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Of course we do, and as belter pointed out, not only government actors. Counteracting abuse of this site is the #1 thing we do behind the scenes to try to prevent the value of HN from eroding. That's actually what I spent the first hour of my morning doing, before I realized that there was $BigDrama happening. (Thank you, bat-signaling emailers.) It's what we put the bulk of our design thinking and technical work into. If you ever see me commenting on how "large HN threads are paged for performance reasons, so click the More link at the bottom, and we'll eventually remove these comments once we turn off pagination", well, the reason that's not done yet is because moderation takes 90% of my time, answering emails takes the other 90% of my time, and counteracting abuse takes the other 90% of my time.

The better HN gets, the more people want to suck its juices for their own purposes. Most haven't figured out that the above-board way to do that is simply to make interesting contributions, so they do other things, and there's probably a power law of how sinister those things are. The vast majority are relatively innocuous, but lame. (Think startups getting their friends to upvote their blog post, or posting booster comments in their thread.)

Users are very good at spotting the innocuous/lame forms of abuse, but when it comes to $BigCo manipulation (or possible manipulation), user perceptions get wildly inaccurate—far beyond 99.9%—and when it comes to $NationState manipulation (or possible manipulation), user perceptions get so inaccurate that...even trying to measure how inaccurate they are is not possible with classical physics. I've been trying to explain this for such a long time, and I don't know how better to do it. Almost everything that people think they're seeing about this is pure imagination and projection, entirely determined by the strong feelings that dominate high politics.

How do I know that? Because when we dig into the data of the actual cases, we find is that it's basically all garden-variety internet user behavior. It's like this: imagine you were digging in your garden for underground surveillance devices. Why? Well, a lot of people are worried about them. So you dig and what do you find? Dirt, roots, and worms. The next time you dig, you find more dirt and more roots and more worms. And so for the next thousand places you dig. Now suppose someone comes along and insists that you dig in this-other-place-over-here because they've convinced themselves—I mean absolutely convinced themselves, to the point that they send emails saying "my continued use of HN depends on how you answer this email"—that here is where the underground surveillance device surely must be. You've learned how important it is to be willing to dig; even just somebody-being-worried is a valid reason to dig. So you pick up your shovel and dig in that spot, and you find dirt, roots, and worms.

Still with me? Ok. Now: what are the odds that this thing that looks like a root or a worm is actually a surveillance device? Here my analogy breaks down a bit because we can't actually cut them open to see what's inside—we don't have that data. We do, however, have lots of history about what the "worms" have been doing over the years. And when you look at that, what do you find that they've been up to? They've been commenting about (say) the latest Julia release, or parser combinators in Elixir, and they've been on HN for years and some old comment talks about, say, some diner in Wisconsin that used to make the best burgers. And in 2020 they maybe got mad on one side or the other of a flamewar about BLM. (Don't be mad that I'm using worms to represent HN users. It's just a silly analogy, and I like worms.)

Or, maybe the history shows that the person gets involved in arguments about China a lot. Aha! Now we have our Chinese spy! How much are they paying you? Is it still 50 cents? I guess the CCP says inflation doesn't exist in China—is that it, shill? If @dang doesn't ban you, that proves he's a CCP agent too!

But then you look and you see that they've been in other threads too, and a previous comment talks about being a grad student in ML, or about having married someone of Chinese background—obvious human stuff which fully explains why they're commenting the way they are and why they get triggered by what they get triggered by.

This kind of thing—dirt, roots, and worms—is what essentially all of the data reduces to. And here's the thing: you, or anyone, can check most of this yourself, simply by following the public history of the HN accounts you encounter in the threads. The people jumping to sinister conclusions and angrily accusing others don't tend to do that, because the state one's in when one's in such a state doesn't want to look for countervailing information. But if you actually look, what you're going to find in most cases is enough countervailing information to make the accusations appear absurd...and then you'd feel pretty sheepish about making them.

I'm not saying the public record is the entire record; of course it isn't. We can look at voting histories, flagging histories, site access patterns, and plenty of other things that aren't public. What I'm saying is that, with rare exceptions [1], what we find after countless hours of extensive investigation of the private data is...dirt, roots, and worms. It looks exactly like the public data.

Moreover, the accusations about spying, brigading, shilling, astroturfing, bots, troll farms, and so on, are all exactly the same between the cases where the public data refutes them and the cases where the public data is inconclusive. I realize this is a subtle point, but if you stop and think about it, it's arguably the strongest evidence of all. It proves that whatever mechanism is generating these accusations doesn't vary at all with the actual data. Moreover, you don't need access to any private data to see this.

