Prof believes UCLA meddling with petition from supporters
Thousands of signatures mysteriously disappeared from a petition criticizing UCLA for restricting enrollment in a popular free speech course, and the professor thinks administrators are to blame.
As of press time, the change.org petition supporting Professor Keith Fink in his ongoing dispute with his superiors at the University of California, Los Angeles has 3,245 signatures—roughly the same number that it had on May 11, nearly two weeks ago.
On May 12, however, that number had inexplicably plummeted to just over 1,100, as evidenced by screenshots obtained by Campus Reform.
Fink’s teaching assistant, Andrew Litt, asserts that the first screenshot was taken at 11:35 p.m. (Pacific time) on May 11, and that the second was taken less than 24 hours later, at 2:50 p.m. (Pacific) on May 12.
“2,000 people did not suddenly become disinterested in the cause in the last 24 hours,” Litt told Campus Reform. “Someone’s been tampering with the petition. No one else has the incentive to do this other than someone inside UCLA.”
Fink likewise speculated that someone within UCLA was responsible for the fluctuations, calling the situation “unreal” and declaring that the administration “doesn't believe in American values including the right to petition.”
While they concede the possibility of an internet glitch or rapid withdrawal by supporters, Fink and Litt believe it is more likely that UCLA is trying to make it appear that their support is weaker than it actually is.
Mick Mathis, the student who created the petition, confirmed that the signature count had fallen dramatically over a short period of time, but told Campus Reform that he had received no explanation from change.org.
“All I know is that the signature count went from around 3,100 to 1,100 in a matter of hours. It was devastating to find this happen to our student efforts,” he said. “It seems like it is a hackjob...by someone.
“I don’t know who that someone is,” he added, “but think it through: Who wants to see Professor Fink gone from the school more than anyone else? UCLA. Who has repeatedly demonstrated flagrant disregard for First Amendment rights (including the right to petition)? UCLA. I am not making any claims toward UCLA, but this just seems ominously suspicious. I don’t know who or how this could be accomplished, but it just seems ominously suspicious."
Fink was also recently contacted by a supporter who reported a curious experience she had with the petition, telling him, “I just had about 10 people sign your petition...However, the number only went up by 3 signatures.”
The petition’s update log corroborates the existence of the fluctuations, showing that it had reached 3,000 signatures two weeks ago, but then fell below 2,500 before re-attaining that mark two days ago.
Jonathan Rice, a senior software engineer for the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, told Campus Reform that the type of interference that Fink and Litt allege is indeed feasible on Change.org’s platform, and has even been accomplished in previous instances.
“After conducting a preliminary audit of change.org, it is almost certainly possible to manipulate signature counts,” he stated unequivocally.
“All it takes is for one user input to not be properly sanitized for an attacker to inject malicious code that could manipulate scoring,” Rice concluded. “Security is expensive and difficult to stay on top of. Furthermore it often complicates development, and for those reasons, if it’s not critical most companies are pretty lax.”
Campus Reform reached out to UCLA’s Director of Strategic Communications, Tod Tamberg, who has been personally handling public relations regarding the Fink controversy, to address Fink’s allegations.
Fink maintains that Associate Director of Media Relations Brian Haas is the typical spokesperson for campus-wide affairs, and that Senior Media Relations Officer Jessica Wolf ordinarily handles affairs within the Division of Social Sciences, but Tamberg took umbrage at the suggestion that the university is handling this case specially.
“Thanks much for letting me know who should be doing what in my office. Much appreciated,” he wrote in response to Campus Reform’s request for comment. “Mr. Haas is a new employee, as in he started less than a month ago. Ms. Wolfe promotes the scholarship of UCLA professors by assisting them in getting placement in significant scholarly journals and news outlets. I’ve been at UCLA four years and have routinely dealt with members of the news media on a wide variety of subjects. Sorry that’s not acceptable to you. Print that.”
Tamberg did not address allegations of UCLA tampering with the petition.
Representatives for change.org did not respond to messages from Campus Reform requesting comment about the mysterious change in supporters.
Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @kathryn_mary96