A Melbourne software engineer has built a bot to automatically cast tens of thousands of votes through News Limited and Fairfax online polls, a feat which skewed subsequent media reports on the results and triggered a failed bid to boost web security.
Russell Phillips noticed that votes could be re-cast by clearing browser cookies and ran a bash script to automate the process which now crawls seven News Limited sites.
The fake votes quickly created a huge bias in results. Dozens of polls were skewed with some subsequently reported by News Limited journalists.
Phillips contacted the reporters after publication informing them about the pranks and the weaknesses in the voting systems, but was ignored each time.
"Despite alerting News Limited to this, nobody seems to be listening. It appears that poll hacking is now my part-time hobby indefinitely," Phillips said in a blog reported by ABC Media Watch.
In one fudged poll last October, News.com.au reported that 90 per cent of 16,000 votes, of which 15,000 were made by Phillips' bot, were in favour of a raise in speed limits.
"You can achieve a greater media influence in three lines of bash than Gina Rinehart could with an 18.7 per cent share in Fairfax."
He pushed a subsequent poll on vaccination to a deadlock after it garnered a whopping 170,000 votes.
A story published on the fraudulent poll remains live but has been quietly altered to remove reference to the results.
"It was fun watching the anti-vaxxers and the skeptics argue over this poll result. In the end I called it a draw," Phillips said.
He also hit Fairfax, pumping thousands of votes through a poll which closed overnight with 10,070 votes.
News Limited followed Fairfax in banning multiple votes from a single IP address four months after Phillips notified it of the flaw. But yesterday the engineer again mitigated the tactic by setting up Tor to swap exit nodes every 10 minutes.
"I must admit, the new changes to News Corp’s polling system made it much harder to break. Instead of three lines of bash, it now takes eight!"
The pranks come as a warning that online polls can be easily manipulated. News aggregator Slashdot has long issued a clause with its polls: "This whole thing is wildly inaccurate. Rounding errors, ballot stuffers, dynamic IPs, firewalls. If you're using these numbers to do anything important, you're insane."
News.com.au editor Luke McIlveen told Media Watch it will no longer report stories on its online polls.