[1] so rare that it's misleading to even mention them, and which also don't look anything like what people imagine

---

Still, power laws have long tails and one wonders what may lie at the far end, beyond our ability to detect it. What if despite all of the above, there is still sinister manipulation happening, only it's clever enough to leave no traces in the data that we know of? You can't prove that's not happening, right? And if anyone is doing that it would probably be state actors, right?

You might think there's nothing much to be said about such cases because what can you say about something you by definition don't know and can't observe? It seems to get epistemological pretty quickly. Actually, though, there's a lot we can say, because the premise in the question is so strong that it implies a lot of consequences. The premise is that there's a sort of Cartesian evil genius among us, sowing sinister seeds for evil ends. I call this the Sufficiently Smart Manipulator (SSM): https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=false&so....

There are two interesting things about the SSM scenario. The first is that since, by definition, the SSM is immune to anti-abuse measures, you can't postulate any technical measures for dealing with it. It's beyond the end-of-the-road of technical cleverness. The second interesting thing is that, if you go in for this way of thinking, then either there already exists an SSM or there eventually will be one. And there's not much difference between those two cases. Either way, we should be thinking about what to do.

What should we do in the presence of an SSM? I can think of two options: either (1) give up, roll over, and accept being manipulated; or (2) develop a robust culture of countering bad arguments with better ones and false claims with true information. Of those options, (2) is better.

If you have such a culture, then the SSM is neutralized because the immune system will dispose of the bad parts of what they're saying. If there are any true bits in what they're saying, well, we shouldn't be rejecting those, just because of who said them. We should be big enough to accommodate everything that's true, regardless of where it comes from—just as we should reject everything that's false, regardless of where it comes from. We might prefer to reject it a little more rudely if we knew that it was coming from an SSM, but that's not a must-have.

The nice thing is that such a culture is exactly what we want on HN anyway, whether an SSM exists or it doesn't. The way to deal with the SSM is to do exactly what we ought to be working at as a community already: rejecting what's false and discovering what's true. Anti-abuse measures won't work forever, but we don't need them to—we only need them to last long enough to develop the right habits as a community. If we can reach a sort of (dare I say it) herd immunity from the viruses of manipulation, we'll be fine. The answer to the Sufficiently Smart Manipulator is the Sufficiently Healthy Community.




Man this comment give me PTSD from the early reddit days. If you read nothing else in this comment: You're doing a great job solving a hard problem, keep it up!

> well, the reason that's not done yet is because moderation takes 90% of my time, answering emails takes the other 90% of my time, and counteracting abuse takes the other 90% of my time.

So much this. There just isn't enough time with a small staff.

> Most haven't figured out that the above-board way to do that is simply to make interesting contributions

So much this too. This is what we always told people on reddit -- brands would ask us "how do I get more popular on reddit" and we tell them, "make interesting content".

> Almost everything that people think they're seeing about this is pure imagination and projection, entirely determined by the strong feelings that dominate high politics.

Same with all social media. People assume governments have heavy handed control of all content on social media, when in most cases the government couldn't care less. They focus on using propaganda to control individuals and then let those people make a mess of social media.

Your whole post resonates with my experience on the inside of moderating a big social media site and meeting with moderators of other big sites.

I'll be honest, at first I wasn't too keen on you moderation style, as I found it too heavy handed. But I take that back. HN doesn't cover everything I want to talk about (I go to reddit for the rest), but what it does cover, it covers better than reddit does.

So thank you, and I hope you get some more help with one of those 90% jobs!


> They focus on using propaganda to control individuals and then let those people make a mess of social media.

There was an interesting report in German TV, where they analyzed a paper looking for bot patterns in Twitter. That paper named some offending accounts, so what they did was PM one - and it turned out that it simply belonged to a pensioner with strong political opinions and a lot of free time. Interesting to look behind the cover some times (through I do think that TLAs realize this power and don't let that slide, to some extent at least).

> I'll be honest, at first I wasn't too keen on you moderation style, as I found it too heavy handed.

It's interesting how viewpoints diverge - for quite some time when I started reading, I actually did not realize that HN was moderated. If I may ask, where did you encounter so much heavy moderation?


> If I may ask, where did you encounter so much heavy moderation?

A couple places. The one that bothered me most was that titles would get changed without asking or notification to the poster. Sometimes they would get changed to something I didn't think made sense, and then I looked like I had done that, since there was no indication that it was changed. I guess I'm still not a huge fan when it happens to me, but I see why it happens.

I also didn't like having my comments detached or cooled. If you reply to a top level comment with a good comment that happens to generate a flame war under you, it will get detached from the top into it's own thread, and that just felt weird because it made it look like I made a non-sequiter top comment and also stifled discussion (which was the goal of course).

