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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

Proof

So here's the story we're talking about, and you should probably check out the video we made about the whole thing.

TL;DR version - getting a vote farm to upvote links on reddit is trivial. We managed to get a fake story to #2 on /r/unitedkingdom and a trailer to a show to #1 on /r/videos using a vote farm.

Ask us anything!

Q:

What are the limits to something like this? Could you get a pro-Trump headline to the top of /r/politics? Could you get an anti-OSS headline to the top of /r/linux?

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.

A:

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.


Q:

Was this AMA bought and paid for?

A:

If it were bought and paid for, it wouldn't have four points.


Q:

True. Follow up question, is there a way reddit can stop paid for posts?

A:

I'm not sure how it can be done. To be fair to reddit, I think they've made it very difficult to spam the website. Our investigation showed that hackers/spammers really struggled to get it to work. However, because it's so difficult to hijack, the trust the users have in the website is very high. That trust is the honey in the jar to special interests.

Ultimately, with enough money and planning it seems it's possible to get passed the spam filters and hijack yours and my trust in the links.

This is a big issue.

I think more data provided to redditors might help. So we could see in real time where and when votes are coming in. It's very important to get this right, so we all need to figure out a way to fix it.


Q:

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.

A:

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.

UPDATE:

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.


Q:

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.

ummmmm no, not before it reached number one and none of the accounts used to perpetrate the up/down voting were banned. So anyone inclined to do this sort of thing can just make ONE new account to continue. so i would argue that you are talking out of your ass.

A:

I expect that the accounts associated with our investigation are now banned. Reddit definitely banned the account we used to submit to /r/unitedkingdom because it was an account of someone we actually know. So the account is gone now.

They only did that when we contacted them about the story on Monday and gave them a heads up that we were publishing. So it's entirely plausible that you could buy multiple accounts and commit multiple vote manipulations and not get caught. And if you do get caught? Buy a new account, it's about $20 for an account to old enough and with enough karma to post in most of the subreddits.


Q:

Is the video on the front page now upvoted by your fake accounts?

A:

No. But the fact that it's impossible for me to really prove that kind of proves the point right? I think the video has more than 20,000 points by now.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

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?

A:

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.


Q:

[deleted]

A:

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.


Q:

/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.

A:

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.


Q:

Not sure if would even be possible now.

Soo... uhhh... Why should we care about this then if it's no longer possible to do?

A:

Not sure != no longer possible.


Q:

After reading your article it looks like you took enormous effort to achieve limited success.

In one case, you have a fake story being detected by the community and banned - in the other, you are using a piece of content that already has some relevancy to User interests.

It seems to me that this headline is a case of forcing a pre-desired conclusion despite the story the evidence shows.

Was there ever a consideration of publishing a story around not succeeding in this endeavor?

If not, what do you hope to accomplish by pushing this narrative?

A:

Well we thought the investigation was a massive success. We could have gone further but we don't have limitless resources.

Would we have published had it not been a success? Probably not, because it's not a story really is it?

To us, it is surprising just how easy it is to sidestep the voting system.

We want more transparency about how votes are cast. We want people to be aware that this is entirely possible.


Q:

Heads up /u/MerryNexus - delete this

A:

Cheers! :)


Q:

What's interesting is I spend a large amount of time doing this but that one didn't alarm me. I was just having a conversation with a default mod last night about this:

https://np.reddit.com/r/OutOfTheLoop/comments/5icsa1/whats_up_with_these_sketchy_1_month_old_reddit/db84bg7/

Oddly enough that mod and /u/cwenham have banned me from r/pics for calling out suspicious accounts in the modmail. I'm also currently ghost banned by that guy in r/aww as a means to "waste my time" trying to warn users when automod removes everything I say. Why do mods back them up?

The users that see my callout posts in the comments are usually receptive but I often get "it's new to me!" "who the f**k cares?!" and "get a life karma is imaginary!" attacks.


Q:

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 ?

A:

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.


Q:

Who exactly funded your investigation? It seemed like it was just you guys.

A:

It was self funded yes.


Q:

Investigative journalism is a dying art

If you call posting two posts and paying for upvotes "investigative journalism" it sure is. Investigative journalism would be more in the line of actually finding out how this payment of accounts worked, and who was making money out of this.

A:

We know how the payments of accounts work - people sell their accounts to middlemen for a couple of dollars. The middelmen then sell them.

As for 'who is making money' - we wanted to know too. We believe large companies are doing this, but catching them red handed is expensive. Instead we found a well functioning system being sold on a pay as you go model. It's not in the interest of the story to expose the tool. Anyone with a couple of hours to spare could figure it out.


Q:

Is there any content that you won't promote?

A:

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.


Q:

You gotta admit though this is kinda like promoting your content too! If you didn't then you wouldn't upload this to a youtube channel that looks like it will become a thing. You would just do an anonymous voice over like CGP Grey or Kurzgesast(?) without any branding.

A:

I don't quite follow. The story is doing well because people are interested in it. I definitely want people to read the story and watch the video.

As for just doing an anonymous video/voice over. Maybe that would work. In my experience as a video journalist, if the production value isn't there in your story, people simply do not engage with it. You have to make it accessible and interesting, and that costs money.

Journalism is a really underfunded industry. We are just doing what we can to make sure we can continue to work.


Q:

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 ;)

A:

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.


Q:

Hi and thank you for the video really opened up a new can off worms for me as surprising as it sounds being a lurker for many years. I was just wondering why? Is it because people just in it for them selfs as in for the money the popularity what?

A:

I think it's likely to be a whole range of motivations. The important thing to know is that it's possible.


Q:

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

A:

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.