Don't let your memes be schemes
May 18, 2020 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Drama On The Internets this weekend as Reddit's admins ousted the mods and top users of a popular satirical subreddit, /r/PresidentialRaceMemes. The wrinkle this time? Most of those banned are the same person. As outlined in this exhaustive report from /r/Digital_Manipulation [mirror], redditor /u/AlarmedScholar (best known for his "It Is Time" memes saluting the end of each Democratic campaign) was at the center of a web of literally dozens of alternate accounts, aggressively spamming his own subreddit networks into popularity and using questionable moderation tactics to steer PRM from cheeky fun to unceasing vitriol against presumptive nominee Joe Biden (alongside fervent support for Bernie Sanders Howie Hawkins Jesse Ventura Howie Hawkins again). Shades of Unidan, shades of Digg Patriots, shades of various the_donald purges... with 92 of the top 500 subreddits controlled by just four users, is Reddit the next battleground in the social media manipulation wars?

A former Reddit shill explains how they're paid to manipulate online discussion

/r/RedditSecurity - an official record of investigations into manipulation campaigns on Reddit (including state actors)

/r/Digital_Manipulation - a clearinghouse for discussion about organized manipulation on Reddit and elsewhere (lots of useful links in the sidebar)

/r/MassTagger (site) and Pro Tools - tools for tagging and identifying far-right troll accounts

/r/TheseFuckingAccounts - a place to submit and track "suspicious" reddit accounts

/r/HailCorporate - for tracking "native advertising" and astroturfing

/r/TopMindsOfReddit - a subreddit for "chronicling the adventures of Reddit's boldest truth seekers in their quest to awaken the obsequious masses"
posted by Rhaomi (56 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
This post is pure journalism. Thanks for the roundup, and it's amazing to me always how the world has weird corners with weird things happening that I don't intersect with at all. Great post!
posted by hippybear at 12:47 PM on May 18 [8 favorites]

Something that's worth noting is the particular angle of manipulation here. The goal seems to be to get progressives to emotionally check out of the 2020 election. As a direct fuck-you to that tactic, I've started making Biden-positive posts on Facebook and donating money to his campaign, because like hell if I'm letting that tactic win.
posted by LSK at 12:52 PM on May 18 [59 favorites]

92 of the top 500 subreddits controlled by just four users

"Sorry, this post has been removed by the moderators of r/interestingasfuck."

Apparently it was deleted from most of the subreddits it was crossposted to, as well. Some poking around turned up this Imgur link.
posted by jedicus at 12:52 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

Next battleground?

Uh, /r/the_donald exists.

It's _been_ a battleground for four years!
posted by SansPoint at 12:59 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Not quite sure what to make of all this, but found one post that is actually kinda funny:

/r/conspiracy After years of "transvestigations" into just about every celebrity they dislike (mostly for not being pro-Trump), /conspiracy finally realizes that the Wachowskis exist.
posted by sammyo at 1:04 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

>Most of those banned are the same person.

See, I knew there was a cabal!
posted by chavenet at 1:32 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

what battle? haven't they already won?
posted by Bwentman at 2:09 PM on May 18

I know I've been here a long time, but I'm sure I'm not the only MeFite who thought of dhoyt
posted by hydropsyche at 2:30 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I...expected very different content based on this name.
posted by star gentle uterus at 2:33 PM on May 18 [10 favorites]

> I know I've been here a long time, but I'm sure I'm not the only MeFite who thought of dhoyt

Read that thread at your own peril---people can be ugly.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:04 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

MetaFilter has evolved in a lot of ways. 15 years is a long time in a community.

