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Not even Reddit is safe from fake news.
Two reporters claim that for the low cost of $200, they successfully manipulated Reddit’s upvote/downvote system and got a pair of planted stories to the top of their respective subreddits.
In a very convincing video, Jay McGregor details just exactly how he and his colleague Phil Harper were able to circumvent the social news site’s checks-and-balances apparatus, whose sole purpose is to filter out exactly the type of content submitted by the journalists.
McGregor and Harper reveal in their investigation that anyone can buy quality fake Reddit accounts for anywhere between $10 to $150, depending on how old the account is and how many karma points it’s accrued. But buying quality accounts in bulk for the purpose of gaming a story to the top of a subreddit would be cost-prohibitive, so they looked for another way. They found one in the form of a teenager in New Zealand.
“A bit of research uncovered that he … had built a programme that delivered thousands of upvotes or downvotes on request,” McGregor wrote in an accompanying exposé published by Forbes. “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.”
The program worked. Twice.
In their first go about, the duo took a pro-Brexit Medium post supposedly written by a prominent economics professor—they made him up—to the front page of r/UnitedKingdom, which has more than 146,000 subscribers. The bogus academic essay was eventually taken down by the moderators, but not before it spent several hours prominently featured on the subreddit—likely resulting in thousands upon thousands of pageviews.
Even more terrifying was their second experiment, where they took a relatively old promo for the Netflix series Narcos and successfully took it to the top of r/videos, one of Reddit’s default subreddits. Within two hours, it was the number one link in a community that boasts more than 13 million subscribers.
“Reddit’s system of volunteer moderators and upvotes/downvotes clearly isn’t enough to ward off anyone looking to game it,” McGregor concluded, alluding to the site’s reliance on the thousands of unpaid volunteers who take on the thankless duty of being guardians of the site.
He added, “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.”
Reddit did not return our requests for comment.
Fidel Martinez is a web culture and politics reporter. His work for the Daily Dot focused on Reddit and YouTube.