OtherWe're the journalists behind the "Reddit for Sale Story". We managed to get a story to the #1 spot on /r/videos for a very small amount of money. AMA
Dec 15th 2016 by MerryNexus • 22 Questions • 561 Points
Ask us anything!
I'm well aware that it's not very hard to get content that Reddit likes on the front page of Reddit using fake votes to put your well liked content ahead of other people's well liked content. I'm far less convinced that you can put pretty much anything you want on the top of Reddit for a few bucks. I'm not convinced by the Brexit story because /r/unitedkingdom has a sizable pro-Brexit population, and the headline could easily be read as anti-Brexit sarcasm.
The system was incredible effective. Could you get to #1 everywhere? Probably not, but you could have a very sizeable impact for not much money at all.
Have you been able to replicate it consistently? I can probably get a post to the top of /r/videos if it's interesting content that reddit would enjoy.
It's been know for a long time that you can give a post/comment a significant boost with only a few early fake upvotes. So long as the content is interesting to reddit as a whole, the early upvotes can start a chain reaction as they place it higher in users' feeds.
It's the same principle that let the_donald moderators send half their subreddit's content to the front page by stickying new posts - reddit's algorithm sees lots of early votes on something and assumes it's amazing. So you can definitely game that.
That said, the account you did this stunt on was banned, and your video was probably removed fairly quickly. So I'd argue that's an example of the system working, and this isn't some major accomplishment.
The video we did this on is here. It was using an account we purchased from a contact we found in our investigation.
We then used a vote system to provide 1000 upvotes to the link, and that was enough to start a kind of chain reaction / feedback loop. People started to upvote the link massively because (we assume) the link was already on the front page.
The perceived popularity of the link made it super popular. For the record I think we got it pretty close to the #1 spot just with the paid for votes. It wasn't 'one or two' it was a thousand.
/u/tweninger could give you great information on redditor behaviour, what's influential and what's not.
We deliberated for quite a few weeks about what kind of video to use fake votes with. We wanted something that wasn't going to be obviously terrible and arouse suspicion, but something that wouldn't have gone viral on its own. In the end we chose Narcos. The trailer had already been out for a month or so, and not done particularly well. We gave it a headline to appear like an Ad, and then gave it the up vote boost. It worked way more effectively than we could ever have believed.
As for getting some content that would NEVER get upvoted, our pro-Brexit story on /r/UnitedKingdom proves that quite well. It was removed by the mods in the end, but that's because we inadvertently tipped off the commenters that the character was Norwegian. This sent a few curious people on a quick google search to find the professor didn't exist at all, neither did the University, so we shot ourselves in the foot and the post was removed. Hats off to the /r/unitedkingdom mods, but had we not tipped them off, the story would likely have remained.
I feel like you're focusing explicitly on corporations/marketing firms - but completely ignoring the role of obsessive ideologues. It's fairly easy to create multiple accounts, you can use proxies/vpn etc.. if necessary - you don't NEED to spend hundreds of dollars to do this. I'd be more worried about ideologues obsessed with pushing an agenda on reddit, rather than marketing firms. Why did you choose to limit the potential for manipulation only from paid agencies? This will completely skew the discussion on reddit so that anything remotely pro 'establishment' (such as something that might be complementary to anything connected to government or a business) will be likely met with massive amounts of unwarranted suspicion and accusations of shilling, while sensationalist 'anti-establishment' posts won't meet any suspicion, when they could just have easily been manipulated from places like 4chan?
I take your point, but this has started a conversation and hopefully the conversations will continue.
I actually believe the ideologue problem to be the most concerning, and it's something I'd like to explore more.
There was no agenda in focusing in a particular area, we just wanted to show that this is possible, and therefore likely to be going on.
Do you feel paying for news that appears on the front page of Reddit is similar to organisations paying off smaller, supposedly "independent" news companies (i.e. Truthloader), and if so how do you think people can be made more aware of this and react?
Good barbed question.
The Truthloader project that you mention, is this a rebuke perhaps? We were always upfront about being a part of ITN, we told our audience. And we got complete editorial freedom, and it was a great project and I believe we did some great work. I wish it could have continued in many ways.
I think you're talking about transparency (along with a backhanded comment) and I'll say this: it's important.
Point have been working on stories like this for more than a year. This is the first one they've released. There are more coming, and more planned.
/r/videos mod here.
Posting a Narcos trailer and getting front page isn't really surprising though. I don't think you are accounting for how many users will upvote a post without reading the comments or looking into it in any way. I mean look at the comment section, you got caught, but the proof showing it has way fewer upvotes than the score of the post even subtracting the votes you purchased.
That's why clickbait works. I'd be more curious about this using a relatively unknown or flat out unpopular video.
The things that do show weaknesses though are that you did it by getting through our spam filtering. But, it's not overly surprising, because again, it was a legitimate video. Vote rigging isn't something we can detect as mods.
I agree - the problem isn't something the mods can solve. It has to be some more information/data being provided to the users to see who/where votes are coming from.
In a previous comment we explained why we chose Narcos. We would be happy to try and demonstrate the system working (if it still does...) on a boring link. Not sure if would even be possible now.
Do you think /r/politics was manipulated or was it just an echo chamber changing opinion? Like going from Pro Bernie Anti Hillary --> Pro Hillary Anti Trump --> Anti Trump ?
Our investigation wasn't funded well enough to find out. Investigative journalism is a dying art, we're absolutely trying our best with the resources we have. We'd have loved to have done more.
We didn't do this to 'promote' our content. We did it to highlight the very important point that hijacking your way to the top of a thread is relatively straight forward, AND its very impactful.
We need to be able to trust that the content on reddit is there for the right reasons, and perhaps that trust is a little misplaced at the moment.
Nice video and I appreciate you guys raising awareness about the manipulation of Reddit, hopefully people can realize just how easy it is, especially with government agencies like GCHQ using programs like JTRG that you mentioned in the video.
My question is, with this "proof" what do you expect/want to happen in regards to online communities like Reddit?
Also, have you researched any other programs like JTRG? If not, I have a list that I comment about periodically when the topic arises that I would be happy to share.
P.S. - I made a guest appearance for calling you guys out in the video ;)
We researched JTRIG extensively yes. It's crazy. I think it's such a bizarre story that it didn't really find the audience it deserved. People assume that those tools must only be used overseas, but I'm not so sure.
When all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
You win 1 internet point for calling us out in the thread.
Do you think we will ever see a social media platform that sustains itself without ads?
MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit all became popular for one reason: it was all about the user. An ad blocker used to do wonders on those sites 7+ years ago but now with integrated ads, idk if it will ever be possible to have a true, user-centric social media platform.
Every single social media site goes to shit as soon as a corporation with an agenda gets its hands on it. It's really frustrating when you consider how easy it used to be to create a fun, carefree internet experience even less than a decade ago
We need to understand that if you don't pay for the product, you ARE the product.
We've got to start paying actual cash for our digital services, including journalism and social networking.