I saw this answer on the low quality posts queue. I thought it was spam, and was going to recommend deletion (as 4 out of the 5 reviewers did), but then I noticed it was recently edited by a moderator. Another user had replaced the contents with [content spam deleted pending moderator review], and George Stocker rolled it back. The same is true for the other answer by the same user – who only wrote those two answers, and disappeared 18 months ago; both answers are basically the same.

Why weren't those answers considered spam, and deleted? They definitely look like spam.

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5 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

There are two issues here, and while others have written eloquently on the subject, I'll tell you why I did what I did, so you can have it from the horse's mouth, as it were.

Even if an answer is outright spam, please do not edit the content out. That's vandalism, and is even worse than letting the spam remain.

If the content gets edited out, all I see in the moderator tools menu is a post that says,

[content spam deleted pending moderator review]

Along with the custom flag under it. If the spam is left in, the decision is easier to make, and I don't have to spend too much time handling that flag. To give you an idea, I handled hundreds of flags yesterday, and this particular one took longer partially because of the vandalism.

Secondly, the answer was no better and no worse than the othe answers in that post. The issue was that the post itself attracted bad answers because of the type of question it was.

This is true for both posts. The user asked for a list of tools, this user provided a link to a tool.

Unless I intended to delete both questions unilaterally, it did not make sense to treat this particular user any differently than anyone else who posted an answer. Thankfully, the community decided to delete the questions, rendering this issue moot.

Spam generally has nothing to do with the question posed, and the definition is very strict for a good reason: spam flags do bad things to users who receive them. These answers, however poor, were not spam.

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+1 for "completely changing a post is vandalism." We often think of vandalism as destructing a good post; it is also when changing a bad post like that. –  kiamlaluno Nov 23 '12 at 21:35
Thank you for answering, I can now stop speculating why you did what you did. I agree with you about vandalism; it makes things harder for regular users like myself too, since we also have to check the revision history before deciding to flag or not. But the spam definition is still unclear to me, even after reading the faq, the Wikipedia article, and some other articles linked from there. There's still a lot of room for subjectivity, and the answers and comments here corroborate that. –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 23:46
Other users, including myself and two moderators, still think those answers were spam. The faq on promotion suggests that as well. So maybe we could come up with some even more strict definition of spam, and state that on the faq instead of linking to Wikipedia? I think it is possible to create some clear rule/metric for cases like those. –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 23:47
I viewed it as spam because all the user's answers were about his product. On a site that gets 5,000 questions per day, it's not a coincidence that he happened to find two opportunities to promote his product, which was also listed in his user profile. He hunted these posts down like a lion hunts a wildebeest! I'm not sure I would spam-flag the guy to death, but deleting the question, and those answers, was the right call, IMHO. –  jmort253 Nov 24 '12 at 0:20
@bfaveretto we do have an established definition of spam: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/56223/… in this case, it isn't spam because the links were solicited by the OP in the question. –  George Stocker Nov 25 '12 at 1:55
I understand, and now I realize that not everyone follows that so strictly. That's a real problem, we shouldn't have a double standard. I added my own answer elaborating on that a bit. –  bfavaretto Nov 26 '12 at 13:24
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I had a similar experience at one point, and I think the reasoning may be the same. I think there have been efforts by mods to distinguish actual malicious spam from attempts at astroturfing. I think this was as a result of what animuson mentions, the penalties incurred are stiff for a user that may have only stepped over the line inadvertently.

That being said, I think that some of the answers kept and edited into submission despite astroturfing have stood alone without their links, though. This one seems pretty much "link only", but the nature of the question is really calling for such suggestions anyway.

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What should be the threshold for considering astroturfing malicious? I understand that two answers with the same link may be too few, but something like five would be less acceptable, don't you think? –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 2:34
@bfavaretto My personal opinion, I think it's all spam. I don't know what the new standard is, though. It's hard to establish a pattern with only 2 occurrences. –  jonsca Nov 23 '12 at 2:40
Eh, there's no such thing as "non-malicious astroturfing." Astroturfing and spam are essentially the same thing; one is just more blatant than the other. –  Robert Harvey Nov 23 '12 at 21:46
@RobertHarvey I don't disagree. I'm was thinking the change in philosophy was guarding against punishing someone who is really passionate about a product they use, if they were to inadvertently tote it without reading the faq, and it ends up looking like they were astroturfing. I couldn't honestly think of any other reason as to why some mods were making such a distinction. –  jonsca Nov 24 '12 at 1:37
Considering how long ago Jeff linked to Wikipedia's definition of spam, there was no change in philosophy. Apparently we've been using multiple criteria for spam for 2+ years. –  bfavaretto Nov 26 '12 at 20:28
@bfavaretto Just based on my own experience, a few months ago was the first time in 1.5+ years that I'd actually had a spam flag declined. It's certainly not a brand new change in philosophy, but I do seem to recall a post on one of the per-site metas in that same time frame trying to discourage flagging astroturfing as spam, but I'd have to dig it up. –  jonsca Nov 26 '12 at 22:55
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I honestly don't believe this case is spam at all, just a user posting a couple of links to two questions which were almost exactly the same. They probably didn't even realize that their answers could be viewed as spam, especially so far into the future. How long it's been since they visited the site and the fact that they posted nothing else aside from those two answers really doesn't matter.

