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Amazon’s Mechanical Turk is an experiment in crowd-sourced Web labor. It’s a marketplace to buy and sell simple, repetitive tasks that ought to be performed by a computer—if only artificial intelligence were smart enough. The marketplace’s slogan is “Artificial Artificial Intelligence.”
You can buy all sorts of things on MTurk, as its known: short translations, survey guinea pigs, image taggers. Occasionally, you can also buy Reddit upvotes.
Farshad Hemmati, a wannabe social media entrepreneur, will pay eight cents for yours. Unfortunately for Hemmati, buying Reddit votes is a truly terrible social marketing strategy.
We first stumbled upon the scam thanks to a post on (where else) Reddit, which hosts a community devoted to finding the best jobs on marketplaces like MTurk. There, someone linked to an offer: upvote and comment on a link to a Facebook fanpage for a site called ROFL.
When redditor The3rdWorld found out, he decided to dig a little deeper. He tracked the suspicious commenters, cross-referenced them, and discovered that this was hardly an isolated incidence.
Someone had paid them to upvote and leave banal comments (“OK,” “nice”) on three separate posts, each seemingly unrelated: the ROFL Facebook page, a post to a now defunct site, and an anti Kony 2012 site.
The3rdWorld found that most of the posts were made by the same Reddit user: compucated. But he also had a name to match with the Reddit account. He’d accepted that offer on MTurk. The upvote buyer was Farshad Hemmati.
That’s a real name—or at least it is on Facebook. On Hemmati’s profile page—mixed in with denunciations of U.S. policy towards Iran—you’ll find links to each of the questionable votes-for-pay sites The3rdWorld found on Reddit.
Hemmati didn’t reply to a request for comment on this story.
According to his LinkedIn page, Hemmati attended the University of California at Berkeley from 2001 to 2008 and is a former Microsoft employee.
He’s “CEO” of a company called SocialPlex, which supposedly launches this month and is apparently some kind of social networking site (its tag-line provides the only description we could find: “meet new people.”).
He’s also apparently very bad at social marketing.
None of the upvote for cash schemes panned out. Most actually hovered around a net total of 0 points, meaning just as many people downvoted as upvoted them. Nearly seven years after it was founded, Reddit remains one of the hardest social sites to game.
“It doesn’t work because we stop it,” Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, told the Daily Dot. “Everything out there for sale we looked into ourselves and monitor closely.”
Martin said this isn’t the first time someone’s tried to buy upvotes using MTurk. When Reddit discovers something like this, it informs Amazon, which then remove the offending post (paying for referral traffic is against MTurk’s policies).
More importantly, redditors like The3rdWorld have a high sensitivity to bullshit.
Hemmati didn’t help himself by buying comments in addition to upvotes. A fresh post accompanied by a series of banal comments (my favorite: “mhmmm”) will set a redditor’s bullshit detectors ringing. A flood of downvotes usually follows.
The most successful marketing campaigns on Reddit are transparent: Dos Equis gets free advertising pretty much everyday, thanks to the meme inspired by its Most Interesting Man in the World ad campaign. Savvy celebrities who put a little effort into Reddit live interviews are often also well-rewarded.
But surely someone has gamed Reddit, right?.
“I’m sure at some point,” Martin said. “But it’s very rare and it doesn’t happen for very long. Someone might have a new tactic and might have success once or twice.”
Eventually, however, staff and users catch on, and the game of spammer whack-a-mole starts all over again.
“Facebook should have some counter that shows the total number of likes all my total posts have had,” Hemmati wrote on Twitter yesterday.
Reddit has something like that. It’s called karma. Hemmati’s total? 217. Would you pay for that kind of viral fame?
Image via Planning for Fun
Kevin Morris is a veteran web reporter and editor who specializes in longform journalism. He led the Daily Dot’s esports vertical and, following its acquisition by GAMURS in late 2016, launched Dot Esports, where he serves as the site’s editor-in-chief.