One of the nation’s leading hate groups claims thousands of people have signed a petition protesting Walmart for featuring a gay couple in a recent ad.
There’s just one problem with that claim: It’s probably bogus.
A petition launched by the American Family Association (AFA) on Tuesday, February 26, blasts the popular retailer for the “normalization of homosexuality” after releasing a video showing two gay men on a “blind date” at Walmart. Billed as the store’s first dating show, “Love Us in the Aisle” follows Pat and Andy as they shop for pans.
The innocuous two-minute clip was one of several dating-themed ads released in conjunction with Valentine’s’ Day. The ad is extremely G-rated—the couple doesn’t kiss or even hold hands.
Despite the conspicuous lack of same-sex affection, AFA claims the video conflicts “with the beliefs of its customer base.”
“It’s clear that Walmart is on the path of elevating homosexual relationships to the same level as the male-female model of marriage,” the petition reads. “Walmart’s shift away from neutrality on this controversial issue to full support for same-sex relationships is something Sam Walton would never have approved of.”
At first glance, the petition appears to be going viral. Two days after going live, over 63,000 people have urged Walmart to remove the “pro-homosexual video” and “remain neutral on the controversial issue of homosexuality.”
A second petition from One Million Moms—a division of the AFA—claims to have collected over 9,600 signatures.
Many of those signatures, however, are likely fake. On Wednesday evening, February 27, NewNowNext was able to sign the petitions half a dozen times from the same IP address while using the same web browser.
At no point in the process did the petition reject NewNowNext’s entries, even if the signatory was “Matthew Calamari,” “Lucy McGillicuddy,” or “Diego Montoya.” Emails entered into the form were even more transparently counterfeit: “email@example.com” and “firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Trying very hard to trigger a security mechanism, NewNowNext typed random gibberish into the zip code box, including an emoticon penis. Even entering a string of asterisks returned a cheery reply claiming the signature was accepted.
“Thank you for signing the Walmart petition!” it reads. “Please call Walmart Headquarters and let them know you are extremely disappointed in them.”
Websites like The Daily Beast and ThinkProgress pointed out these issues with AFA’s signature gathering methods nearly three years ago. As these publications noted, the right-wing lobby group uses the online form builder Wufoo, which allows petitioners to opt out of spam protection measures in its settings menu.
When NewNowNext created a petition asking “How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck?”, it took three seconds to uncheck the boxes “Allow Only One Entry Per IP” and “Collect IP Addresses of Respondents.”
Without these roadblocks in place, a highly motivated person—or one hired by AFA—could sign as many times as they like.
NewNowNext reached out to tech employees to see how easy it would be for an organization like AFA to create online bots to do this for them. Responses were unanimous. Sources claimed it would take “rudimentary scripting skills” and that “a bright 12-year old would have no trouble” setting it up.
Rapi Castillo, a Queens-based tech worker and organizer, claimed AFA’s form is “ripe for bot activity” via a program called Selenium. It creates a script to automate repetitive activities. Selenium imitates a web browser, telling it what to type and where to click.
“Anyone can just list down the process they want that script to do and then they can do so multiple times,” he tells NewNowNext.
While Castillo says that initiating CAPTCHA would allow petitioners to safeguard against bots that auto-generate signatures, the AFA form doesn’t have a challenge-response test in place.
“It would be very easy to spam this petition with a ton of signatures,” Jesse Lovelace, a professional in the software industry, tells NewNowNext. “Not that it would even matter. Since the signatures aren’t public, they could just forge the final results anyway. I could probably have written the bot to do this when I was 13.”
Gaming the system is so easy, in fact, that Medium offers a how-to guide on creating your own bot.
NewNowNext reached out to the AFA about concerns its petitions could be compromised by bot accounts. The organization said it “has no further comment” at this time.
But despite lacking any semblance of security or transparency, what’s particularly troubling is that AFA’s petitions continue to be treated as legitimate. When the AFA claimed 1.5 million people had signed onto a Target boycott three years ago, ABC News and The Washington Post reported the figures at face value.
The Daily Beast, one of the few outlets to question the AFA’s numbers, noted that an “enterprising YouTube user” signed the petition “using the names ‘Dick Wetter,’ ‘Cock Lover, Jr.,’ and ‘Yo Momma.’”
To this day, the right still says the Target campaign was a success, alleging the company lost $15 billion as a result of the boycott. Those claims have been debunked by the fact-checking website Snopes, which credits stiff competition from online retailers like Amazon for the plummet in Target’s stock value.
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow with People for the American Way, called upon reporters and news publications to “treat [AFA’s] claims, and their numbers, skeptically.”
“AFA is behind the times,” he tells NewNowNext. “Marriage equality is the law of the land, and they’re still fretting that a gay couple on a blind date is ‘normalizing’ homosexuality. Americans support marriage equality by a big majority. The AFA isn’t speaking for most families.”
Despite the AFA’s claims that same-sex unions are “controversial,” polls show two-thirds of U.S. citizens are in favor of marriage equality.