Our phones started buzzing this week, shortly after President Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen acknowledged that he worked to rig online polls on Drudge Report and CNBC to make Trump appear more viable as a candidate. While you can decide whether this kind of nefarious but entirely legal behavior is acceptable or not, it should most certainly not be viewed as an indictment on web-based polling at large.
The kind of “home page” polls that run on sites like Drudge are designed for one purpose – entertainment. They keep people on the site, clicking away. That’s it. Most of those polls allow people to vote over and over again (or, at least, easily clear their browser cookies and vote repeatedly) to stuff the ballot box in their preferred direction. Writing software or “bots” to automate this kind of thing at high speeds is something any first-year computer science student at Carnegie Mellon could do in five minutes.
The results of those kinds of polls should never be taken seriously. Sadly, a lot of people don’t know how to discern rigorously-collected, scientifically-valid data from the opposite. If Cohen’s allegations are true, the Trump campaign was certainly well aware that people could be fooled.
When we started CivicScience ten years ago, we took extensive measures to make sure our polls wouldn’t be vulnerable to that kind of rigging. A combination of technical barriers, methodological nuance, and persistent monitoring make sure that the results we produce are immune to ballot-box-stuffing or other malice that could compromise data quality.
Not that people haven’t tried. A few years ago, a Pittsburgh mayoral candidate’s team tried to rig one of our polls on a local newspaper. Fortunately, we built our technology precisely to prevent that kind of thing. Still, they would vote over and over again, for hours and hours on end – even on Christmas – not realizing they never actually contributed to the results. We never let on, just letting them continue to waste their time. It was hilarious.
Don’t allow news like this Cohen revelation shake your confidence in all kinds of online polling. There are some really smart, well-intended people out there working to enlighten the world with trusted, scientific data about public opinion. We’re just one group of them.