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Reddit Is Being Manipulated by Professional Shills [video] (youtube.com)
171 points by teslacar on Mar 19, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 122 comments

Just run under the assumption that all information is subject to intentional and unintentional bias, and requires careful analysis. It's a safe assumption most of the time, and you need to form that habit of thinking anyway.

To be honest, those shills on Reddit tend to be pretty obvious, but then they have to be given their target audience. More importantly they only really exist on some parts of Reddit, and it's only really easy for them to get lost in the scrum on the big boards like politics and news. You get the occasional obvious bit of PR floating through ELI5 or AskScience, but it's quickly spotted and killed.

When PR can be accomplished by random flaks, it's useful. When they require expertise on part with their targets to achieve their goals, it necessarily restricts their target pool, and increases their overhead.

> those shills on Reddit tend to be pretty obvious

The ones you notice are obvious, by definition. It's the once that aren't obvious that concern me.

Shilling is not magic. There is an intersection between the following:

Most people are average, read: thick.

Shills inevitably target broad groups, because it's not cost-effective to do so in thousands of tiny communities.

You can't get your point across to the average person and be subtle enough to not look like a shill to about 5% of the population. In turn that's the 5% you probably care least about anyway, because they're naturally suspicious anyway, better educated, maybe a bit brighter. Why fight over them, when you can run their lives by controlling the 50%?

I think you highly underestimate the effect they have on you. A small number of bots can completely disrupt discourse, eliminate stories that might make the top of all, and instead only get a couple dozen views. One of the tests they (point) ran, consisted of voting every story in new on a particular, decent sized sub, either up or down, as soon as it was posted. the stories they voted up, once, had several times more likelihood of making the first page of hot, and consequently all. The first few minutes can make or break a story with just a handful of votes with great consistency. The $ spent on such narrative control are absurd. For instance, David Brock's "correct the record" burned through 10's of millions of $ during the election, used new and purchased accounts, custom 3rd party anaylitics, offices of shills domestic and foreign; there are several different leaks which came out, showing the conversations in their slack groups, and how they go about effectively killing a story, or fabricating an entire narritive. It is VERY difficult to distinguish shills from 'legit' posters in some circumstances, often those who laid low and applied only mild pressure, weren't discovered until they posted images with correct the record filenames, or accidentally used the same verbiage from separate accounts. Currently, since the termination of correct the record, shareblue has taken over their 'mission' and does the same stuff in the same places. The FBI and CIA make enormous use of the same things, to discourage leaked Intel and damaging natsec information on Reddit and the Chan's from spreading, and he FBI has gone as far as planting child pornography to scare people off and even threaten prosecution of those who are influential/damaging. Correct the record has lists and ratings of Reddit users, one which leaked recently, which you can download right now and import into RES. The same thing occurs in the movie/TV industry, and we are starting to see the evidence come out now, of the massive operation mansanto was running out of large corporate offices, as well as partnering/contracting researches and those of larger social significance to discredit and dismantle the compilation of evidence and investigation into their wrongdoings. Judging by your comment, I'd guess you are among the highest tier of impressionability among those partaking in this discussion. Ignorant comment.

I'll add the most common use if intelligence shilling appears to be burying legitimate leaks in similar but provably false claims, or completely unverifiable, but equally absurd claims. On the Chan's '' for instance, there is no way to tell whatsoever, who is being sincere.

That was always and is universally true, and is in fact one of the basic facts of Chans... and why it appeals mostly to the very young. Chans mostly reflect the teenagers who are their majority users... a lot of style, occasionally a little brilliant substance, mostly garbage invented for thrills.

Right. CTR and Shareblue is all in reference to reddit. Rest is just somewhat relevant rambling, that many may not be aware of. Also, unrelated, I somehow responded in the wrong place with my first comment, to be clear.

  More importantly they only really exist on some parts of Reddit
One thing I noticed in my time on reddit is that subreddits aren't insular silos. Values, opinions and views-du-jour often bleed over into other subreddits in ways that are hard to predict. Reddit is a really unique culture in that it is constantly, subtly, and rapidly, fluctuating. Just because a fraction of subreddits are being exploited through shilling doesn't mean that redditors in your favourite subreddit don't go there and that they themselves are (consciously or otherwise) not being affected. Even if they don't read the articles, then they saw those highly voted headlines. There's no escape! This involves all subreddits!

I think you are wrong about reddit being "a really unique culture", at least in this context.

To me it seems very obvious that fundamentally it is exactly like how societies, communities, and communication has always operated, be it local gossip, newspapers, global communication, or hell even the differing thoughts/parts in our own minds.

Im not saying it hasnt changed things, of course the internet has changed most everything, just that the part we are talking about isnt something new. It has evolved certainly, but fundamentally the same.

I agree with you to some extent, that inherently there are no new dynamics here. However Reddit still manages to capture that small community feel while still bringing in millions of people a day, I think that's what's unique about it and also why it is so successful.

