How many people are boycotting Target, really?
If you believe the American Family Association (AFA), which has been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, well over a million people are so upset about the retail chain allowing transgender employees and customers to use the bathroom that they will “shop elsewhere.”
But there’s plenty of reason to doubt that number. In fact, according to an analysis of the AFA website, there is no guarantee that the AFA’s signature counter reflects the current number of real individuals who have pledged to boycott Target.
An inspection of the website’s elements shows that the AFA used the online form builder Wufoo, now owned by SurveyMonkey, to create its anti-transgender pledge. As of this writing, it would appear that 1,173,936 people have filled out the form. But the AFA neglected to take several simple precautionary measures on Wufoo to ensure that these “signatures” were tied to distinct individuals.
The Daily Beast filled out the AFA form multiple times from the same IP address using both legitimate and bogus emails. The submissions were accepted each time. Zack Ford at ThinkProgress tried the same thing with identical results, noting that news outlets should take the AFA’s boasts about the signature counter with a grain of salt.
As an experiment, The Daily Beast created a mock form using Wufoo and checked off “Allow Only One Entry Per IP” in the settings menu. This mock form does not accept multiple submissions from the same IP address, instead delivering the following error message to potential spammers: “Sorry, but this form is limited to one submission per user.” The AFA form, then, is not limited to one submission per user.
But perhaps this setting was not activated in order to allow multiple shoppers from the same household to swear off Target. And to its credit, the AFA does not accept multiple submissions from the same email address—the most basic countermeasure against fraudulent submissions.
But the fundamentalist Christian organization did not enable the most crucial anti-spam protection on Wufoo: an always-on CAPTCHA program to differentiate between robot and human submissions.
By contrast, The Daily Beast’s mock form, created within a few minutes, asks users to type characters from an image to prove that they are made of flesh and blood. This service is offered for free by Wufoo, courtesy of reCAPTCHA.
The AFA, which did not respond to a request for comment, could have easily forced each signer to complete a CAPTCHA test in order to lend more credibility to its signature count. They didn’t. It would have only required a few clicks.
There are other red flags, too. The AFA pledge site does not display the names of any of the alleged signatories. Nor does AFA send a written confirmation to signers, as The Daily Beast discovered when using email legitimate addresses.
And at least three of the AFA’s signatures appear to be from an enterprising YouTube user who filled out the form using the names “Dick Wetter,” “Cock Lover, Jr.” and “Yo Momma.”
The relative ease of submitting to the AFA pledge should cast some degree of suspicion on their claim that “more than 1.1 million customers joined a boycott.” As it stands, that number only refers to the number of times anyone in the world with an Internet connection has entered any text whatsoever into the form and clicked “Submit.” Does that correspond to over a million real people? Who knows?
“A short signature process like this one allows any person filling it out to simply refresh the page and fill it out again, without needing to navigate elsewhere on the web,” one software developer, who preferred to remain anonymous for professional reasons, explained to The Daily Beast. “They don’t even need to put a valid email—anything that simply looks like it could possibly be a valid email will suffice.”
It is not improbable that hundreds of thousands of customers would buy into the AFA’s argument that Target’s policy “poses a danger to wives and daughters.” Many voters in North Carolina, for example, still believe that allowing transgender people to use the restroom is a “security risk for women and children” despite there being no evidence to support that belief.
It is even possible that over a million people have signed the AFA pledge. If everyone who clicked “Submit” on their form was a real person who did not fill it out more than once, then it is legitimate.
But without more disclosure from the right-wing organization, there is simply no way to confirm that the count is accurate. Going forward, the total number of Target boycotters should be accompanied by an asterisk.