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.
The ones you notice are obvious, by definition. It's the once that aren't obvious that concern me.
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%?
More importantly they only really exist on some parts of Reddit
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.
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 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.
Other places, like anything to do with news and politics, is a miserable shit-fest, and would be with or without shilling.
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.
> 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
I generally look at reddit like one fractional step above facebook, it's basically internet pollution curated by the most effective spammers.
You tailor your own reddit experience.
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?
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.  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.
 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Subliminal shilling or decent understated joke?
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.
I have no interest in this dispute, but it's clear that the conclusion you drew about what the Times piece said is incorrect.
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).
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.
I suspect more social media shilling is paid for by the big three than by Tesla.
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
Considering that J. F. Queeny 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, 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.
 It's Sunday afternoon. You'll have to trust I'm not working overtime. :)
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 couldn't stand it, but it works for some.
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.
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.
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).
...or maybe I'm being paid to say that. (I wish I was).
Anyways this is nothing new and something that obviously goes on without saying.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The problem is when people are doing PR for an entity, while pretending they are sharing news, insights or data.
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.
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.)
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.
Though you've posted about it a lot I hadn't run across those comments yet - thanks for the links.
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 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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
HERE'S THE DEAL:
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".
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can flag individual comments. And you can also email the mods with your suspicions.