For example, in any discussion of anything anywhere on reddit that mentions anything about feminism/social justice/women's experiences there are thousands of brigaders from alt right groups, the donald, that down vote, spew garbage/destroy the thread. Doesn't matter how civilized and respectful the subreddit is, there's always at least one lurking on the lookout for it and it only takes one link. Look at a discussion about a feminist book, a discussion about a scientist who is female and worried about mistreatment in the workplace, anything. Hundreds of accounts come out of the woodwork, spew hate, call people 'cucks', upvote each other and downvote others. Threads are locked, comments sections turn into grey graveyards, the particular community moves on and learns not to discuss things like this because, well, is having the discussion really worth dealing with all that inevitable encapsulated impotent teenage male rage?

It probably depends on what your subreddits are. For me, it's Science, Space, Askscience, ELI5, and Aww.

No, I'm saying it doesn't. Your subreddits are much more focused, especially AskScience but not so much for ELI5 and Aww, and that's good. But they are still comprised of comments sections with opinions, questions and discussions that are put forward by other redditors that frequent other subreddits. They are part of that reddit culture where subreddits are not impenetrable silos.

Even if your only subreddit was AskScience with its heavily moderated comments section, you would only be less affected - not completely immune. That is the nature of culture.

I'm curious: do you think that culture bleed stops at the domain name for some reason, and doesn't spill over to say, HN itself?

I'd be interested if you could find some posts in AskScience that were remotely successful, which you could reasonably argue were made by shills.

I think that the point was that even if specific posts aren't made by shills the world-view of commentators is shaped by them.

I think there is some truth to this. I don't frequent Reddit much, but I'd note that for a period a while back there were people here on HN who believed that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was true. These were long lived accounts here who had commented on a range of issues, so they didn't appear to be shills themself.

But it is hard to argue that their world-view isn't influenced by shills on Reddit.

People who believe in things like Pizzagate are firmly in the 50% I was talking about (to be charitable), and more realistically are part of an extreme base. The degree to which that kind of thing is the result of shilling on Reddit, or just Breitbart and the rest of the crap leaking through is debatable.

Other places, like anything to do with news and politics, is a miserable shit-fest, and would be with or without shilling.

I just read about the pizzagate conspiracy you mentioned as I have not heard of it before, and wow, that is quite a spiral from conspiracy to fake news to a (no injuries) shooting at a pizza restaurant. Crazy.

One thing to underline the importance of: when things hit Reddit, they are mainstream now. Reddit is no longer the "small" community it used be back in 2012, 5 years ago.

You're missing the point. You may want to re-read the comments you're replying to. In particular:

> Just because a fraction of subreddits are being exploited through shilling doesn't mean that redditors in your favourite subreddit don't go there and that they themselves are (consciously or otherwise) not being affected.

I'm not missing the point, I'm contesting it and asking for some evidence of this extremely subtle creep from a place like /r/TheDonald to a place like /r/AskScience.

"To be honest, those shills on Reddit tend to be pretty obvious"

It's often difficult to distinguish between people who are first-order shills and people who have just swallowed and regurgitated piece of PR from elsewhere.

It can be insanely difficult, but at the same time, does it matter? If what someone has to offer is that pathetic, I don't honestly care who or what they are; life is too short for that.

So, somewhere between "pretty obvious" and "insanely difficult?"

Potentially, sure, and if you're in an underground group like Anonymous you might want to expect more of the "insanely difficult" types because you represent a high value target.

As we've seen some recent elections though, you don't need to bother with people like you and me... just move the base with lies and promises. They'll catch you lying, and defend you for it! We'd catch you lying, and try to hold you to account.

It's like marketing a frozen food... you want to move units, not make the next great thing to eat that will be well received by the critics. Sure, a bunch of people won't fall for the marketing, but more than enough will to fill your coffers.

I don't think shills are obvious, and I think the knee-jerk reaction to them is harmful. I don't mind reading shill posts when they're informational (heck, I read RT), but there is a real danger of discussion manipulation.

I routinely get accused of being a shill just for having a counter-group-think position on a topic Im read up on. It's meant to end discussion around a topic, like calling someine racist or sexist. At this point, I feel most of the people calling people shills are themselves shills trying to derail honest discussions. (There are definitely at least a few shills doing this on reddit.)

I agree with your first point though: all media is the same, in that you need a diverse stream and critical thinking.

"ELI5: Why is product XYZ the bees knees?"

Ok maybe not that obvious but yes it's pretty easy to spot.

The harder one is negative mod shilling. Where mods go out of their way to remove posts or comments that don't align with the shill message. The remainder is still "normally distributed" so it's a different animal to spot.

In theory that would work, but in practice that kind of thing dies within 1 minute because, "It's not seeking an objective explanation" or is a "Loaded question". More often than not, in subreddits like that, you get over-moderation.

As for "shill mods"... ok, yes, but then I'd ask you to point out the pattern you'd expect to see as a result. It's not shilling, because there's no dishonesty about it, but this website actively prunes items they don't want to see form the nucleus for a discussion. The pattern is obvious, and would be frankly impossible to hide.

So... do you see that pattern in ELI5? I don't. Climate change questions come up from all sides of the debate, likewise with a lot of other issues. I'm sure people try to inject questions that lead to certain discussions, but does it work?

> In theory that would work, but in practice that kind of thing dies within 1 minute because, "It's not seeking an objective explanation" or is a "Loaded question". More often than not, in subreddits like that, you get over-moderation.