But yes, don't read unless you're really wanting to.
posted by hippybear at 3:08 PM on May 18

More background from the Digital_Manipulation post:
Presidentialracememes has one of those most detailed and layered automods of any subreddit I've ever seen. The guy perfectly crafted that sub to destroy biden and continued to do so way after the primaries were done. He allowed absolutely zero dissent in any form, abusing the automod to mass shadow ban people who tried calling it out and tiered white listed people who pushed the same narratives allowing those people to make top level comments and post links, all done without people being aware of course, I'd never come across a set up as extreme or abused as it before. He also put in effort to make the sub appeal to casuals with the goal of building the audience for his operation, he did this by temporarily promoting neutral memes like the heavens one and having events that temporarily wiped away the ludicrously heavy handed biden propaganda and presented the sub as just a "haha funny past presidents maymays : )". Casuals would subscribe who normally would not and he would have an in to their feed to spam with more anti-biden propaganda once he flipped it back.

The guy was fucking insidious and put a shit ton of effort into optimising for his strategy and end goals. I wouldn't be surprised in the slightest if he was getting cash under the table to do that shit by whatever right wing think tank or foreign nation.
As somebody who'd been enjoying the sub since the beginning of the primary, I suspected something was off when my most popular post there (mildly critical of Sanders) was nuked for being "misleading" based on an incorrect fact-check, despite that standard never being applied to the slander and disinformation against the non-Sanders candidates. The mod never responded to my objection, and I later found out I'd been shadowbanned, which happened to pretty much everybody who questioned what they were doing.

It reminds me of the strange case of the power user /u/CANT_TRUST_HILLARY, who made the front page multiple times a day and racked up millions in karma during the 2016 race before suddenly vanishing. Check their profile again and, oh look, they popped up a couple months ago openly talking about being paid to post. Must have been a remarkably cost-effective way to get a pithy anti-Hillary slogan in front of millions of young eyeballs.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:59 PM on May 18 [11 favorites]

The many headed beast.
posted by Oyéah at 4:08 PM on May 18

Or, just the four. Cerberus +1.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:18 PM on May 18

the sanders and sanders-adjacent subreddits have been like this since 2016
posted by schadenfrau at 4:21 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

more generally: how is this not some sort of FTC violation? I mean I know there is no rule of law anymore, yes, but in theory, how is the whole paying people to advertise your product without disclosure kosher? is it?

I mean, it's fundamentally corrupt, so...maybe that answers my question.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:33 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

The head of the FTC is appointed by the President, so there's about a snowball's chance in hell it's going to retrospectively investigate any anti-Hillary astroturfing, or anything else that works to Trump's advantage.

Except, perhaps, under a new administration. But I don't imagine a Biden administration having much appetite for that sort of thing. Unless Warren is made Secretary of Treasury.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:36 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

The goal seems to be to get progressives to emotionally check out of the 2020 election.

And here I thought the Biden campaign had no online strategy.
posted by Reyturner at 4:50 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

Argh, make that 'to Trump's disadvantage,' of course.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:54 PM on May 18

92 of the top 500 subreddits controlled by just four users

Whoa, /r/TwoXChromosomes/ is on that list.
posted by Mitheral at 5:28 PM on May 18

92 of the top 500 subreddits controlled by just four users

I can't be the only one who thinks that reddit would be 500% better and more interesting if the top 500 subreddits all just went away.
posted by 3j0hn at 5:59 PM on May 18 [12 favorites]

Somehow, in the future, it will turn out that Reddit consists entirely of paid trolls who are trying to out-meme each other. They will not be conscious of this, as a reality show forms around the fight. Meanwhile, the audience will be getting into fights on 4chan over their favorite reddit troll-stars as yet another reality show forms to chronicle their misadventures.

Eventually the world economy will revolve around Internet forums and reality shows as the Illuminati sit around and giggle at how the’ expectations trolled humanity.

Then the meta-Kraken eats them.
posted by drivingmenuts at 6:15 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

> it will turn out that Reddit consists entirely of paid trolls who are trying to out-meme each other.

wait, you guys are getting paid?
posted by cirgue at 6:21 PM on May 18 [16 favorites]

Didn’t reddit start with with a bunch of bro’s with sock puppets making it look like actual conversations were going on and even then only succeed because Digg decided to redesign their entire site.
posted by interogative mood at 6:23 PM on May 18 [6 favorites]

I was subbed there for about a month, it was kinda scary how quickly it turned into what it became, almost immediately after Sanders suspended his campaign.
posted by girlmightlive at 6:24 PM on May 18 [1 favorite]

interogative mood has it correct.

