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How Scammers Manipulate Communities

     
2:19 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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More on the dark side of Web 2.0 from WIRED: Herding the Mob [wired.com].

In other words, the crowd matters. Today we harness the masses for everything from choosing the next pop star on American Idol to perfecting open source software and assembling Wikipedia articles. But perhaps the most widespread and vital uses for group input online are in scoring systems. In addition to eBay feedback, these are the customer ratings that Amazon.com and Yahoo Shopping post with product reviews. They’re the feedback scores that Netflix tallies to help subscribers decide which movies to order. And they’re the up-or-down votes that sites like Digg and Reddit (part of the Wired Media Group, which also includes WIRED magazine) rely on to determine which stories to feed Web surfers.

But as rating systems have become more popular — and, as Resnick shows, valuable — there has been what some would say is a predictable response: the emergence of scammers, spammers, and thieves bent on manipulating the mob. Call it crowdhacking.

2:30 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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The problem isn't the hackers themselves its the business that have created such high demand for these services.

Infact they're not really hackers, just entreprenuers who get paid to do something others are willing to pay for. Its not like they're hacking the system and modifying data, they're just financially pursuaded votes of confidence.

Hell, corporate america thrives on manipulating the public. Its even how we got our last president!

[edited by: ByronM at 2:32 pm (utc) on Mar. 1, 2007]

2:45 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Hell, corporate america thrives on manipulating the public. Its even how we got our last president!

Amen to that!

3:01 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Isn't this how the World has always worked?
Manipulating public opinion through the Press, Government Propaganda, Awards, Product Placement etc is nothing new.
3:08 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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financially pursuaded votes of confidence

--What a great term! I'll be waiting for it to turn up on Meet the Press!
3:12 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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It's how we get every president.:P

Anyway, this is extremely common practice as best I can tell; not just by scammers, but by every day merchants. The problem is that now you almost have to "grease the wheel" to get things moving, which just encourages regular merchants to make a decision to go this less-than-honest route.

3:24 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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This is a difficult issue to deal with on my site. For years I've had great moderators to help keep the spam to a minimum... but they are getting smarter... and it is getting harder and harder to distinguish real content from spam in some cases.

Our best tool has been technology so far... we track and monitor trends that might not seem obvious to spammers... and use tons of reports to stay on top of these trends.

But we know that it is only a matter of time before they catch up ... so we are always looking for ways to better our reporting/monitoring... it is a non-stop battle.

3:25 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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financially pursuaded votes of confidence

I like that phrase.

Web2.0 lost its innocence, but now thankfully it will also lose its naiveté. UGC is wonderful, so long as people don't take for granted that publicly-generated information is always honest.

I still belive that the voice of the crowd is louder than the barking of a shill. However it's important to know how large the crowd is before you trust the "average rating" of a product or service.

4:14 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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>>it's important to know how large the crowd is

Good point - the bigger the numbers are, the harder it is to manipulate them. Or, at least the resources required to do so go way up.

The problem is that even on many high-volume sites, the item-level community input is from a small number of members. It might be tough to move a whole brand, but boosting a particular book or trashing one hotel is still easy.

4:56 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Wired.com has another interesting article: I bought votes on Digg and got my rubbish test site to the front page [wired.com]. The guy setup a site just to game Digg.

<added>
And there's this: The Bury brigade exposed [wired.com]

Wired seems almost obsessed with Digg :)

5:18 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Hell, corporate america thrives on manipulating the public. Its even how we got our last president!
You mean Clinton?

The better sites will do a lot to prevent SPAM, although a dedicated "financially pursuaded votes of confidence" group could probably overcome most obstacles put in their way.

[edited by: LifeinAsia at 5:24 pm (utc) on Mar. 1, 2007]

5:45 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Let's leave the political references out, as the article has nothing to do with political marketing.
8:24 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Politics aside marketing by design is to pursuade by financial means. The only loosers are the ones who failed to recognize marketing opportunities to begin with.

If there was such a good thing as "moral business" and "ethical practices" we wouldn't have the issues we have today.

So you can't have morally responsible people without morally responsible business under a morally responsible government without that little bit of politics.