My ELI5 example wasn't meant to call out shilling in that subreddit. It was meant to be an overtly obvious example of shilling and I used ELI5 in jest.

> As for "shill mods"... ok, yes, but then I'd ask you to point out the pattern you'd expect to see as a result. It's not shilling, because there's no dishonesty about it, but this website actively prunes items they don't want to see form the nucleus for a discussion. The pattern is obvious, and would be frankly impossible to hide.

It's inherently dishonest if the subreddit itself purports to be impartial. The classic example of this is /r/politics with content that is pro-conservative, or, more generally, content that's isn't pro-liberal or explicitly anti-conservative.

> So... do you see that pattern in ELI5? I don't. Climate change questions come up from all sides of the debate, likewise with a lot of other issues. I'm sure people try to inject questions that lead to certain discussions, but does it work?

Again, I didn't mean to call out anything specific to /r/ELI5.

This is obvious and has been for years. Reddit is full of astroturfers, spammers, marketers, disinformation, trolls, and other generally undesirable behavior.

I generally look at reddit like one fractional step above facebook, it's basically internet pollution curated by the most effective spammers.

Then you're on the wrong subreddits. The ones I like the most are small or medium, have in depth conversations, analysis and interesting content. Or just gifs of cats, which is also something that I need from time to time.

You tailor your own reddit experience.

"Or just gifs"...

This was posted a week ago in nice little subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Cinemagraphs/comments/5zirfy/my_fir...

Quote obvious product placement, right?

Now, this is today's top cinemagraph: https://www.reddit.com/r/Cinemagraphs/comments/60wpk6/woman_...

Less obvious, right? Or am I too skeptical?

By the way the person (upvote seller) who was called in the first part of the video ironically didn't do his part to make sure that the caller wasn't scamming him.

He didn't ask any questions and he didn't put the caller on the spot. Doing that (if well done) would have allowed him to potentially uncover the true purpose of the call even if it wasn't admitted. He allowed the caller to control the conversation (with his backstory) and as a result went along with everything and just answered questions. Also hard to believe that the average caller to this service asks questions like that and sounds like that. [1] Part of what I do involves ferreting out the truth when contacted by phone and by email so maybe this was just obvious to me after hearing the interaction.

[1] Because they are real customers. Anyone who takes calls for a living and isn't asleep can usually tell the patterns of what a real customer sounds like.

I'm a huge fan of Elon Musk, and I really want him to be successful, but sometimes I feel that the overzealous tendency of his fans (and likely PR people) to automatically give praise for anything he does or says (here on HN or on reddit) is actually counter-productive.

What if Elon starts doing something dumb some day and then when well-informed people try to provide meaningful criticism, they just get criticised and downvoted? I think that could actually undermine support from some of the people that Elon wants it from the most.

I think Elon Musk has a bit of the reality distortion field around him like Jobs did. If you take a step back and look what he tries to achieve vs. what just about every other business (tech or not) does, it's a stark comparison.

Musk no longer represents himself and his companies, but he represents a future where we can do things we thought were just dreams (cheap space travel, electric cars that perform better than internal combustion types, ubiquitous solar power, etc). That's a lot of future from just one guy.

>...he represents a future where we can do things we thought were just dreams

He does more than just represent. He makes smart people believe that hard things are possible and that it's going to be worth it to try.

A little bit of reality distortion can be a good thing, especially when reality is tending to suck.

If there's a lot of financial analysts and engineers saying "this isn't feasible" and they are being ignored then that's a bad reality distortion field.

Hyperloop One in particular comes to mind here. Some people say its feasible. Some say it isn't. Both have valid points.

I like his work. I just don't want to see Musk fail due to lack of focus on one particular part of the dream and a lack of people on his team willing to say no.

Unless he invested and I don't know about, Musk has nothing to do with any Hyperloop companies besides presenting the incomplete idea of a hyperloop and that it's worth pursuing.

Fortunately, Musk isn't involved too deeply with the Hyperloop bubble.

>...it's a [S]tark comparison.

Subliminal shilling or decent understated joke?

There was the case of the unfavorable NY Times review. The Tesla was sensibly designed so that when the car was parked in an extremely cold garage, the batteries were actively heated to protect them from a damaging freeze. That all makes sense, but it wouldn't make sense to someone new to such a car why the battery shows less range when you get to it in the morning.

The reviewer called support, and they guessed it was simply out of calibration or something, maybe because of the temperature, but without getting to the conclusion that the batteries had actually been used all night to keep themselves warm. Under that assumption, driving in circles for a couple minutes might warm up the system, then return accurate range estimates.

Anyway, the reviewer went on to try to continue his driving trip, the readings never returned to what he thought they should be, and he drove without heat to try to maximize the range. He then wrote a review based on his experience, and without the knowledge of why the batteries has been drained overnight.

Elon Musk ranted in response about a conspiracy to pan electric cars, and cited GPS readings of him driving in circles. There definitely had been instances of biased and rigged reviews against electric cars, but this was pretty clearly a misunderstanding, and Elon Musk never retracted his criticisms once it became obvious what had happened.