Also if you make a comment that gets a ton of votes but is perceived as off-topic, they will put a flag on your comment that makes it fall in the rankings. So based on the points and time it should be up at the top, but instead will be near the bottom, sometimes under the comments with negative scores.

Lastly, I have dead comments turned on, and I would see dead comments that I didn't think deserved to be dead. Eventually I got enough karma that I could vouch, which helped.

Those were my main moderation complaints. I still don't particularly like when it happens to me, but usually when I see it happen to other people I think, "yeah that makes sense".


> Also if you make a comment that gets a ton of votes but is perceived as off-topic, they will put a flag on your comment that makes it fall in the rankings. So based on the points and time it should be up at the top, but instead will be near the bottom, sometimes under the comments with negative scores.

This one is interesting to me, because I have emailed the moderators to do exactly this for highly upvoted comments I feel take the discussion into what I feel are the wrong places. I can understand that for a new commenter such tangents might be novel, but for someone who’s been around here for a while I am curious if you oppose such actions for the nth time that someone drags “here’s my article about new C++ feature” into “honestly C++ just keeps adding too many things, discuss”.


"What I'm saying is that, with rare exceptions [1], what we find after countless hours of extensive investigation of the private data is...dirt, roots, and worms. It looks exactly like the public data."

Ah, but this is just proof, that the communist sleeper agents are entrenched even deeper among us, than we expected!


You're right. That is the wilderness of mirrors.

Unfortunately, it seems that we all do this. It's just easier to notice when other people are doing it!


Great response. At the same time, absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence. It seems improbable that nation states aren’t keenly interested in social media influence. It seems much more likely such efforts are undetectable.


I was getting to that - hence the [editing...] :) Thanks for the reminder - some of my processes time out after a while.

Edit: I got to it! See the lower portion of https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=27398725, after the "---".

If you or anyone notices something wrong with the argument, I'd like to hear what it is.


That rant was both informative and entertaining! Thank you!


Appreciate the thoughtful response, I see you’ve been spending a good portion of your day dealing with it. It aligns with what I expected but I think the explanation will be a good reference for the future when this inevitably comes up again.


Is there any valuable connection between the users that flagged the original post that might be interesting? Not looking for specifics, since I imagine that's secret, but wondering how much of it really was standard behavior versus something else.


The flagging history of all the users who flagged that post was very consistent. There was no connection to any specific topic (nor between the accounts, that I could see). Rather, they have previously flagged stories about things like cryptocurrency, ransomware, covid lockdowns, $BigCo flamewars, and lots and lots of scandals involving such subjects as Florida, Katie Hill, and the Chicago Police Department. Also, most if not all were avid HNers, people who comment and upvote and in a few cases email us a lot.

The pattern seems clear that these users are flagging the more sensational kinds of submissions that tend to lead to predictable discussions and flamewars. There's room for competing opinions about which of those are/aren't on-topic for HN, given the site guidelines; if you or anyone want to understand how the mods look at it, I recommend the explanations at the links below. But clearly the flagging behavior in this case was in good faith.

https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=false&so...

https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=false&so...

https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=false&so...

https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&sor...

https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&sor...


Sounds like you're saying it was flagged because veteran users knew it would be a shit show which it is. lol


I think veteran is a fair term to apply to those users.


It's easy to predict any submission related to China will turn into a shitshow because you have the usual suspects like justicezyx resorting to whataboutism, cry racism, flagging, etc.

Want to censor a thread on HN? Flag it with a few different users, or turn the thread into a shitshow so that the "flamewar" tools will be triggered, or moderators will be forced push the thread off the frontpage.


Do you have any evidence that anyone is actually doing this? I'm not talking about threads that can fit that interpretation; you can fit any interpretation to most threads.


That is interesting, thank you for the insight and response.


In re: SSMs:

Tao Te Ching, Ch. 17,

    With the best kind of rulers
    When the work is complete
    The people all say
    "We did it ourselves."
(Kinda totally destroys e.g. Machiavelli et. al., eh? And it's Chinese, huh, FWIW, and old.)

In re: Option 2:

https://xkcd.com/810/ "Constructive"

> [[A man is talking to a woman]] Man: Spammers are breaking traditional captchas with AI, so I've built a new system. It asks users to rate a slate of comments as "Constructive" or "Not constructive". [[Close up of man]] Man: Then it has them reply with comments of their own, which are later rated by other users. [[Woman standing next to man again]] Woman: But what will you do when spammers train their bots to make automated constructive and helpful comments? [[Close up of man again]] Man: Mission. Fucking. Accomplished. {{Title text: And what about all the people who won't be able to join the community because they're terrible at making helpful and constructive co-- ... oh.}}

Cheers dang.




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