Reddit for Sale: How We Made Viral Fake News for $200
“The front page of the internet” is being gamed by vested interests. This is a story about how easy – and cheap – it is to buy your way onto the world’s most popular and influential forum.
In 2013 two Redditors, David Fredrick and Aidan King, who’d never met before, decided to set up a subreddit dedicated to encouraging an unlikely presidential candidate to run for office: Bernie Sanders.
Sanders had previously said that he wasn’t going to run for President unless there was a significant groundswell of support. The type of groundswell a political candidate can only get if they have serious name recognition from years of high-profile, insipid grandstanding.
The problem was that Sanders’ decades of lectern-thumping wasn’t remotely vacuous and, therefore, not high-profile.
But King and Fredrick had a different ideas.They guessed that Sanders’ brand of socialist populism would play very well with one often ignored demographic: Redditors. They set about promoting the Sanders For President subreddit in other threads and by mid-April 2015 it had swelled to over 6000 members.
This was apparently enough for Senator Sanders, who announced his candidacy at the end of April, changing the democratic race – and party – for the foreseeable future.
This is the power of Reddit.
Its reach can extend to the highest levels of office in the world’s only superpower. It provides daily content for our 24 hour media machine and it can catapult people into stardom on a whim.
It’s no wonder then that people are trying to harness this power, and manipulate what you see on Reddit for their own personal gain. It has long been rumoured that organizations with a particular agenda have been using Reddit to sway opinion or advertise through the backdoor. In fact there’s an entire subreddit dedicated to calling out unlabelled product placement called “Hail Corporate.”
But, in general, Redditors trust their platform and believe in its authenticity. So much so that Reddit.com is the 24th most popular website in the world and 7th in the US. The system of upvotes and downvotes act as a check and balance against obvious subversion. Bad content gets voted down, good content gets voted up.
Except it isn’t. Reddit’s upvote system can easily be gamed with some bitcoin and a few useful contacts. I know this because my colleague Phil Harper and I successfully managed to place two made-up stories on to influential subreddits /r/UnitedKingdom and /r/Video, which have a combined total of over 13 million subscribers (12 million at the time of our investigation), both of which reached the number one and number two spots. How? With fake accounts and fake upvotes we bought for under $200.
Check out the full Reddit investigation...
You would be forgiven for thinking that gaming Reddit like this requires cunning, guile and a deep understanding of the complex and intimidating dark web. In reality, it took us less than a few hours to track down websites offering fake accounts and a little bit of extra work to track down someone selling thousands of upvotes.
Our first lead was a tip off about “Reddit Secrets” – a website that sells Reddit accounts. It was professional looking; the accounts were listed in order of karma (a points system that reflects how much good content that Redditor has posted) and cost with the actual usernames blanked out. Handing over cash to a faceless website didn’t seem like a good move, we wanted to talk to someone first, but getting in contact with someone at Reddit Secrets proved to be difficult.
Looking elsewhere, we set out to find other entrepreneurs working in the business, and a browse around Facebook proved to be very fruitful. A few messages later and we’d bagged a conversation with a man called Mike (name changed). He quickly became our fixer for high quality ‘seasoned’ Reddit accounts, costing between $10 and $150 each depending on their age and karma. After paying a small deposit via bitcoin, Mike sent us a list of accounts we could buy. Within a day we had access to hundreds of accounts.
They proved useful for posting politically questionable content without arousing suspicion, which is thanks to the ‘quality’ of the accounts. We could easily have a natural looking conversation with ourselves if we carefully hid our IP address behind TOR or a series of proxies.
If we scaled up our investigation with hundreds of accounts and lots of work, we could have made quite an impact on important threads and influenced the opinion of other Redditors. But there had to be an easier way. If accounts are for sale, what about upvotes?
Our first port of call was to go back to Mike and without hesitation he offered upvotes in two flavours; automated or organic. Automated votes use a bot along with purchased accounts, but their effectiveness “can’t be guaranteed”.
Organic votes would be manually logged by human labour somewhere inside Pakistan. The cost? $40 would get you more than 200 organic upvotes. Given how many upvotes are needed to reach the number one spot on big subreddits – easily in the thousands – 200 would not be enough.
Also, coordinating through Mike meant it wasn’t a very responsive service. He’d often disappear for hours or days on end, which meant we had to pre-plan, and thus restricted our ability to manipulate Reddit on the go. Additionally, Mike wasn’t willing to sell out downvotes. “I don’t like this kind of business” he said. As far as he was concerned, his business was about getting people and their products noticed. He thought it was wrong and immoral to downvote someone else.
We had to find another source for mass upvotes and downvotes. A tip off from a friend pointed us in the direction of someone in New Zealand. A bit of research uncovered that he was a teenager who had built a programme that delivered thousands of upvotes or downvotes on request.
