Belfast Telegraph

Fracking vote shows online polling not an exact science

By Paul Connolly

Online opinion polls – a great temperature-tester or a waste of time? It's a subject that divides many people. Lots of organisations, including media groups, retailers, sports clubs, technology companies and much more, use them.

They can be a very quick way to gauge the mood of your fan base, or customers. But they are also open to abuse by factional elements and zealots.

Known in the jargon as "open access polls", these are better known to the public as straw polls, or unscientific polls.

Polling experts would describe these kind of polls as, Wikipedia succinctly suggests, "a type of opinion poll in which a non-probability sample of participants self-select into participation".

It's important to note that not all online polls are unscientific and some are, in fact, very scientific.

The British Polling Council is happy to stand over proper, scientific online polls – while warning of the dangers, not of unscientific polls per se, but of attempts to interpret their results as scientific.

It's also important to note that open access polls include call-in and mail-in polls, for example, telephoning an 0800-style number, or returning a newspaper coupon. So the idea of them is not new; they've been around in various forms for decades.

The Belfast Telegraph regularly runs open access polls on its website, in common with many newspapers and other companies.

We use them to take the pulse of readers in a totally unscientific way. It also helps readers engage and feel part of the Belfast Telegraph community.

Unfortunately, of course, on occasion people can try to manipulate polls to their own end and this is what appears to have happened last month in an open access poll on fracking.

Now, the pursuit of oil by "hydraulic fracturing" of shale is one of those hot-potato issues guaranteed to generate high emotion.

Our opinion poll is set to permit you to vote only once and that is how most people approach it.

However, it doesn't take a genius to work out that, if you change your internet browser, say from Chrome to Firefox, you may be able to vote twice.

If you have a bit more knowledge and clear your "cookies", you'll be able to vote more often, but, frankly, it's a bit of a pain to do that repeatedly and doesn't happen that often.

Fracking is, however, one of those subjects that brings out both sides. At one stage, the opinion swung overnight from 19% against to 91% in favour.

Readers queried what was going on, with some claiming there is software available on the internet that can influence polls (don't know if that's true, but it does seem plausible) and others that there was a flaw with a certain browser which made it very easy to vote multiple times.

Some conspiracy theorists actually claimed online that the Belfast Telegraph was manipulating the figures, which was, of course, utter rubbish.

We are looking at the simple browser flaw to see if that's true and if it's easily fixed. However, I feel the most likely explanation is that both sides got their support out and that was reflected in the swinging poll. It is highly likely a small number of people made multiple votes.

Also, the numbers of votes may have not been particularly high – it was August – and so relatively small numbers may have had a disproportionate influence. Whatever the reason, I think the best answer is for the Telegraph to put an appropriate tag on the poll, probably a "What's This" button explaining the benefits, but also its open access and unscientific nature.

We will also explain that it may be impossible to stop multiple voting and appeal to voters not to engage in it. Believe it or not, appealing to people's better natures can be very effective – even on the internet.

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com @BelTelReaderEd

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