Tesla's unconditional supporters didn't do much to quiet potential worries. What should a mild-mannered prospective buyer think? According to the letter of the contracts with Tesla, even having tires on your Tesla rotated could invalidate the warranty on the batteries that cost tens of thousands of dollars to replace. That gives Tesla a lot of leverage to "punish" customers, and the mob of supporters that would gang up on you if you say anything publicly about what seems unfair gives you less recourse and should make people wary.

No, the NY Times reviewer faked the review and lied: https://www.slashgear.com/tesla-gets-nyt-apology-for-model-s...

The response from the Public Editor does not say that the review was faked - it says the opposite, starting with the headline "Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity, in Tesla Test". Later it says "I am convinced that he took on the test drive in good faith, and told the story as he experienced it."

I have no interest in this dispute, but it's clear that the conclusion you drew about what the Times piece said is incorrect.


"Problems With Precision and Judgment, but Not Integrity"

The New York Times is hardly going to come out themselves and admit that they have a problem with integrity are they?

The sheer number of inaccuracies and the fact that they all cast Tesla in a poor light in this case was pretty telling, as were the financial incentives (Big 3 pay NYT's bills, Tesla doesn't).

That isn't what your link says. The reviewer was imperfect, and Musk still wrote "Faith in @nytimes restored" as though he were the aggrieved party.

The journalist who made mistakes resembles customers, and his experience should serve as a warning. The comments under that link are an example of the people who discredit Tesla for prospective buyers. They care about the conflict, and root for their team, without considering what it says about how the car maker would treat them.

I want to buy a good car, I don't want to buy into the experience of dealing with a thin-skinned billionaire on twitter, and his social media hangers-on, if I'm ever unhappy about the product in public.

There's an equally overzealous tendency of the big three to knock him. E.g. the time when the New York Times reviewer John Broder (probably acting on behalf of some of their best advertiser-customers) wrote the review with ~9 coincidentally unfavorable inaccuracies described here: https://www.tesla.com/blog/most-peculiar-test-drive

I suspect more social media shilling is paid for by the big three than by Tesla.

"Fake news" is a serious and honest criticism of today's media.

No it isn't. "Fake news" describes organizations that make up stories with no factual basis. It's been twisted to refer to organizations with bias or which don't cover the "right" stories, which is ridiculous.

"Today's media" feels like an overgeneralization to me.

One good example of this is that every morning there is on the front page of /r/all exactly one article about the nba. Never two, never zero.

The r/all algorithm was tweaked last year during the election to prevent subreddits from flooding the front page. What you observe may simply be the result of that, rather than vote manipulation.

I'm more likely to blame vote manipulation, especially when it's a brand new anti-Trump sub (of which there seems to be a new one every few days) rising on r/all. The number of specifically anti-Trump subs is getting out of hand and I can't believe that they're all organic up votes at this point.

you should demonstrate this with some data. It would be very interesting.

Go there tomorrow morning. See for yourself.

"You should go collect my data for me" is something you tell your lab tech, not your unconvinced interlocutor.

As opposed to, "You should do a fair amount of work to satisfy the idle curiosity of a random person on the internet"?

I rest my case.

Why does this surprise anyone? I have a relative who is part of a PAC which "mobilizes" constantly to keep certain stories up high, nuke others, and even more. they aren't limited to reddit, she has a list of sites to get the word out on.

the problem with fixing such issues is that many site owners want the traffic and some support the subject matter being pushed whether politics, education, products, or more.

you don't even need paid groups to slant sites, the fanatics of some games, authors, or even technologies, have enough sycophants to insure their message is the only one heard

It's very clear around certain topics--GMOs, pesticides, gun-control, and a few others. There are accounts that follow those keywords and only comment on related articles and only during 9-5 business hours.

No doubt reddit does have this problem in a big way, but the pattern you describe could also come from a true believer who spends a lot of their work day surfing reddit and trying to advance their cause.

Likely true. However those particular topics are specifically ones where people with no informed background flippanlty reject the knowledgebase of people with professional background. And that casual disdain for life-long experience also can grid the gears of the informed strongly enough to comment.

Could you list a few?

Firemylasers, jf_queeny, sleekery, and Decapentaplegia are the most frequent I've noticed.

> jf_queeny

Considering that J. F. Queeny[1] founded Monsanto, that seems like a strange choice for a covert shill account. While I don't read much about other issues you may be referring to, being a farmer[2], I end up coming across the GMO and pesticide topic fairly often and I've noticed it tends to attract a lot of misinformation about agriculture. I expect, in many cases, these accounts follow these interest groups because they are easy targets to make fun of. Bullies perhaps, but unsurprisingly the internet has them just like the real world.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Francis_Queeny [2] It's Sunday afternoon. You'll have to trust I'm not working overtime. :)

Not surprising. I've grown increasingly tired of reddit over the last few months, but I haven't found an adequate alternative. Any suggestions? What sites do you commonly visit?

Maybe this is my own bias showing, but whenever I read a Microsoft article on reddit, my shilling senses start tingling. I've seen a few confirmed examples, although luckily they usually end up getting banned.

I don't know if a shill-free alternative to Reddit could ever exist- I tend to think the openness and scale of Reddit (which is the whole point of it) is what allows shilling to occur. It really bums me out.

The site itself would have to be attempting to detect and flag networks of users, and take some kind of action.