8:31 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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ISP's like AOL make it pretty hard to detect this stuff. If you don't have IP addresses to fall back on in detecting fraud, it's pretty hard to know for sure you're getting manipulated.
9:16 pm on Mar 1, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Those click networks on Digg can't be sustainable for very long unless the price gets really high. If someone is paid 50 cents for a vote, they have to vote on a large number of "sponsored" stories to make it at all worth the effort. And, just as the WIRED writer noticed, there will a lot of commonality in voters and particular stories. Either an algorithm or manual inspection would pop these out relatively easily.

It isn't clear that the economic benefits from Digg would justify a much, much higher cost-per-vote scheme that could be designed to fly under the radar. That might be possible if any one individual only voted occasionally for a bogus story.

1:18 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I don't see any way to solve this problem. It's just too easy for anonymous open voting and review systems to be manipulated.

The only way round in theory would be to make it compulsory to leave your identity when you leave a review, and for someone to then check all those identities. But who would bother doing that when it's just a case of seeing if someone's trying to promote sales of food mixers? It's been difficult enough getting identity checks to prevent terrorism!

--ISP's like AOL make it pretty hard to detect this stuff. If you don't have IP addresses to fall back on in detecting fraud, it's pretty hard to know for sure you're getting manipulated.--

Even on ISPs that show IP addresses, it's very easy for professionals to disguise theirs through various means.

For example they could keep computers connected to many different ISPs in many different geographical locations, then instruct them all to add positive or negative ratings and reviews to a particular product which they've been paid to promote or smear.

Normal people wouldn't be able to afford to do that, but professional agencies could easily afford to keep dozens or even hundred of PCs at their disposal for spreading their opinions around the internet.

Each PC could have its ISP switched every month, so every year you could be dealing with thousands of completely different IP addresses all from the same source. That's easily enough to skew any product's reputation on most review sites.

-- Isn't this how the World has always worked?
Manipulating public opinion through the Press, Government Propaganda, Awards, Product Placement etc is nothing new. --

The difference is that it's never been so easy to manipulate people's opinion. In the past the only people who could reach a mass audience were the newspapers, but now virtually any group or individual can afford to set up a website viewable by anyone on the planet.

4:55 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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The big difference, gibbergibber, is that today everyone has a voice. Before, if you wanted to find a restaurant you'd consult Michelin, or AAA, or Fodor... all guides compiled and written by paid staff with presumed expertise and impartiality. Now, you visit a restaurant rating site and read a dozen or two reviews by anonymous posters (who may be real diners, friends of the restaurant's owner, competitors, or paid shills).
5:23 pm on Mar 2, 2007 (gmt 0)

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It isn't clear that the economic benefits from Digg would justify a much, much higher cost-per-vote scheme

From another angle: The economic benefits don't need to be high. They need to exceed only that threshold for promotion to homepage. It could be as little as 50 diggs. With cost per digg at $0.50 now (and going downwards as competition from the east hots up), it soon won't take more than the price of a MacDonald's to hit the eyeball jackpot.

Digg's already got sophisticated systems in place but sophistication can't beat human digg monkeys, especially when they're properly organised. And when a proper trading system exists to buy/sell reputed Digg accounts (now, there's an idea for the enterprising among you! ;))

3:06 pm on Mar 4, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I agree that commerce will develop in established user accounts in popular and economically useful communities. What better way to fly under the radar than assuming the identity of a long-term member?
4:52 pm on Mar 4, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Wired running many stories focusing on the negative aspects of Digg... Why do you think they are doing that?
Maybe a subtle way of undermining trust in Digg?

Does anyone here remember that Conde Nast, the publishing company who own Wired, purchased Digg competitor Reddit in November 2006?

*sigh*

10:58 pm on Mar 4, 2007 (gmt 0)

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Jason, yes, and they make no secret of it. In fact, they discuss that angle quite openly.
4:47 pm on Mar 17, 2007 (gmt 0)

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I have also noticed so many blogs that do nothing but shill. Their posts are so lame and forced it's sad, but apparently they get paid for it so it's all good.

Papers do bash craigslist every second they can too. After all journos are people too who love to get their paycheck