Huffman said one other strategy proved crucial to Reddit’s early success, which most people are unaware of: The team submitted a ridiculous amount of content under fake user accounts to give the appearance of popularity.
posted by Radiophonic Oddity at 6:24 PM on May 18 [5 favorites]

92 of the top 500 subreddits controlled by just four users

Probably the truth behnd this sort of thing is just mundane and depressing, but I saw the speculation somewhere on Reddit that having some accounts like this could be useful for the admins so the bosses could put on the (unpaid) janitor uniform as a disguise on useful occasions.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:26 PM on May 18

The top 92 subs have like a dozen moderators each, the super mods basically take no actions except when instructed by admins. I never considered that they could be admins themselves but that is one conspiracy theory that actually makes some sense.

However it's pretty much a known fact that Gallowboob for one works for a marketing firm, which is probably why that list keeps getting deleted - complaints about Gallowboob inevitably lead to people doxxing him which is the one rule that admins seem to care about consistently.
posted by muddgirl at 7:25 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

or maybe it's not doxxing anymore since he gave an interview about it like 4 years ago, who knows.
posted by muddgirl at 8:07 PM on May 18 [2 favorites]

Not that it's anything to do with really with this issue, but on the other end of the spectrum I recently ran across, in my favorite rock band's subreddit, a user posting what seemed to be bizarre conspiracy linkages between Joseph Conrad's mono-myth, Putin's psy-ops, the trailer for the David Bowie film Labyrinth, and Star Wars. After some light joshing I dug a little deeper and saw that this user was the moderator of over 50 subreddits on various topics, each with almost no members besides himself. There were subreddits filled entirely with his own posts, and him commenting on the posts, writing threads to himself. I wished him well and disengaged politely.
posted by glonous keming at 8:09 PM on May 18 [4 favorites]

is Reddit the next battleground in the social media manipulation wars?
Next? Been that way for some time now.

I would not be surprised if half the Reddit accounts commenting on political stuff are not legit.
posted by Pouteria at 8:58 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

I’m there for the backpacking communities and college football talk. The political stuff there? Fuuuuuuuuck that.
posted by azpenguin at 9:38 PM on May 18 [3 favorites]

I can't be the only one who thinks that reddit would be 500% better and more interesting if the top 500 subreddits all just went away.

I pared my subscriptions way back to hobby and interest specific subreddits a few years ago. I'll occasionally poke into r/worldnews but that's about it. It's actually a really good website in that way, and honestly now that google is just an advertising front for clickbait and pinterest I often go there for crowd sourced takes on a lot of common to niche topics.
posted by MillMan at 10:02 PM on May 18 [7 favorites]

Metafilter: Then the meta-Kraken eats them.
(I have no idea how these people got their Kraken wedged into their scanners, or why.)
posted by k3ninho at 12:16 AM on May 19

Somehow, in the future, it will turn out that Reddit consists entirely of paid trolls

And people will nevertheless still be signing up and trying to engage with them.
posted by Cardinal Fang at 1:32 AM on May 19

Never go on Reddit.

posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 1:39 AM on May 19 [3 favorites]

I know I've been here a long time, but I'm sure I'm not the only MeFite who thought of dhoyt...


Something somethings writing themselves...

Read that thread at your own peril---people can be ugly.

MetaFilter has evolved in a lot of ways. 15 years is a long time in a community.

