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Did bots infest our Ontario politics poll? Looks that way

Every six weeks or so, we check in on our running provincial politics poll. Bots have clearly been voting, but we found a way to pull results out anyway.
Exterior view of the Legislative Building on the grounds of Queen's Park. CITYNEWS/Craig Wadman

Every six weeks or so, we check in on our running provincial politics poll.

This time around, we were curious to see whether the Greenbelt scandal — with a scathing report from the province's auditor-general in early August, an even more scathing report from the province's ethics commissioner in late August, and a Labour Day Monday resignation from housing minister Steve Clark — had softened the Ontario PCs' support at all. 

On the face of it, the results were surprising:

Now, we are prepared to follow data where it leads, even if it leads to surprising places, but this clearly needed more scrutiny. Here's how the poll responses break out in absolute numbers:

Clearly something is happening to spike the PC results, but not those of the other three parties we're tracking.

This is where it became helpful to slow down and spend some time with the metadata that comes with our poll results. Looking at the Labour Day weekend period, more or less, I saw a series of blasts of PC votes in short periods. Looking at all our data going back to June, I found about 30 IP addresses that votes had been cast from that (a) had at least two dozen votes and (b) had only ever voted for one party. Usually it was the PCs, but not always.

With that in mind, it was clear what I was looking for. On the Wednesday before Labour Day, for example, 17 votes were cast for the PCs at one-minute intervals from a series of suspect IP addresses, in perfect consecutive order by IP address number.

So, going back to early summer, I took all the votes cast by suspect IP addresses out of the data and made a fresh set of graphs. Here it is by percentage:

And by number of participants:

Both graphs are suddenly more stable; it seems that the wilder spikes above may have been due to bursts of inauthentic voting.

Here's how it looks smoothed out with weekly results:

What are we looking at here?

My reading is that among Village Media's readership, which is older than average and more rural and northern than the province in general, the Greenbelt scandal hasn't so far pushed a significant number of people to change their party preference. (In contrast, an Abacus poll this week showed a 7 per cent fall in PC support since late July.)

We now have a fresh Ontario politics poll that you'll have to be logged in to vote in.

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Patrick Cain

About the Author: Patrick Cain

I'm an online writer and editor in Toronto, focused mostly on data, FOI, maps and visualizations. I've won some awards, been a beat reporter covering digital privacy and cannabis, and started an FOI case that ended in the Supreme Court. Twitter: @Cain
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