Sure, but I think that is actually a very difficult problem: how do we determine whether a comment is being sincere or not? Furthermore, assuming we had a foolproof method to do this, would the site have enough funds to use it routinely and ethically? I think this is the problem we're seeing now with a large number of tech companies.

Have you tried Voat?

I couldn't stand it, but it works for some.

Every exodus from reddit to Voat is when the most toxic subreddits are closed - /r/jailbait, which was basically child porn, /r/altright, which was doxxing and putting out hitlists on those they disagreed with, some extremely racist subreddits I'd rather not write out. It's a cesspool of white supremacists and otherwise awful people.

I'm glad Voat exists, but it's not somewhere I frequent. The more Reddit and Twitter crack down on speech the faster Voat and Gab will grow.

Voats model is good but filled with angry men (and the people on fatpeoplehate seem to be mainly women from what I've read). We need a max exodus from Reddit to even the odds

Really doing a disservice to those of us who do this for no pay, day in and day out, simply for the love of shitposting.

Wish i could relocate the comment on a Boingboing story where one of their admins mentioned having tracked comments on a certain topic to a online PR company.

His attention was drawn to the comments because they were heavily reported when made, and would be largely of the same structure but with a new user name each time. So he pulled up the IP they came from and all of them was made from the company owned address.

When the shills in question are lazy, it can be pretty straightforward to detect, yeah. This sort of thing was very high on my list of "problems that will need mitigating if this has any chance of working" with my Suitocracy project.

The more research one does on astroturfing and the like, the more depressing it gets. Dedicated desktop VMs running different browsers and OS's, directed through different proxies to get different IPs, etc. Where social media is involved, detailed online personas are set up for each one, with reasonable histories for using later down the track.

I think the best we can realistically do is to raise the cost of successful astroturfing/shilling to the point where it might not be economical to do, at least on a meaningful scale. As others have said, community involvement and skepticism play a huge role in that.

Yeah i think things have gotten more "professional" these days. I think it was happening back when blogging was the new buzzword, and MSM had taken to referring to sites in their news reports (complete with a screengrab of the article in a corner).

I was only really checking out the site because of Doctorow's stuff, and was even turned away from that as he had the annoying habit of posting random horror articles alongside his tech stuff (and the rest of the writers seemed like the typical SXSW bunch).

While this is bad, in my experience, I feel that paranoia about shills does far more damage to online communities than any paid shill could.

...or maybe I'm being paid to say that. (I wish I was).

I'm pretty sure interviewing Gallowboob and taking what he says at face value is a pretty good example of being manipulated by a professional shill.

So, I just posted a comment pointing out people like upvote club sell upvotes for HN, but it looks like at least they don't have the option to sell HN upvotes anymore. What happened, did the mods finally beat them? Or did they ask nicely that they stop that?

The market for false likes/views/followers/etc becomes an increasingly difficult place to sustain (especially financially) as detection of typically fraudulent use grows constantly easier with machine learning.

I thought there was a story about nike interns(or some other big company) using interns to leave good reviews and comments on reddit.

Anyways this is nothing new and something that obviously goes on without saying.

Worth watching, I skipped past this a few times, as we all know it goes on, but it's good seeing him phone up a reputation agency and see what they say.

next week: hacker news is being manipulated by professional shills every day.

By definition, Hacker News is a professional shill. It's an arm of YC and has special interests as a community.

Isn't part of the definition of shilling that it's undisclosed? In that case, no: HN's business concessions to YC (job ads, and more recently startup launch posts) are public. Beyond those, we don't moderate HN specifically to promote YC's interests, and in fact err on the side of not doing so. You should see how sharply I scold YC startups who haven't yet had this drilled sufficiently into them.

The way to optimize HN's value for YC is to optimize its value for the community, so that's what we spend our time thinking about. I wrote more about this here if anyone's interested: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13861971.

> Isn't it part of that definition that the shillage is undisclosed?

I will point out before as I did the other day that both you and PG (very ironically) didn't/don't identify who you are with respect to HN. I haven't checked the other partners I have noticed that some do identify as YC partners. Would also expect that any YC funded company might identify themselves as such so their comments or postings could be taken in context.



I personally think it's fine the way it operates but in all fairness the disclosure could be more than it is.

That's a different concern. HN's culture has always been informal and implicit. That has upsides and downsides, but it's the way HN is and I'm loth to mess with it.

People invoke 'disclosure', 'transparency', etc. as if these were unmitigated benefits, but when you delve into a complex system like HN they turn out to be tradeoffs. On HN the culture is not to spell everything out. That doesn't have to do with hiding anything; the information is all out there. It has to do with respecting users' intelligence, liking minimalism, liking users to have to work just a little, and so on.

The downside of this approach is not that it obscures business interests—just think how excited the community would be to hit on something like that were we ever so dumb as to hide it!—but that it makes things harder for newcomers.

> On HN the culture is not to spell everything out. That has nothing to do with hiding anything—the information is all out there and the community knows how to find it. It has to do with respecting users' intelligence, liking minimalism, and so on.

My theory on this (why) dates back to many years ago and in particular and oddly enough when I started (and ended) listening to Howard Stern in the 80's. (Haven't heard the show since then...)

