Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Skew(er)ing the polls

Sure, we all love the internet; for one thing, it's got this blog on it. Even ignoring that, it has more shopping, celebrity gossip, slapstick videos and pornography than one could reasonably look at during one's work day.

Unfortunately, it's not totally harmless. Some relentless cybercriminals will stop at nothing to pervert the course of online justice and, in doing so, they have forced the removal of one of the most powerful tools for democracy in New Zealand. That's right - according to page A2 of today's paper, hackers have forced to removal of the Herald's daily online poll!

Online polls on the Herald's website nzherald.co.nz have been pulled until further notice after hackers entered the system, skewing the results of three polls.

The polls - which included questions relating to whether people thought Destiny Church was a cult or a church, if people thought it was okay for MP Rodney Hide to take his girlfriend on tour at taxpayers' expense and if people were sick of being told they were ruining the planet - were hacked late last week.

Hackers skewed the results? Well at least that's a change from racists skewing the results. In fact, recent polls have been so poorly designed that they're skewed before they even get on the website. "Should recycling electronic waste be easier?" No, you should have to jump over hurdles on the way to the bin. And the the "skewed" Tamaki poll - it's a shame, because today I was expecting something along the line of "Was Hitler just misunderstood?"
Mr Rees [the nzherald.co.nz publisher] said IT specialists were looking into the problems and had identified internet protocol (IP) numbers, and as the source of the problems but polls had been stopped until issues were resolved.
Naming and shaming, twenty-first-century style.

While some people might think the poll hacking was a conspiracy from interested parties, that was often not the case, Mr Rees said.

"Often most likely it's some kind of 18-year-old guy in a black T-shirt who's bored from looking at the new Google wave [a type of software] product and has decided to take a hack."

What? "The new google wave" ... "take a hack"? It sounds like my mother talking about the internet. (Sorry Mum.)

Anyway, there's another question here - once we've stopped sniggering - and that's about exactly why this constitutes a major news story. Apart from the more general cybercrime angle, I'm not certain that the (temporary) end of the notorious Herald online poll is a serious source of concern to anyone, let alone readers of the print edition. But it does fit into a much richer tradition: that of the Herald simply reporting anything that happens to them. Why anyone would want to read a Herald story about how Herald subscriptions have gone up - apart from the visceral thrill of 'picking the right horse' - is beyond me. (But then I'm not an advertiser.)

In solidarity with the Herald, let's finish off with a poll of our own, one that will show that 18-year-old guy in, for some reason, a black T-shirt that the internet is united against him:

Should polls be skewed by cybercriminals, or by the people writing them?

Answers on the back of a postcard.


  1. Dear Herald website hackers.

    Your task this week, should you choose to accept it, is to alter Garth George's Thursday Opinion piece so that it simply reads "I like pies, I like pies, I like pies..." over and over again.

    Wait, but then how will we tell it from the real piece?

  2. Oh, and James, are you just annoyed that they got your age and T-shirt colour wrong?

  3. "Often most likely it's some kind of 18-year-old guy in a black T-shirt who's bored from looking at the new Google wave [a type of software] product and has decided to take a hack."

    This comment speaks volumes about how the Herald views its online users (ie. contempt). I'm surprised he didn't say the hacker was living in their mum's basement.

  4. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 3, 2009 at 11:51 AM

    He probably is, though.

    Of course it's not been bloody hacked. All that's happened is someone's found a way to override the one-vote policy and passed the info to a couple of his mates and they're having a bloody good time showing how ridiculous, lazy and un-interactive and un-innovative such mechanisms are.

    Something similar happened on the Telegraph website not so long back.

    Hacked indeed.

  5. Michael Moore explains how newspapers cut their own throat by greed, getting rid of relevant news beats (labour, poverty, crime), supporting advertisers over readers, and not siding with education ... and now illiteracy is widespread in the States

  6. "Hacker" according to our fourth estate is anyone who has a smidgeon of technical ability and tinkers with the web. Poll stuffing, Sock puppets, or editing Wikipedia are not "hacking".

    The whole tone and content of the article show that THE PUBLISHER AND REPORTER ARE NOT WEB LITERATE. It's not informative, it's just stupid sensationalism.

    (IT companies have a bad habit of hiring MBA types who do not know the industry. Apple and Microsoft both became moribund when tech guys were not at the top.)

    PS: Google wave just looks annoying ...

  7. As if any self-respecting hacker would be looking at apps from a corporation like Google. Or entering Herald polls, for that matter.

    And what's with the black t-shirt? When I think of hackers I think leather jackets and roller blades..

  8. Because there's a 99.999% probability it is a bloke. Get real.

    Hacking in this instance is clearing your cookies and cache and pressing 'vote' again.

  9. Monk De Wally De HonkNovember 3, 2009 at 9:03 PM

    Apols, it was the Daily Mail, rather than the wannabe.


  10. Of those three IPs, two belong to iHug, one to Xnet. If, and it's a big "IF", there's any actual evidence connecting those numbers to any unlawful activity, then it shouldn't be too hard to get those companies to tell who was using them at the time.

    It's not sorcery, it's just technology.

  11. Does anyone else get a whiff of the 19th century from the way this piece of hilarious un-news is written?