But yes, don't read unless you're really wanting to.

tl/dr: well duh
posted by y2karl at 6:01 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]

All that *and* a big recruiting ground for Stormfront et al. Oh, reddit, what can't it make worse?
posted by rmd1023 at 6:48 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

(okay, that's somewhat unfair - I keep being told there are good corners, and I actually occasionally read and even post on the fallout 76 subreddit, which is a fairly quiet corner, but I also maintain serious opsec because I figure I'm one 'oh look I'm a woman disagreeing with someone' post away from getting brigaded and doxxed.)
posted by rmd1023 at 6:50 AM on May 19 [2 favorites]

Fantastic post. This isn't only about Reddit, it's about all of us, because this is another manifestation of hyperreality, now courtesy of plain old social media users. As long as we're unable to discern what's actually real and true--even with specific effort--society will continue to decohere. This mundane story is a very loud alarm, warning us that we are in very dangerous waters here, especially during a global pandemic.

It's not just Reddit, it's that people are using all kinds of media to create seamless false narratives and fake realities, and when we live in those separate "truths," there is no more 'us' to have a society, because we have lost our consensus on what is real and what is true, objectively and beyond individual opinions--and more importantly, seem to have lost our ability to find any kind of consensus about anything, no matter how inconsequential or seemingly neutral.

When I go to the store these days, in very mixed and purple central California, wearing a mask or not has become a political signifier, a statement of personal values. Think about how fucked up that is: I've walked into a store and received hostile glares and comments, because I'm wearing a face mask for minimal safety and protection during a deadly pandemic. If you can unpack how we've arrived at a state of affairs where public safety is now politicized, you will start to understand just how salient the previously esoteric idea of hyperreality has become, and that we need to understand some version of what's happened to us. Otherwise I don't see how we course-correct.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:49 AM on May 19 [17 favorites]

The r/frankturner subreddit is super positive, and the r/mead and r/cider folks are pretty helpful to n00bs.

Most of it is just unlabelled, leaky 55-gal. drums of toxic waste, though.
posted by wenestvedt at 1:22 PM on May 19

Dailydot: GallowBoob is stepping down
posted by growabrain at 2:52 PM on May 19 [1 favorite]

That most mead or cider might be toxic waste is a bit troubling.

Oh wait, I misunderstood.
posted by hippybear at 7:58 PM on May 19

I'll be curious to see if reddit will respond differently to its 'power users' getting death threats and doxxing compared to its response to other folks (women in gaming, for instance) who've gotten swamped with death threats and doxxed previously. editing comment because I can't spell
posted by rmd1023 at 7:15 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

I have not yet read any of the links, but definitely as a casual user of the site it definitely feels the conversations on some subreddits are heavily pushed in certain directions to the point where if you go against the grain and post a comment that's progressive or leftist (or prowoman, progay, whatever) you will get a fair number of immediate upvotes followed several hours later by a landslide of downvotes far outnumbering what feels like the likely organic engagement with a comment deep in a sub thread posted hours to days earlier.

Also, what's with r/bayarea and r/sanfransisco ? The comments on there are like an alternate reality/upside-down of the Bay Area I know and love.
posted by flamk at 10:50 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]

From my experience, city-themed subreddits tend to get heavily brigaded by right wing comments, especially regarding discussions about homeless residents.
posted by Atom Eyes at 12:28 PM on May 20 [4 favorites]

one of the Bernie/anti-Dem accounts which apparently controlled 12 subreddits for this type of propaganda has been...shadowbanned? suspended? something? it's confusing.
posted by schadenfrau at 2:23 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

From my experience, city-themed subreddits tend to get heavily brigaded by right wing comments, especially regarding discussions about homeless residents.

Dear god, yes - the Eugene, OR subreddit is vile with posts complaining about our unhoused. I had started following hoping it would be less gross than Nextdoor groups I've been in in the past but that has not been the case. So much contempt and hate. People always say reddit is valuable if you filter out the gross subreddits but god damn, the grossness sure does ooze its way into every crack it can find.
posted by DingoMutt at 5:49 PM on May 20 [5 favorites]