I noticed that there were all sorts of people who appeared regularly. And you didn't know who they were or what role they actually played. And you didn't until you spent enough time listening to Stern that you were able to understand (or maybe triangulate or reverse engineer) who they were. There was no FAQ.

In a sense online communities are like that. If you are not willing to put in the time to make those connections the 'community' is just as glad to not have you there. Then it's their special thing.

The thing is I don't think that is the right way to be if what you want is knowledge and diverse viewpoints. There could easily be another 'grellas' (as only one example that comes to mind) that would add greatly to the content (comments or posted stories) and they very well might be turned off by not knowing the ropes and feeling it wasn't worth the effort to stick around long enough to find out.

What's interesting as a side note is how much money has been made in the computer business exploiting the secret handshake. Understanding of course that there are those that like the satisfaction that comes with figuring that out. (And I think that computer nerds like to have that secret handshake as it gives them power over non-nerds).

I agree. I even know another 'grellas', a good friend who is one of the best programmers and writers I've ever spent time with, and author of a well-known book on software design. He finds HN too cryptic and uninviting. He's squarely in the middle of HN's core demographic, so I can only imagine how bad it is for people further away. We'd like to do something about this someday, but a core principle here is to move slowly and not break things.

All communites have, but people from YC usually don't seem to hide their intention in communication (or they are good at it and I didn't notice).

The problem is when people are doing PR for an entity, while pretending they are sharing news, insights or data.

Everyone here pretty much has a professional stake in the topics discussed, and most people don't disclose that stake. People may be honest about their thinking but their analysis is certainly biased.

I agree that "shilling" really comes down to intent and transparency.

Are you presenting the information and disclosing (this can be implicit if connection is obvious) your interests? I don't think most have a problem with that, however the particular forum or board might not be suitable for it.


The line is not clear though. Some people present a new services with show HN and are acclaimed, others are rejected as advertisers. HN like underdogs, innovators and good-doers, but is less laxed with big companies, status quo and money lovers. So if the later can disguise as the formers, they can game the system.

it just so happens that those interests are around supporting founders so they can build huge companies and disrupt major industries. (No joke.)

Question: do threads that are critical of YC companies get buried just because they're YC companies? (For example if Uber had YC investment, which a cursory glance says it doesn't, would the criticism of it have been buried by mods here)?

(I say this because there were a lot of critical stories about Uber recently, and in the past, too.)

The answer to your question is "of course not". When stories are critical of YC or YC-funded companies, we moderate them less than we otherwise would. I've posted about this many times:



This isn't because YC doesn't care about HN's business value. It's because YC knows what HN's value consists of: the community's interest and trust. That's the global optimum, so it would be foolish to optimize for anything else.

Thanks, dang.

Though you've posted about it a lot I hadn't run across those comments yet - thanks for the links.

Well, sometime you see a personality or a topic getting traction out of the blue. Any critic get quickly downvoted. No debate seems to take place.

I noticed that with Bill Gates. Before 2015, nothing different. In 2017, business as usual. But in 2016, Reddit, HN, Imgur suddenly had a surge of Gate support : success stories, interviews, praising using comments...

It's just a supposition of course, I have nothing to back it up.

But it makes sense to me that the PR experts have learned now that it can be very efficient to target online communities instead of spamming mass media. If they can influence them, then the PR will develop itself in an organic way, feel more honest and natural, and the community will spread the message outside of itself, giving the impression it's genuine.

The best communication is the one that doesn't look like it.

Controlling the big medias has been the challenge of the last century, but the intellectuals grew defiant of them. They rely more and more on cross referencing various sources and debating with communities made of their peers or people experts in one niche.

This is the logical next move. Although it seems harder to pull out, in the long run the cost/benefit ration seems better because it relies on a intimate feeling of trust we develop with the communities.

I know I do: I always read the comments before the articles on HN, because I trust the community to give me a better insight on the matter than the article itself. It's often the case. People are brilliant here, having a lot of accumulated knowledge, offering pieces of analysis, missing information, stories and counter points or even just summary that are the real added value of the site.

So if the community now hosts subtle communication experts, they will (and probably already have) influence my point of view.

> I noticed that with Bill Gates

I suspect that one is probably just natural trend/popularity/fashion at work with the hive mind flocking in the same direction. Gates rebounded from the tech nadir to philanthropist, humanitarian and intelligent sayer of sensible things. A lot easier to like than when he had a foot on all our throats.

Similar effect with GWB. He is rebounding from pariah status and people can't help but warm to the guy's personality now that his crimes are being overshadowed by much larger bogeymen.

JWB as in John Wilkes Booth, the guy who assassinated Lincoln? I can't really imagine him having a resurgence in popularity, but I've never fully understood the American psyche, I will admit.

Ah, unfortunate typo corrected :) You've made me worried that might be true too.

GWB boycotted the Republican nominating convention.

It's possible of course.

Still, he was a hated personality nobody in the IT community would come close to and then suddenly everybody is loving the guy.

Some stuff really don't feel right. My first "oh-oh" moment was when this arrived on the imgur front page (apparently 2015, not 2016 so my timing is off):


Everything, form the title to the content and the firsts comment is really weird. After this, I started seeing the Gate foundation work popping everywhere, and supports in comments of major social medias where only suspicion was before.

