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Time Magazine Hacked, Proving Unreliability Of Online Polls

[ Posted Wednesday, April 29th, 2009 – 16:09 PDT ]

I have to start off with an admission. My name is Chris W., and I'm a poll-watcher. It's a habit I started a while ago, and then it just got completely out of control during the election season (which was slightly more than two years long this time around). And now I just can't stop myself.

But while checking FiveThirtyEight.com or RealClearPolitics.com or Pollster.com, I've always laughed at anything which lists itself as an "internet poll." Because their results should be taken with a very large grain of salt. I realize some might say that about all polls, but even the skeptic has to admit that some polls are more accurate than others. Internet polls are so inaccurate, though, that they don't even belong on the spectrum of honest polling at all.

Time magazine just proved this point beyond any doubt. They just released the results of their online poll for "The World's Most Influential Person," and a 21-year-old college student who goes by the name "moot" won first place.

While this was due to a concerted online effort by the fans of moot's website (4chan.org), what is truly astounding about the results is not that they managed to win the number one spot, but that they managed to fix the first twenty-one winners to spell out a message with the first letters of the names of each winner: "mARBLECAKE ALSO THE GAME" (which I'm sure means something to somebody). Don't believe me? Check out the Time site where they posted the winners, and read down the list.

Time did have the grace to admit in their article that moot probably wasn't the "World's Most Influential Person" and that their online voting was quite obviously a complete joke. TIME.com's managing editor Josh Tyrangiel said about the results: "I would remind anyone who doubts the results that this is an Internet poll. Doubting the results is kind of the point." But the Time article did refuse to admit the true scope of the failure of their "online poll" -- the hidden message in the first twenty-one names. Maybe they're hoping nobody will notice, or something.

Of course, the folks responsible are overjoyed that their ballot-stuffing was so successful. They will tell you -- in full technical detail -- how they accomplished the feat.

Which is why I completely ignore any political poll which lists itself as an "online poll." Because the difference between accurate polling and online polling is the difference between astrophysics and astrology. Both look at the same things (people's opinions, celestial bodies), but one is a science and one is not.

Public opinion polling is a branch of mathematics called statistics. To sum it up, if you ask 1,000 people at random, you can take this sample and extrapolate it to a much bigger group of people. There is math involved, and semantics (the way a question is worded is of prime importance), and while statistics cannot ever be 100 percent accurate, it can get pretty close if done right. But the key phrase in all of that was "at random."

Imagine if Gallup (or some other reputable polling firm) announced that they were going to change the way they polled. Instead of calling people at random on the phone, they would allow people to call them and tell them what they thought of President Obama (or any other subject). The first 1,000 calls they received would constitute the sample for their poll.

We would all laugh at them -- and rightly so. Because this is not a random sample. The people who felt the strongest about the subject -- pro and con -- would be the ones hovering by their speed-dial buttons, waiting for the poll's start. Political sites would egg their readers on to "win" the poll by stuffing the ballot box. This, in essence, is what internet "polling" does. It's like a popularity contest in high school. "Winning" such a "poll" is exactly like "electing" Carrie White prom queen (although, hopefully, without such horrifying results).

Maybe, when taken literally, moot does deserve the award for "World's Most Influential Person." The dictionary definition of "influential" is: "having or exerting influence." And "influence" is defined as: "the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others." It cannot be argued that moot and his friends showed the capacity and power to produce exactly the effect they wanted on the Time online poll. Which means moot probably does deserve the title, in a way.

But by doing so, he has shown without a shadow of a doubt that arguing whether online polling has the slightest shred of reliability is (I just can't resist) not even a moot point.

 

[Program Note: If you'd like to hear me attempt to discuss politics before I've had breakfast (full disclosure: I am not a "morning person"), I will be the guest of TJ and The Tux on their political show "Obama's First 100 Days" which has been running at EastVillageRadio.com every Friday (10:00 A.M. to noon, East Coast time). We'll be talking about (naturally) Obama's first 100 days, as well as "100 days" history. Check it out this Friday morning (I should be on around 11:00 A.M., which is eight in the morning for us folk out here on the Left Coast). If you ever wondered what I would sound like answering one of those Hillary-Clinton-esque "3:00 A.M." calls, here is your chance.]

 

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

 

-- Chris Weigant

 

7 Comments on “Time Magazine Hacked, Proving Unreliability Of Online Polls”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    I saw this problem of "poll stuffing" when NASA ran their on line contest to name the new room on the space station. On line polls will not be accurate until such time as the pollster can figure out how to randomly contact people on-line. I am not sure that I want polling companies to have huge lists of email addresses but I guess spammers do it so our email information is already out there.

    ...Stan

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Stan,

    That NASA contest was a real hoot! And, soon, we'll all be hearing about how popular the COLBERT has become in some room on the space station. Ha!

  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Because their results should be taken with a very large grain of salt. I realize some might say that about all polls, but even the skeptic has to admit that some polls are more accurate than others.

    At the risk of being arrogantly egotistical (per usual :D) I'll assume that you had me in mind when you wrote this. :D

    I will admit that some polls are more lucky than others. But it's easy to influence polls simply by parsing the content of questions to produce the desired result..

    Give you a perfect example that I just came across..

    I never said that she stole the money

    That sentence has SEVEN different meanings, depending on which word you place the emphasis.

    With this kind of nuanced language, you can create a poll that has Stalin as the most lovable man in the world and Mr Rogers as Satan Incarnate...

    Polls are carp....

    MIchale.....

  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Polls are carp?

    Is that what's known as "carping" about polls?

    heh. Couldn't resist.

    Actually, I wasn't thinking of you, I know quite a few people who feel exactly the same way about polls in general.

    I liked your example sentence, too.

    -CW

  5. [5] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    IMHO, future iterations of the web will bring us more accurate internet polling. There may never be perfectly accurate polls in cyberspace, but social networking leads the way -- and these blogging engines are slowly transforming into the next social network.

  6. [6] 
    BashiBazouk wrote:

    The Ron Paulers must be really slacking to let someone else fix a poll. I'd think even this far out a major poll like this would be right up their alley. They must still be in a funk after "winning" every internet poll around but still getting a lack luster showing when the real vote came about.

    Personally I've always believed in adding as much false data in to the system as possible. Can't make it too easy to predict behavior ;-)

  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:

    Actually, I wasn't thinking of you, I know quite a few people who feel exactly the same way about polls in general.

    Oh drat... And here I thought I was unique!! :D

    Give you a perfect example of exactly why polls are useless..

    Polls show that President Obama enjoys a 60+% approval rating.. Yet other polls show that Americans are against every action Obama and the Democrats have taken since assuming the presidency, save one...

    It's like I always say, polls are like statistics. You can pick and choose the data and how the questions are asked and pretty much create a poll that will prove whatever point you want to make...

    Michale.....

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