SAN FRANCISCO — Many of the online polls following the first presidential debate were manipulated to make it appear as though Trump had won, but those trying to skew the polls appeared to be be pranksters and Trump supporters rather than organized Russian hackers.
As it emerged Tuesday that dozens of online polls showed landslide victories for Trump following the first debate, rumors swirled that Russian hackers had been behind a campaign to hack the polls and hand Trump a victory.
A tweet by Twitter user @DustinGiebel purported to show a map of Twitter activity in the Russian city of St Petersburg as evidence that the #TrumpWon hashtag had originated there. The tweet has since been deleted but a screengrab is below.
The tweet has since been deleted and the account has not answered numerous requests for comment on which program was used to reach the conclusion that Russians were behind the #Trumpwon hashtag. A blog post from the Washington Post also pointed out that the map used in the tweet is not typical of mapping programs used to plot Twitter trends, including TrendsMap, which was originally identified as the source of the graphic.
"This is certainly not from any of our tools and do not know of any tools that look this way," TrendsMap spokesperson Kathy Mellett said in an email to the Post. "Based upon our analysis, #TrumpWon primarily came from the US. There was an initial spike just after the debate followed by a much larger one a few hours later. In particular, around 97% of the initial spike of approximately 6,000 tweets came from the US."
An analysis by BuzzFeed News showed that while there was one St. Petersburg-based Twitter account repeatedly using that hashtag, it was also widely used across the United States at the same time.
Meanwhile, a look at the poll results, however, showed that the polls themselves were so poorly designed and secured that simple tricks suggested by Trump supporters on the 4chan messaging board were enough to manipulate the results at dozens of media outlets, including Time, CNBC, and BuzzFeed News.
The idea to manipulate the polls was suggested on 4chan in the week leading up to the debate. In one dedicated chat room Monday night, Trump supporters shared tips on how to manipulate the polls using easy methods such as opening an incognito browser window, or turning a phone's airplane mode off and on.
BuzzFeed News reached out to Time and CNBC for comment, both of whom ran polls created by the same Playbuzz platform, which gave Trump a huge victory in the debate. A spokeswoman from Time said the company had seen more unique viewers than votes on the page where they ran the poll. CNBC did not respond to a request for comment, though it appears it was heavily targeted by 4chan users. A spokesperson from Playbuzz did not answer a request for comment on how it ensures that its polls are conducted securely, but a Playbuzz employee, who answered a call from BuzzFeed and agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, said their polls were "not scientific, they aren't meant to be taken as scientific evidence."
That media companies continue to run online polls, especially around important news events such as the first debate in tight race for the presidency, is a "failing of journalism," said one editor at a news organization who ran one of the polls conducted Monday night.
"I spent all morning asking and no one knows if our poll was secure, how it was conducted, or if someone scammed it. Now people are pointing to our poll saying that it shows Trump won," said the editor, who asked to remain anonymous as he was not authorized to speak about his company's polling system. "That's not good journalism."
CNN is currently the only news outlet to have run a poll in which verified people were asked how Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump fared in the debate Monday night. The CNN/ORC poll conducted immediately following the debate found that Clinton topped Trump 62 to 27.
Sheera Frenkel is a cybersecurity correspondent for BuzzFeed News based in San Francisco. She has reported from Israel, Egypt, Jordan and across the Middle East. Her secure PGP fingerprint is 4A53 A35C 06BE 5339 E9B6 D54E 73A6 0F6A E252 A50F
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.