Talking to us on Skype he revealed that the programme he built uses thousands of proxies all controlled via his server. The system automatically logs in and out of thousands of bought accounts, ‘rolling through’ thousands of IP addresses facilitated by his system.
As soon as Reddit identifies a spam account, it’s removed from the pool and replaced with a new one. This way, the upvotes look entirely natural to Reddit’s spam filter. And the most impressive thing? It’s entirely automated. You simply top up your account, submit a link, and watch the votes roll in. You can even control the frequency of their arrival, and it works the same on comments as it does on links.
We needed something to swing our new axe at, so for inspiration we took a few tips from GCHQ. A handbook they had commissioned to help train ‘Cyber Magicians’ to ‘discredit, dissuade, deceive, disrupt, delay, deny, degrade, and deter’ online conversations proved to be incredibly useful…
The document suggested that ‘disruptive’ communication would utilise ‘obedience’, because an individual will often comply with an authority figure. So we made up a character; Espen Lunde, a Norwegian Professor at the invented Bergen School of Economics. We could hide our political manipulations behind this completely fictional character.
But what would our sock puppet actually say? We returned to the handbook for more tips. One section said that good propaganda “uses stereotypes; substituting names/labels for neutral ones, censorship or systematic selection of information, repetition, assertions without arguments, and presenting a message for and against a subject.”
All of these techniques were worked into a clearly rushed, terrible article, which we submitted to Reddit with the eye-catching title of “Brexit: Who needs the EU when we’ve got China?”
We plugged the link into our new upvote system, and watched with some amazement as it rocketed up the front page of /r/unitedkingdom. It had worked. We had gotten a pro-Brexit article onto the front page of a subreddit which overwhelmingly supported the Remain camp.
Initial responses attempted to dismantle Professor Lunde’s argument and some picked up on the poor grammar. We downvoted those early comments and watched them effectively disappear to the bottom of the thread.
We were eventually rumbled, however. We’d used one of our aliases to assuage any suspicions that the article was fake by making the point that Professor Lunde’s poor grammar is likely down to English not being his first language. This unintentionally started an investigation in the comments and other Redditors eventually sussed that there is no Bergen School of Economics or Espen Lunde. The post was removed by Reddit by the end of the day just before it reached the number one spot and the accounts used were banned.
Despite this, the fake story sat on the front page of /r/unitedkingdom for a few hours. This is important because most Redditors are headline browsers, so a headline in defence of Brexit that was clearly very popular would have made the necessary impact. We spoke to assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame, who has conducted his own experiments on Reddit and explained the power of popular headlines.
“Unless the post is removed by the volunteer moderators, the fake headline will remain. Very few Reddit users actually click-through to read the article and even fewer read the comments section. Most Reddit users are headline browsers. In the socio-digital media environment, headline visibility is key. Votes influence the ranking, which dictates the visibility of a post. Highly visible posts attract more votes, which further increases the ranking and visibility.”
Whilst the United Kingdom subreddit has an impressive 145,000 readers, we wanted to go one bigger. We decided to target one of the default subreddits: /r/videos, which has over 13 million subscribers.
We spent days deliberating over what video to submit and boost with our fake upvotes. We wanted something that wasn’t as obviously fake and had no place topping the subreddit, but also something that wasn’t genuinely interesting enough to get there on its own. So we picked a Narcos season 2 trailer that had been out for months. Picked the headline ‘Narcos season 2 is finally out in September!’, which looked like obvious marketing and placed 1000 upvotes behind the submission.
It rocketed up the subreddit, hitting the top spot in under two hours. The hive mind then took over and it just grew and grew in popularity. Early commenters called the post out as an ad, but we used our vote tool to downvote those people in real time. The result was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a post that was clearly an advert.
There are over 13 million people in the Videos subreddit, and once a story goes viral there it reverberates all around the web. The post obviously drove a lot of extra traffic to the YouTube trailer video and, perhaps coincidentally, Netflix launched a new Narcos trailer later in the day, capitalising on our work and the sudden interest in its show. We asked Netflix why it decided to publish the new trailer on that day, but we never received a response.
Reddit’s system of volunteer moderators and upvotes/downvotes clearly isn’t enough to ward off anyone looking to game it. Indeed, scrolling through Hail Corporate reveals how often companies attempt to advertise through the back door on Reddit.
In the age of fake news, which has blighted other social networks and had real world consequences, Reddit – as one of the most popular websites in the world – has a responsibility to make sure that it isn’t so easily manipulated.
We also put our investigation to Reddit and whilst we heard back from a representative, we didn’t receive an official response by the time of the article deadline.
— Jay McGregor, Contributor, Forbes
Forbes (Dec. 14, 2016)