timepoll
Time Magazine is letting readers vote again on the world’s 100 most influential people. While the magazine’s editors will make the final decisions, they have for a number of years held an online poll. And this year, as the poll closes, it looks as though Time’s site has yet again been hacked. (We reached out to Time two hours ago and are awaiting comment).

While in the past the hacking has served the purpose of such worldly notables as the founder of 4chan, this year it’s a close race between two Indian politicians vying to lead that country: Narendra Modi of the BJP party and Arvind Kejriwal of AAP.  Both men have massively outperformed the next runners-up, Katy Perry and Justin Bieber.

It’s possible that the millions of last-day votes represent a deft get-out-the-vote campaign on behalf of these politicians, but given past manipulations of the Time poll and the sheer magnitude of incoming votes coming hacking would certainly be more likely, and much easier.

In the past, 4chan users have used the poll as a means to spell out fun messages with the first letters of the first names of people in the list. In 2009 it was “marblecake also the game” (‘marblecake’ is internet parlance for what literary types call an acrostic). In 2012 the 4chan community topped itself with “KJU gas chamber” when sorted by yes votes and“MM has CP buttsex” sorted by no, referring obliquely to Kim Jong Un and Mohammad Morsi.

So the fact that Time’s poll is ripe ground for pranksters is well-known. Apparently, Time has done little to remedy this. And the hack is fairly simple. The Indian American Muslim Council (iamc.com), a group “dedicated to safeguarding India’s pluralist and tolerant ethos”, has posted it to its website as a simple step by step:

  1.       Open a Facebook account
  2.      Using a browser recording tool such as Selenium, record a session for the following:
  3.      Go to TIME Magazine poll, click on the person to vote.
  4.      It will give the option to login to Facebook or Twitter. Login into Facebook.
  5.       This will result in the poll service accepting the vote.
  6.      Write a script that does the following:
  7.      Clear all cookies and other private data from the browser
  8.      Play the Selenium recording
  9.      Write an auto initialization script that continuously runs the above.
  10.      Save the virtual image of the machine.
  11.      Use the virtual image to launch hundreds or thousands of machines on a cloud service or data center to cast their millions of votes for the person of your choice.

Writing this, I’m given pause to wonder whether I’m just a pawn in the game of Time, a grand old magazine with almost a century of experience in the journalistic game, gaining page clicks and notoriety at my expense.

But the apparent opportunism of Modi and Kejriwal supporters has a much darker aspect than 4chan’s past gleeful machinations.

“The Time poll has a prestige in India that cannot be fathomed here in America,” says Khalid Azam of the AIMC. In 2012, Modi purchased billboards to congratulate himself in India for his Time poll win, until hackers stepped in at the 11th hour and spelled something funny.

This year, it seems, Modi would not be outdone. Until Tuesday, Modi’s votes had seemed to plateau at around 300,000. But today in a remarkable surge of thousands of votes-per-minute, Modi’s total surged to a closing count of about 1.4 million.

Narendra Modi has a controversial past as a political entity in India. He has gained popularity as a ‘small government’ advocate in a remarkably ‘big government’ political system, but there are continued disputes around his role as Chief Minister of Gujarat state in a horrendous anti-Muslim massacre there in 2002. The BJP has a history of Hindu nationalist politicking going back before the country’s independence, and its recent national electoral success worries many pluralists and non-Hindus.

Modi has a formidable IT team, with questionable practices. In 2012 there were reports that some 86% of his million-odd Twitter followers were either fake or inactive.

The Indian elections are ongoing. They are due to close on the 12th of May, but early indications are that the Prime Ministerial post is a close race between Modi and Rahul Gandhi, candidate of the long-ruling Congress party and scion of the influential Nehru-Gandhi family (it bears mentioning that Gandhi garnered significant “no” votes in the Time poll, rivaling Bieber in that metric.)

The surprise this year (in the Indian election and the Time poll) is the ascendence of the AAP and Kejriwal, a former activist and NGO worker. Kejriwal, who had an edge on Modi in the Time poll until recently, led the AAP to a surprise showing in the 2013 elections for Delhi state assembly, becoming chief minister there when the BJP refused to form a coalition government. Like Modi, Kejriwal has been shown to marshal significant “online activism” among supporters.

Ironically perhaps, given the Time poll results, the AAP was founded in 2012 as the political manifestation of the “Indians Against Corruption” movement, and anti-corruption continues to be its rallying cry.

All of this craziness could be easily avoided if Time took the…time…to implement a better, more secure voting system. Technically speaking, there is no trivial fix. There is yet to emerge an internet standard for such a poll, though there are ideas floating around. At least making it harder for one Facebook account to cast multiple votes would raise the bar.

Indian politics are notoriously complex. The hack of the Time poll is somewhat technically sophisticated. But the PR maneuvering here is blatant and shameful. At this stage it’s impossible to know who is behind the rigging, though it’s clear enough that someone somewhere is trying to use the Time name to win a layer of legitimacy in a vitally important election, in a far off land, where winning the Time readers’ poll still means something.