Friday, September 2, 2016

Lying Game: How Fake Online Polls are Used to Deceive and Energize Trump Supporters

by Nomad

Frankly, it's hard to be shocked by right-wing manipulation of the truth any longer. We have seen the nominee of the Republican casually and constantly lie about his Republican opponents throughout the primaries and then after the convention about his Democratic rival.  
PolitiFact keeps an open file on Trump's misleading or untrue statement and updates it every few days. 
Even so, there are still times when you learn things that defy imagination. Things that reveal a kind of corrupt mindset alien to most Americans. 

The Untruth is Out There

I saw one of these naughty things yesterday. On Facebook, somebody posted a link which claimed that the liberal pollsters were conspiring to hide the truth: that Trump was going to win by a landslide. (In fact, nearly every poll, even what people considered right-leaning, show quite the opposite. Hillary Clinton has a substantial or conclusive lead and Donald Trump is trailing badly.)

And yet, according to one Facebook commenter I saw, the truth is out there and you just need to know where to look. He or she pointed out an August ABC News which clearly "proved" that Trump held a commanding lead. And not by a couple of points but by a full 70%. 
Furthermore, the two independent party candidates, with Stein at 12% and Johnson at 11%. 
Crooked Hillary Clinton? 
A mere 7%.

Well, shiver my flapjacks! That damned liberal media is at it again. 
Astoundingly newsworthy, what? For Trump supporters, it must be seen as a ray of truthful light during an uninspiring monsoon season.

At this point, their candidate's campaign has been changing managers faster than partners at a square dance. And the choices have not improved as with each switcheroo. 
At the same time, Trump has been reshaping his flagship policy positions- positions that helped win the primaries. His new stand on immigration suggests that Trump's rock solid position were as soft and malleable as... 

That ABC poll showing there's nothing to fear and that bad news is a liberal lie must seem like an act divine deliverance. It's a miracle right up there with water changing into wine. (Only, in this case, it is a bit more like toxic bilge water from a yacht turning into Pinot Meunier champagne.)

The Danger of the Exceptional Single Poll

Discerning what is and what is not true is, of course, not always easy in any election year. However, when a poll - a poll from a relatively well-respected news organization like ABC- produces results that contradict the results every other poll, it's worth a closer look. 
What gives?

You might suppose that the poll itself was somehow flawed. Having worked in market research for a while, I know first-hand that such results are extraordinarily easy to manipulate. For example, strictly no side conversations and no clarifications of the questions.
(We were told that the most interviewers could ever say to weary and perplexed members of the public was "what do you think the question means?")

An unscrupulous pollster can skew the outcomes simply by wording a question in a certain way. Or by filtering the respondents (race, income levels, selection zones or gender) Polls can be invalidated by limiting the number of people questioned. Sometimes this is done innocently and sometimes not.
Bottomline: Whether you agree with the results or not, putting absolute faith in polls is pretty dumb. 
When it comes to online polls, then it's better to forget all about accuracy or meaningful results. It's really just meaningless data to keep people clicking and eyeballs darting. 

Recently the Brookings Review examined how polls work and came up with some interesting observations.
Simpler methodological concerns also arise. Some surveys are more carefully produced than others. Quick and cheap surveys and focus groups can be useful to, say, marketers and campaign managers who need information fast—and know its limits. But it is often difficult for the public and even professionals to be certain about the quality of the data they see, let alone whether broad conclusions from such data are even justified.
For a variety of reasons, therefore, putting absolute faith in polls is unwise. Like circumstantial evidence in a trial, the only real validity of polls is found in their consensus and the accumulation of similar results. If every poll says the same thing, it's probably more accurate. 

Probably, I say, but even then, there's no absolute guarantee. Too many other factors come into play. 
Certainly, a single poll that seems to run contrary to the vast majority of all other polls should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. 

Online Sleight of Hand 

In this case, the solution to the mystery is much less complicated. Dan Evon of the fact-finding site, plays Sherlock and uncovers an extremely successful lying game.  

A recent tactic among purveyors of fake news is to publish their stories on web sites that mimic the appearance and URLs of real news organizations' sites. The real ABC News site, for instance, is located at (with being the top-level home for online properties of ABC's parent corporation, The Walt Disney Company), but this poll was published at a different URL,
In other words, the websites appear to be the same at first glance and there's only one letter different in the address. In fact, the site is not affiliated with, or the American Broadcasting Company in any way. In most cases, you might notice this deception. 

However, when the site is cited as a source on social media, or in a forum, when the link is hidden, it is very likely that this tiny discrepancy would go unnoticed.
In addition, somebody went to great lengths to create a copy of the original ABC news site. 
The fake site uses the same color scheme, menu headings, and logo as the real ABC News in an attempt to fool readers into believing that they are the legitimate ABC News site. The fake web site can be seen on the left-hand side of the following image, compared to a screengrab of the real ABC News site on the right:
Snopes allows you to judge for yourself by giving this side by side comparison on the fake (with the poll) and the real ABC site (right).

Sarcasm? News spoof?
Snopes noted also that there is no mention that the news website is a spoof or a satire. So obviously it isn't meant to entertain or amuse. 
One major giveaway to this deception is that all other sections of the site (like "health", "tech," and "world") are blank pages. Except for the page reporting the false poll, the rest of the site is entirely devoid of content.