I did a mission for the Gate foundation 8 years ago in Africa, and at that time nobody speaker about this entity. I had to explain it every time I talked to someone new.

I have a hard time to believe the medias suddenly took a (very one-sided) interest for something that have been here for such a long time for no reason.

Yes, yes, I can be totally wrong. Still I can't help but wonder.

I've noticed some occurrences like this as well. For instance, the week before Bill Gates' recent AMA on Reddit, there were a a large number of frontpage posts about him from accounts with little to no karma.

It's probably not the primary factor in opinion on him being drastically reversed, and I doubt he has any personal involvement, but it's possibly one of the tools utilized by his PR team.

Admins/mods on HN manipulate/modify a lot of the content created by users.

Would you elaborate on this? What are your examples? Mods are known to update submission titles (in accordance with the guidelines), but I'm unaware of any other content changes they make.

Some examples off the top of my head:

1. They detach comments from comment threads (to hide them?)

2. They boost some stories so that they remain on the home page for a longer time

3. They also remove some posts from the front page... (because they are duplicates, not "quality" content, etc...)

I could probably come up with more examples, but I'm sure that you get the idea...

Thanks for clarifying. I read your comment as to mean mods updated the content of comments. All of the items you mention are actions the mods engage in in their role as moderators, which they themselves have described elsewhere.

Sadly it's true. Some companies game the HN ranking algo, and employ shills to divert the discussion of their product. At least two companies (that are infamous for such shady tactics anyway) do it actively regularly on HN.

The first thing to prevent it, would be to change the HN ranking algo so that stories with more comments than votes are not automatically punished and forced many pages backwards from the frontpage. Add a report button to report users. Implement an admin interface to monitor certain users and ban them.

You've made these accusations many times but never supply a drop of evidence. We've repeatedly responded [1,2,3] and asked you to stop, yet still you persist. I appreciate your concern for the quality of HN, but at some point this becomes abuse in its own right.

It's unfortunately common for users to feel absolutely certain that other commenters are astroturfing when they merely happen to disagree about company X or issue Y. The underlying assumption is: 'no one I disagree with could possibly be commenting in good faith—they must be disingenuous'. This is a cognitive bias. Nearly always, when we investigate these accusations we find nothing—nothing except that the accuser really dislikes $BIGCO.

Real astroturfing and shilling do exist, I've personally poured countless hours into combating them on HN, and I can tell you from long experience with the data that they don't look anything like what you're positing.

1. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11844253

2. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11988639

3. https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12322393

First, I want to thank the guys behind HN and Dang for being very open about any HN vested interests. I have no doubt HN tries hard to be honest. No complaints here.

That being said, I am very suprised you mentioned "drop of evidence". It is very upsetting you said that. There is hard evidence.

The fact is: There are may dishonest people in this world. They may justify their honesty, but that's not the point. See the PLETHORA of dishonest reviews (with proof) on Amazon, Yelp, Ebay, etc. And HN is the perfect place to game comments/upvotes/topics, and you bet it is. Firstly, it's simple to game HN. Actually, too easy. And the returns are really good. The audience are high-income earners, and intelligent people. The topics can be very niche (which means highly targeted). In fact the mentality that "HN can't be gamed" is better for the gamers, since other HN users will really believe most comments are genuine.


I will do a project "for free" for the public good. This will hopefully establish proof. If I am allowed by HN legally, I will show my study of how I can easily, massively game HN. And you will not but able to detect it. I will not make money of this, but I will provide detailed statistics about traffic and CTA clicks. I will provide a dollar value of the fruits of my gaming, if it was to be real. I would be just one person doing this in my spare time. When the fruits are so sweet, PR companies will employ full-time paid individuals and maybe even teams.

P.s. Dang, I know you try hard to remove "shill" comments /upvotes /topics. Yes, you catch the amateurs. But the whole point of shilling is to blend in be undetectable. You don't and simply cannot catch those. And on a seperate, there was a study that "doctors who believe they cannot be gamed/bribed, are actually the most gamed/bribed".

I said there was no evidence in a specific user's claims, not that there was no evidence anywhere. See my third paragraph.

There are two problems. One is that astroturfing and shilling exist. The other is that some users are too eager to see an astroturfer under every bed and a shill in every pot.

Both problems are destructive and we need to deal with both and not pretend that one subsumes the other. On HN the approach is simple: (1) if you think you see abuse, please let us know at hn@ycombinator.com so we can investigate; and (2) don't accuse other users of astroturfing and shilling unless you have evidence, and keep reminding yourself that an opposing view (e.g. them liking/hating $BIGCO while you hate/like it) is not evidence.

Yes, accusing a specific company certainly requires proof. So I apologize if I was defending that.

You say "astroturfing and shilling exist". It is likely a "very high" percentage. "Very high" does not need to be 60%, but it is relative. Even 10%-20% is very high, which I think the ratio might actually be. It is just too attractive--the bang-for-buck ration is just too sweet.

Please note, I don't say this with pleasure. I'm an honest shop and it is painful seeing competitors astroturfing.