PLOT TWIST: After the big bust, the admins took over the sub and put out a call for new mods. I volunteered (along with 1000+ others)... and now yours truly is at the top of the list. Not what I was expecting, but after all the toxic subterfuge I'd hate surrendering such a big check against bad actors taking over again (the old mod already tried and failed to volunteer under another name, and a lot of users still support them). So uh, if anybody here has Reddit mod experience, a love for extremely online political comedy, and wants to help fight the trolls, memail me!
posted by Rhaomi at 2:31 PM on May 26 [9 favorites]

Oh wow. Best of luck, man.
posted by cortex at 3:05 PM on May 26 [2 favorites]

UPDATE: Me and the handful of other mods the admins picked have been working to reverse the shady handiwork of the old mod over the last few days. With access to the mod tools and logs, the scale of the manipulation we discovered was shocking: 1,305 active users had been targeted for shadowbans by the sub's only mod, meaning all their posts and comments were automatically being hidden from public view without their knowledge. What's more, over 90% of these bans were added after Super Tuesday, less than 90 days previously. This correlated with the dramatic shift in tone the community had experienced as the primary ended.

Sampling the banned accounts showed the vast majority of them were regular posters whose bans were added after disagreeing with the former mod or one of his sockpuppets, usually by being critical of Sanders or arguing that voting third party was harmful because Biden was better than Trump. (Tellingly, after the mod abruptly switched from promoting Howie Hawkins to Jesse Ventura, he banned more than a few people for continuing to advocate for Hawkins. I really wonder what his motivations were.)

Removing the shadowbans was pretty easy, but since this doesn't notify the user we had to figure out a way to inform the frozen-out people what happened and invite them back ourselves. One person offered to make a bot for us, but unfortunately Reddit rate-limits them and we couldn't get the message out automatically. So we whipped up some spreadsheets and scripts to generate custom form letters to mostly automate the process and sent messages to those affected one by one. We just finished that today.

The reaction to our introductory post was very negative, lots of people were suspicious the whole thing was a politically-motivated coup by the admins, lots of false accusations we'd never participated there before, and I even got branded a neoliberal shill despite (or because of?) past comments supporting Warren over Sanders, even though I voted and donated to Sanders in 2016. Interestingly, the reaction to the un-shadowbanning announcement was similarly negative, at around ~35% upvoted, but as the unbanned people filtered back in that number slowly climbed 40 points, a relatively huge shift. The thread itself is a trip -- a lot of grateful people unaware they were banned asking what post or comment triggered it, and amazed when we provide them the receipts. This case (screencap included) was a prime example of the underhanded manipulation that was going on. Gives me flashbacks to the Digg Patriots scandal from ten years ago whose exposure I was on the periphery of.

There's still significant anti-Biden/Dem sentiment in the community, but it's mixed with more and more anti-Trump posts and other miscellaneous content that was almost completely barred previously. Now that a lot of the old users are back, we'll be putting up a rules discussion post to re-evaluate the guidelines and cut down on trolling and brigading. Hopefully it will return to its old self, with plenty of clever and funny content for everyone. But even if it doesn't we've at least ensured that it won't become a rigged propaganda sub with a direct line to the 125K+ subscribers who joined before the heel turn and the millions of people who see it when posts hit the front page.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:03 PM on May 29 [11 favorites]

That's fascinating, Rhaomi. Thanks for the update and hooray for transparency.
posted by cortex at 6:18 PM on May 31 [2 favorites]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but without naming the former mod account, that person is still front-paging all the time on the other, bigger subs they control, right? Like they're still doing this shit, just in other subs?
posted by schadenfrau at 12:44 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

Also, thanks for trying to unfuck at least one corner of the internet, Rhaomi. I know that is generally a thankless but necessary job, so thank you for doing it.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:45 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

Thanks, cortex and schadenfrau.

AFAIK, the old mod and all their sockpuppets got permabanned sitewide. They might have had other, undetected accounts, but it certainly put a major dent in the operation.
posted by Rhaomi at 3:56 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]

I decided to purge my entire reddit history today. This drama is taking up too much of my life. I used a script to delete everything and then deactivated my account. I don’t even miss it. Weird
posted by interogative mood at 4:04 PM on June 3 [1 favorite]

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