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How bots silence Ron Paul critics and threaten the democracy of Reddit

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The LibetyEqualizer downvote bot has one simple goal: silence the voices of Ron Paul critics on Reddit.

You always know when it hits you.

It comes in an instant, an impossibly fast barrage of downvotes intended to obliterate your Reddit comment before it even has a chance. The attacks are unpredictable—the bot’s owner has a relaxed trigger finger, working it at certain times when the heat from Reddit staff is off and the site’s collective spotlight has shifted elsewhere.

But when things die down, the owner flips the on-button and the downvotes return in an instant.

The bot is hardly a threat to Reddit at large. If you’re an ordinary user, chances are it's never hit you.

It is, however, a particularly egregious example of a much broader trend. Much like Digg before it, Reddit has become a digital political battleground, its front page and top comments valuable real estate for political agendas. More specifically, the bot is more hard proof that clandestine, partisan vote rigging—which contributed to Digg’s demise—has migrated to Reddit.

Can Reddit survive where Digg failed?

It’s no secret that political factions want front-page attention on the social news site, which saw 35 million visitors and nearly 3 billion pageviews over the past 30 days. The site’s has real—if fragmented and nebulous—political influence.

For example, marijuana enthusiasts have targeted Reddit’s largest pot community to drum up support for pro-cannabis legislation. Congressional long shot Rob Zerban raised $15,000 after a Reddit live interview, and in January, Reddit led a resoundingly successful blackout against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Attempts to game the system are equally well-documented: Nazi forum Stormfront has called for users to raid Reddit threads. Pro-Paul site The Daily Paul reportedly begs its readers to vote on Reddit threads. Meanwhile, a page on the site Friend Feed automatically compiles posts from Paul critics on Reddit—an open invitation for his devotees fans to downvote them en masse. It's a spiritual predecessor to the LibertyEqualizer bot, which was first publicized April 23.

In 2010, Alternet reporter Ole Ole Olson exposed a cabal of conservative Digg users, called the Digg patriots, who organized on external sites to censor progressive viewpoints on the social bookmarking service. They marched to anonymous battle with hit lists of progressive sites and Digg users.

Shortly thereafter, Digg released its wildly unpopular redesign, and users fled the social bookmarking site en masse. Most ended up on Reddit.

For many redditors, that’s when the Libertarian “Paul spam” started.

“Reddit was smaller than Digg, we had a much more intellectual and liberal base than Digg,” robotevil, a redditor targeted by the bot, wrote in a message to the Daily Dot.“When Digg failed, and Reddit became the next big thing, they seemingly flooded in over night.”

Many of Reddit’s users became disgruntled over the sudden flood of Libertarian posts. They created the subreddit r/EnoughPaulSpam as a gathering place to mock and chronicle the Libertarian Paul surge on Reddit. It's members have since become one of the prime targets of the LibertyEqualizer bot.

One of that subreddit’s moderators, TheGhostOfNoLibs, told the Daily Dot he’s a Digg refugee. He believes the bot was likely created by “the same people who rigged Digg,” though he admits there’s no direct evidence to prove the allegation.

Even a moderator at Reddit’s largest Ron Paul forum, r/RonPaul, agrees there’s long been an outside effort by Paul supporters to spam Reddit. But he doesn’t support it. When the bot’s creator advertised the tool at r/RonPaul in April, the moderator, Zak, removed the post immediately and notified Reddit’s staff.

Zak’s an old-fashioned Redditor and has been on the site pretty much since its beginning seven years ago. He wrote:

“I subscribe to the old idea that votes should be about the quality of the content, not agreement or who posted it. reddit has used algorithmic measures to counter mass-voting for a long time, as well as simpler tricks like countering votes made from profile pages with fake votes. The reason is simple: voting that way breaks reddit's process for finding quality content. The libertyequalizer bot is a coordinated, automated mechanism for doing exactly that.”

And that’s worth emphasizing: The bot doesn’t appear to have broad support in Reddit’s Libertarian sections. It is, to use a perhaps over-the-top metaphor, a weapon employed by Reddit’s ideological extremists. And as irritating as it may be to its targets, it doesn’t seem to be working in any meaningful sense.

According to the bot’s creator (who went by “libertyequalizer” before Reddit staff banned him), it’s a Java program, which takes control of other Reddit accounts and directs them in a voting bloc. When the bloc hits, a post’s point tally drops from between 13 to 26 votes. The owner did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

The accounts are supposedly volunteered by their owners, people the creator calls “liberty lovers.” But robotevil thinks there’s more to the bot than a few volunteered Reddit accounts, especially considering how hard it’s been for Reddit to shut the bot down.

“More likely the bot owner registers several thousands of accounts automatically and rotates them through to subvert the Reddit spam algorithms,” he wrote. “That's the only way it could work, because if it were the same 26 accounts downvoting, then Reddit would catch on fairly quickly.”

There’s ample proof the bot is very much real. Victims plead their case with a dossier of evidence: dozens of anecdotes and just as many screen grabs, a bot-testing subreddit, and, most damning, a video that demonstrates the bot’s second-by-second effect on a targeted post.

There are few things Reddit staff take as seriously as vote cheating. As such, Reddit’s anti-spam algorithm is used to this kind of thing.  

“We get hit with this shit constantly, and as a result we have a tonne of countermeasures against it,” Reddit developer Jason Harvey wrote in regards to vote cheating in general.

What about this bot in particular? Reddit staff don't usually comment on specific instances of spamming, and didn't respond to a request for this story. They don’t want to tip off spammers to new tricks.

But in a comment at r/EnoughPaulSpam, Harvey wrote perhaps the most perfectly hedged non-answer answer ever:

“ ... that is a type of thing which we would probably be working on addressing. If such a thing were to persist longer than would seem reasonable, it is probably because it is a bit of a tricky problem to solve. However, a thing like [the bot] is not something which we are simply going to drop.”

You can watch Reddit’s countermeasures work live. Vote tallies of affected posts auto-correct over time a the vote numbers become “fuzzed.” The bot’s 13-26 downvotes are quickly countered with upvotes—though not enough, according to robotevil, who created r/13Downvotes as a place to test the bot’s attacks.

“Usually it will leave the person in the negative by -5, to -8 upvotes,” he wrote. “Just enough to put the person below the comment viewing threshold. So [Reddit] counter-acts some, but not all the downvotes the bot gives.”

And as small as those vote totals may be, a submission isn’t likely to survive once the bot hits.

Posts with a net 0 vote tally (upvotes minus downvotes) essentially disappear from Reddit. Downvotes can push a comment to the bottom of a thread, making it easy to ignore. Conversely, the bot can be turned on Paul supporters, showering them with upvotes.

The LibertyEqualizer bot was last active around May 18, targeting redditor jcm267, an r/EnoughPaulSpam moderator. At least 40 redditors have been hit by the bot in total, but there’s no evidence it’s had a real effect on the site-wide political discussions. And with Paul practically out of the race for president, there’s little practical value for it.

Instead, the LibertyEqualizer bot has essentially become a tool of political harassment.

In this bot’s minor victories, other cheaters have no doubt learned lessons for greater success. What form will the next political game take? Only one thing is certain.

On Reddit, vote rigging is like any other kind of cyber crime—an endless programming arms race.