Today the site, having served it intended purpose, is a dead site, even though the poll is still being cited from time to time. All in all, it was a fairly elaborate hoax and required the purchase of a site.

Who was behind it? Hard to know but one thing is perfectly clear. It was created for one reason alone: to deceive hopeless and hopelessly-confused right-wing voters. 

And, as we shall see, it has been an outstanding success.

Effective Sleight of Hand

Apparently, this online sleight of hand has gotten a lot of traction on social media. 

Here's one example of how this information is used in practice found, -rather ironically- on a site named "Truthfeed." (A click-bait site apparently owned by a Bulgarian living Sofia.)
In this case, the hoax is complete in every way. In the Truthfeed post, the address is not actually linked and the source is listed as ".com" and not "co."
This lie is followed by hundreds of ALL-CAPS comments of gullible right wingers reviling the "liar," the "crooked" Hillary Clinton, and all of these poor suckers accepting the poll results without question.  With the usual name-calling and vulgar language, the comment section is about what you come to expect at a right wing site.
However, after reading some of the comments, I was shocked at how truly naive and stubbornly ignorant so many of these people actually were.

Even when one diligent (and brave)commenter pointed out the truth about this fakery, Trump supporters refused to accept it, with one saying:
So in other words a fake poll had to be taken to get the real results, because the real ABC poll was given out fake poll results in Hillary’s favor..I’m down with that..
Their faith in this phony poll seemed unshakable, their disgust for all things Hillary intractable. 
"I don’t always pay attention to polls but I believe this one!!!! Hillary is pure evil and her and Bill will do anything to get back to the WH & that scares the hell out of me! The Clinton Foundation has many layers we have yet to peel off."
And yet another responds with:
"I think the online polls are more accurate than the others. There are just too many more people at Trump rallies than hers. Something is wrong with the other polls."

When Trump's Love Turned to Disgust

Throughout the primaries, candidate Trump repeatedly brought up the topic of his positive poll numbers.
The Washington Post noted at the time:
There would usually be a minute or two of Trump peering down at a sheet of paper with the latest results from whichever highly respected pollster was out most recently — any pollster showing Trump with a lead was "highly respected" — rattling off his opponents' weak positions relative to his own numerical dominance. It was part of his shtick, but it was also part of his value proposition: Trump is a winner.
Even then, some were beginning to warn that the polls that showed Trump ahead of all of the other Republican candidates were dangerously misleading.

In August 2015, the New York Times pointed out that Republican strategists were beginning to question whether those polls might be overestimating his support. The main problem - and there were several) with the polls was the large percentage of undecided voters. The number of undecided voters, the NYT times noted, can affect the rest of the results in a survey.

That's especially true for a candidate like Trump, whose far-right positions during the primaries alienated a lot of moderate Republicans.
For example, his plan to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, his proposal to round up and deport millions of undocumented immigrants might have sounded bold and decisive to his supporters but to other Republicans (and undecideds) these ideas were technically impossible, unconstitutional or just plan dictatorial.  

Whether the polls were entirely accurate or not, the results derived from Republican voters could not be applied to the nation as a whole. And this was the Republican party most fundamental miscalculation. 
What might be saluted in the Republican party (and even then, perhaps, not by the majority of Republicans) was considered noxious in the general election. 

The Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus seemed totally oblivious to the problem and seemed to relish the media attention that Trump provided the GOP.  He called Trump a "net positive" for the for his party.
Polls were used to create a false sense of Trump's popularity. In fact, Trump, his style, and his message made his one of the most unelectable candidates the Republican party has ever produced. 

As this became clearer and clearer, Trump's supporters used every excuse in the book to ignore this truth. Eventually, the tide of that denial swept over the Republican establishment and Trump became the nominee.
Almost immediately, to the dismay of Trump supporters, the once-celebrated poll results reversed themselves. the post-convention bounce never really materialized. 

The Hyperbolic Mr.Trump

What net gains Trump made in the polls (the post-convention "bounce") immediately evaporated following his own acceptance speech. USAToday described it as filled with "lofty, surely hyperbolic, promises." 

To counter the problems facing America, Trump said, in true fascist style:
I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.
By the time the Democrats held their own convention, the bounce was totally gone, thanks to Trump's repulsive (and entirely unnecessary) squabble with a Gold star Muslim-American family.

As one source said at the time:
A poll from Fox News found that 69% of respondents familiar with Trump's recent criticism of the Khan family said that his remarks were "out of bounds." Among Republicans, 41% said that it was "out of bounds."
The candidate himself searched in vain for some explanation (other than the most obvious one.) He has declared the election rigged. and that the negative polls were "dirty" and "a disgrace."  
Other polls- ones that showed more favorable results were "good." As the man that he is, Trump could not accept that he was never loved by everybody. 

Today there are no longer any "good" polls for Trump to cite in a tweet.
Not a single one.
NBC, Bloomberg, Five Thirty Eight, CNN, and Marist all find Clinton extending her lead against Trump. 

(For what it's worth, the most recent Reuters poll- which shows some Clinton slippage- discovered voters back Clinton by 41%, compared to Trump's 36 %, A shocking 23 % "not voting" or supporting other candidates.)
As far as polls go, Trump is fresh out of good news. 

Unless you count the "astonishingly excellent" ones from imaginary websites.