Handling duplicated answers

Most often a user's ability to post exact duplicate answers on multiple questions (and have them answer the questions) means that the questions are actually duplicates of each other and should be closed as such. In normal situations of duplicated content, one of the answers gets deleted (usually the one on the closed question) and the other remains.

This case shouldn't have been any different. Both of the questions had already been closed as not constructive. Just deleting one of the answers would have been the proper way to go here. Or even better, deleting both of the questions (which the community got around to doing). This is exactly what would have happened if a slightly more active 500-reputation user had posted both of those answers - not their account being nuked from orbit.

Judging the user's intent

The bottom line is you shouldn't do it. Unless you're talking with the user directly, you don't know what their actual intentions were. You don't know that this specific user intended to spam; he could have been legitimately attempting to answer two questions. If you never judge a user's intent, then you can never wrongfully accuse a user of posting spam when they didn't.

Considering that approved spam flags carry a hefty -100 reputation on a user, they should only be used when the spam is blatantly obvious. If it actually answers the question, leave it alone. We can't go off punishing users for their attempts at legitimate answers, just because the question was illegitimate and asks for answers that would otherwise be considered illegitimate on normal questions.

Targeting the real problem

The real problem behind all of this is the questions, plain and simple. If we leave non-constructive questions specifically asking for links in the first place, we're encouraging spam in the form of link-only answers. They answer the question because the question is terrible. We should be focusing on closing down and deleting these questions so we can prevent these link-only answers. Doing so would also prevent arguments over whether those link-only answers, which answer the question, should be considered spam or not (like this one).

This also brings up an issue with the review system pulling these crappy link-only answers from these types of questions. In these cases, the proper action is not to recommend deletion of the answer because it's link-only, but to recommend deletion of the question because it asks for link-only answers.

Where does he cross the line then?

So long as he's posting his answers to questions about MySQL server monitoring tools, he doesn't. The moment he cross that boundary into questions which aren't about that, he's now spamming. I'd like to thank this user for bringing up two questions which don't actually belong on this site, allowing us to delete them and clean up our site just a little bit more.

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I agree that it's a bad question for today's standards, but I still think that specific answer is not legitimate. The user posted the same link within 5 minutes, on two different questions, then disappeared from the site. Of course we can't be sure if that's advertising, but it does look like so. –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 2:31
While the policy against posting exact duplicate answers is different and generally runs on a case-by-case basis, both of those answers he posted actually answered both questions. I don't really see the problem with it aside from the questions. If he were posting these links in non-list questions, then it would look more like spam. –  animuson Nov 23 '12 at 2:36
Okay, based on what you and jonsca say, I had the wrong idea about what should be considered spam. I strongly feel that the intent was to advertise a product, not help other users. So that should be considered okay, unless it becomes too frequent? –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 2:45
If you look at the account, it only posted the same two links. It's a spam account and should be destroyed, regardless of how inactive it's been. –  casperOne Nov 23 '12 at 2:47
It may be that their only intent was to advertise their product, but yes. If their "advertisement" answers the question, then technically there's nothing to do. These answers will get deleted along with the question, so your focus should be geared more towards getting rid of the questions as a whole, not the single answers underneath them. –  animuson Nov 23 '12 at 2:48
The questions are both closed already, that's good enough. If we saw an account pop up today with this behavior, we'd delete it automatically. Time doesn't save this account and frankly, we lose nothing by deleting it –  casperOne Nov 23 '12 at 2:54
@casperOne: I honestly wouldn't consider those two answers to be spam. Both of those questions were essentially duplicates of each other, and the user was clearly smart enough only to post those links in questions where they'd actually be considered answers. In any case where it hadn't been a link, one of them would have been deleted and the other kept, and one question would be closed as a duplicate. If those other link-only answerers had posted the exact same thing on the opposing questions, you wouldn't nuke their accounts from orbit. –  animuson Nov 23 '12 at 3:01
-1 and it's a pity there's no -10. "The question is asking for links. So you can't punish users for posting links." Reasoning like that widely opens a gate for any spammer who just happened to land on a non-constructive question. I am OK with mods carefully inspecting stuff before giving -100 but this should be totally irrelevant to whether question asks for links or not –  gnat Nov 23 '12 at 7:57
I agree such questions should be deleted. But those answers are still spam to me, not so much for their content, but specially for the account's profile: the account was only used for 5 minutes, to post the same link twice, and that link was part of the user's profile too. Really smells like a spam account, regardless of the answers were being posted on a context that makes sense. –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 17:44
Hi @animuson. If you look at the user's profile, the "website" field has the same website address as what he/she is posting in the answers. While it's possible he/she didn't intend to spam, the FAQ - Promotion is very clear that a disclaimer is required for products you're affiliated with, and that not all your answers should be about your product. You're right that the question is bad as well, but there's no point in defending answers that clearly break the rules. By definition, this is overt spam, regardless of whether or not it's "on-topic" spam. –  jmort253 Nov 23 '12 at 19:33
@jmort253: We all know that I don't support or care about the disclaimer rules, and that still doesn't convince me that this is spam. –  animuson Nov 23 '12 at 19:39
With over 5,000 questions per day on Stack Overflow, I find it odd/interesting that a user happened to answer two questions -- and only two questions -- where his/her product could be promoted. This seems very intentional. Either way, it looks like both questions have also been deleted. Perhaps we can agree that the best way to combat spam is to prevent questions like that from being left open on the site. :) –  jmort253 Nov 23 '12 at 19:43
There are a few misconceptions here. First, keeping your promotional answers on-topic for the question doesn't make them non-spam. If anything, it highlight them as spam if all the user did is post them on on old questions; the user did a search, and put their link on every question that matched. Most such questions are already adequately answered anyway. –  Robert Harvey Nov 23 '12 at 21:50
Second, duplicate answers do not automatically make the questions duplicates, although it does make them good candidates. Questions should be evaluated for duplication on their own merit, not based on the answers they have. –  Robert Harvey Nov 23 '12 at 21:53
Third, deleting an answer with a spam flag on it does not automatically levy the -100 rep penalty. The penalty is only applied if the answer receives six spam flags by ordinary users, or one binding spam flag by a moderator, actions which actually happen very rarely. The most common occurrence is that such answers are simply deleted. That said, the spam flag is often used on answers that aren't spam at all. –  Robert Harvey Nov 23 '12 at 21:54
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I see two completely separate issues here. The first is the issue of spam, and the second is the issue of the moderator's edit.

