Facebook isn’t the only platform that should be taking a stand against fake news and propaganda.
Fighting bots with a bot
While the Facebook-Russia scandal is being addressed, another less conspicuous war is raging—this time on Reddit. During the past weeks, the problem has become glaringly obtrusive and hard to ignore.
Throughout the scaling debate in the Bitcoin legacy chain, accusations of censorship and propaganda have afflicted subreddits, with large block supporters primarily complaining about r/bitcoin removing anything that supports (or even just neutrally mentions) anything that goes against Core developers’ Segregated Witness (SegWit) proposal.
Recently, r/bitcoin mods let one slip through the cracks: a quote by Craig Wright received over 800 upvotes before being taken down by moderators for “vote manipulation.”
Apart from censorship by mods, several users reported that their accounts were hacked and used as bots to aid in such attacks, upvoting and downvoting posts without the users’ knowledge or consent. Several users reported having their accounts suspended after suspicious activity on their accounts and reports say between 35 to as much as 300 accounts may have been compromised.
To fight the propaganda, user censorship_notifier deployed an anti-censorship bot on Reddit a few months ago. Hilariously, the anti-censorship bot was censored from r/bitcoin very shortly after it was released. But the bot is still in action.
In a report, u/censorship_notifier found that an attack was indeed launched against r/bitcoin on November 14th, around 18:00 UTC. Bots and hacked accounts were used to upvote complaints about fees and congestion on the legacy chain (BTC), downvote posts not related to the issues, and upvote posts on the Bitcoin Cash dominant subreddit, r/btc.
At first, the obvious assumption would be to accuse SegWit Core’s rival, Bitcoin Cash (BCH) of perpetrating the attack. But here’s where it gets inconsistent: according to the analysis, the attack could not have been pulled off without a moderator from r/bitcoin itself facilitating the activity.
While the automoderator was working as usual for all other comments, it seemed to intentionally allow specific posts that would otherwise have been removed so the bots can upvote them.
“Despite all the comments being blocked or removed as normal that we found, what we did not find was any other examples of anti-r/Bitcoin comments approved or allowed except the comments the bots upvoted.”
The “attacks” and those crying foul did so at swift speeds:
“[CU-1] was submitted, approved, upvoted, and screenshotted all in less than 180 seconds, as shown by its screenshot (“2 minutes” rounds down on Reddit).”
Apart from this, the timestamps are suspiciously coordinated.
“Immediately we noticed the next oddity – How were people able to see votes in /r/Bitcoin to discuss voting in the first place? /r/Bitcoin has blocked votes from being visible on comments during discussion for years. When did that change? We found that it changed right before [CU-1] was posted. BashCo stickied a comment stating they would “pull back the curtains” at 20:49, and archive.org confirmed that scores became visible between 20:32 utc and 20:50 utc. That, oddly enough, was just 13 minutes before [CU-1] was posted at 21:02:25.”
The most disturbing part of the analysis insinuates not only the r/bitcoin moderators in the hoax, but Blockstream CTO Greg Maxwell as well. According to the report, there were several similarities in the way one of the bots, u/4n4n4, and Maxwell’s account, u/nullc constructed their sentences. But the biggest giveaway was that u/4n4n4 frequently picked up Maxwell’s conversations as if they were the same person’s.
While online identity and such attacks are difficult (and probably expensive) to definitively prove, this calls into question the scope of responsibility social media and public forums have over their platforms. Facebook isn’t the only one plagued by fake news and propaganda. It’s a web-wide epidemic—and a dangerous one at that. After all, propaganda plays a vital role in politics, marketing, and even genocide.