I sent details to HN per mail and other means. One of the companies is MSFT (others here named the other companies), they created manys accounts around BUILD confernce 2015. Before that event HN was a pro-Apple, pro-open source with little MSFT news - something you would expect from startup and SV investors. If you would have a proper interface, you could watch such activity in real time and act. Some third party interfaces like http://hckrnews.com/ show also stories that got hidden despite high commitment from the community. Almost every day I find insightful stories that vanished off radar. And it visible that not so nice stories about certain companies get immediate reaction by publishing a minor news story that very rapidly gets traction on HN frontpage and the not so nice stories is spammed with comments and flags to push it off the frontpage.

Disclaimer: I have nothing against a certain company per se, I just don't like how the do their PR in a very shaddy way, and how they destroy things (like their own products for very short term greed). And I would prefer if HN algo doesn't punish stories if there are more comments than votes - as this is the most common way for them to "hide" stories.

Edit: Now it makes sense, it explains why MSFT is so interested in HN (woos Y Combinator startups into their eco-system, present a polished new MSFT, PR is trying to hide ugly truth), it fits my observation of a massive user increase (green accounts) around BUILD 2015 event, etc "Today, Scott Guthrie and I joined Sam Altman, to announce a partnership with Y Combinator, one of the world’s leading startup accelerators.": https://blogs.msdn.microsoft.com/stevengu/2015/02/09/y-combi... and "Microsoft woos Y Combinator startups with $500K in Azure cloud credits" http://venturebeat.com/2015/02/09/microsoft-woos-y-combinato... , "Microsoft offers $500k in Azure credit to woo Y Combinator startups" http://www.geekwire.com/2015/microsoft-offers-500k-azure-cre... "$500k of Azure credit for YC startups" http://blog.ycombinator.com/500k-of-azure-credit-for-yc-star... "Microsoft Wants To Buy Love In Silicon Valley" https://techcrunch.com/2015/02/10/microsoft-wants-to-buy-lov... ... as Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch wrote "It will be interesting to see what percentage of the current Y Combinator class chooses Azure over AWS". What's then answer? It certainly changed HN, that's my impression.

This is what I mean about there not being a drop of evidence in what you say. Alleging that Microsoft created accounts on HN is a serious charge. How do you know this? You don't. You know none of these things. You're merely narrating your own perspective and finding an assortment of "details", as you call them, to fit it (some silly corporate partnership, a few stories you saw do this or that on HN's front page—Now it all makes sense!). This is not evidence, this is how imagination works.

It's really time now for you to stop posting like this. It's past tedious, and destructive of the community.

It's really time now for you to stop posting like this. It's past tedious, and destructive of the community.

I'm not sure if you read it, but the recent "Who Buried Paul" is a wonderful exposition of how a plethora of weak evidence can lead to a false conclusion: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13902012. What's wonderful about it is that it's written about a politically noncontroversial topic, and thus (hopefully) allows for more reasonable conversation. Might be a great candidate for recycling.

More controversially (and thus less appropriate for direct HN discussion) Scott Adams has a nice piece on confirmation bias, using Pizzagate as the example:

So let me tell you what a mountain of evidence is worth.

Mountain of Evidence Value = zero.

In the normal two-dimensional world in which we imagine we live, a mountain of evidence usually means something is true. So why am I looking at the same mountain of evidence as the believers in pizzagate and coming to an opposite conclusion?

The difference is that I understand what confirmation bias is and how powerful it can be. If you don’t have the same level of appreciation for the power of confirmation bias, a mountain of evidence looks like proof.

Here’s what I know that most of you do not: Confirmation bias looks EXACTLY LIKE a mountain of real evidence. And let me be super-clear here. When I say it looks exactly the same, I am not exaggerating. I mean there is no way to tell the difference.


Dang is right, accusations against a specific person/entity are serious and require solid proof. Could even be illegal.

I could be wrong but I felt this happened on the Spotify thread that is currently on the front page. All the inital reaction was negative, about how the piece was a 'submarine,' etc. Now the top 5 comments are about Spotify's new killer feature and how happy the customers are...

I took a look at the thread I think you're referring to, and both those comments and their upvotes are by established users with no signs of fakery that either we or our software could pick up on.

What you observed is probably a different phenomenon: early comments in a thread often start off negative, and only later do other users show up to post positively—their motivation being to balance things out. Often the positive comments to get the most upvotes in the end, but the whole process takes a while to play out. If you've ever run across a thread where the top comment says, "I can't believe how negative this thread is!" and proceeds to make a positive case with great fervor, this dynamic is probably why.

I dont think you could stop upvote fakery. Maybe like highway speeding just try to control it enough to keep things somewhat safe.

Old, established accts on all the sites can be, and are, sold to people for purposes of fake upvoting. Maybe limit the number of upvotes one can do in a day. Doesn't seem a major inconvienence and makes the upvotes more valuable.

Please name these companies!

This probably refers to Uber and Peter Thiel and companies associated to him?

If they're manipulating HN they're not very good at it. Lately I'm seeing smear pieces against them appear on the front page on almost a daily basis and the tone in these threads is overwhelmingly toxic rather than positive.

this--plus evidence too if you can find it please!

> Add a report button to report users.

You can flag individual comments. And you can also email the mods with your suspicions.

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