magazine’s announcement today of its “100 most influential” world figures: The winner of the online ballot version of its list, it says, “is 4chan.org founder moot, also known as Christopher Poole, with more than 16 million votes.”
Therein lies a better tale.
4chan.org is an obscure (sorry – to me) online bulletin board, chockfull of your usual Internet fare of tirades, porn and chili recipes. Among its devotees, though, are some gifted computer technologists who apparently decided to have a good time with Time. And boy did they.
In a dazzling display of virtuosity, not only did they hack the ballot to have moot win; these online Rembrandts were able to order all top 21 finishers to spell, acrostically, “Marble cake also the game.” (It seems that this means something to someone.)
Time’s posted an article noting moot’s win but making no mention of the full 21-gun salute; in fact it claims its techies “did detect and extinguish several attempts to hack the vote.” (That certainly leaves one wondering what the next 21 names might have spelled.)
Quite to the contrary, a blogger named Paul Lamere on the website MusicMachinery has described the architecture of the hack in exquisite detail, mapping an intricate and escalating battle as Time constructed its defenses and the hackers rallied to breach them. Peasants, not with pitchforks, but perl scripts.
Time, of course, has plenty of company. I wrote just recently about the odd outcome of the Obama administration’s online balloting, and I've gone into this in more detail previously. (Mr. moot joins a trail blazed many moons ago by the likes of wrestler Ric "Nature Boy" Flair and Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf.) The simple fact is that online click-ins are utterly vulnerable to just the kind of hacking moot’s pals most recently have produced.
News organizations (and others) post these things to engage users; fair enough. At ABC News we’ve got some policies that we think help point to a clearer understanding of what they’re all about. We call them online ballots or votes, not “polls” or “surveys” – taking a page from the stylebook of The New York Times, which insists that those terms can only be used to describe representative, scientific samplings of public opinion. We prominently label them as “not a scientific poll. For entertainment only.” We don’t percentage the clicks, reducing (we hope) the incentive to hackers looking for that satisfying percentage sign. And we’ve just this week posted a more detailed explanation noting the vulnerability of these things to unseen manipulation.
In the brief piece in Time.com's Entertainment section, its online managing editor, Josh Tyrangiel, says, "I would remind anyone who doubts the results that this is an Internet poll. Doubting the results is kind of the point."
Way true. But maybe it’s a good idea for us to make very clear, very often, precisely why that is so.