Looks like Spam to me

If a user posts the same answers to different questions, and both are links to a product, there's a good chance it's spam. What's more, the user's website in his/her profile just happens to also be "mafiree.com". Coincidence? I think not.

Okay, so why did the moderator roll back the edit

...but then I noticed it was recently edited by a moderator. Another user had replaced the contents with [content spam deleted pending moderator review], and George Stocker rolled it back.

I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that George Stocker's edit wasn't intended to say he disagreed with the post being spam. Instead, he was rolling back what is essentially vandalism by the user who edited it with the "[content spam deleted pending moderator review]" message. He can still disagree that it's spam, but regardless, editing a post to destroy it isn't how we make it easier for people to review it, and George was merely fixing that particular issue.

In short, this isn't how we handle spam, editing it and replacing it with a meta-message. This is what flags and comments are for. If enough users agree the content is spam, then it will be auto-removed, without any sort of vandalism or making it harder for people using the review queue to actually review the content as spam.

We actually have to open up the post in a separate tab and look at the revision history to see why it's marked as spam. Which isn't helpful. This makes it harder for regular users to participate in the community process, and means the moderator is most likely going to need to intervene in something that most likely won't require moderator intervention.

With that said, George may not have deleted the post because he wanted to let the community decide. Moderators will do that sometimes if they aren't sure themselves, and that's okay. His decision to not take action doesn't mean he disagrees with any flags.

You didn't indicate if you flagged, and if your flag was declined. If the flag was declined, then a moderator definitely disagreed, but if it's in the review queue, then it's possible George was acting on some other flag or just happened to visit the question from the main page.

In short, don't take the rollback to the edit to mean it's not spam, just that editing out content isn't the way to handle spam.

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I didn't flag, but I assumed the user who edited the post did flag (and of course I can't know that). I guess you're right, George probably just missed the evidence of an spam account. I really assumed he meant it wasn't spam, so I became unsure if I was judging possible spam right or not. –  bfavaretto Nov 23 '12 at 2:55
Sure, @bfavaretto, I can see how that might look like he was saying, "no, this isn't spam". Looks like both posts have now been removed, and the closed questions both have 2 delete votes each. –  jmort253 Nov 23 '12 at 2:58
I now think the biggest problem is there is no consensus about what constitutes spam, despite the existence of an "official" definition. I added an answer elaborating on that, please check it out. Turns out I still don't like that kind of spam-like answer, but maybe we should deal with them as animuson says. –  bfavaretto Nov 26 '12 at 17:18
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My question raised a lot of discussion, so this is what I think, after all the answers I got.

Strictly speaking, it's not spam

The FAQ defines spam as "Unsolicited Commercial Advertisement", and links to the Wikipedia definition which states:

Spam is the use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited bulk messages, especially advertising, indiscriminately.

According to a strict interpretation of that definition, the two answers I asked about are in fact not spam. Let's break it down:

  1. Unsolicited – They're not unsolicited, since the question explicitly asked for links.

  2. Bulk – Two posts hardly qualify as bulk. But how many would? Should we define a clear limit?

  3. Advertising/Commercial – They're not the obvious "buy now" type of advertising, but really smell like advertising if we consider that

    • those answers were the user's only posts;
    • the link they contain was also listed on the user's profile;
    • the answers were posted within a 5 minute interval; and
    • that was a long time ago, and the user never came back. Additionally, the user's behavior goes against the Promotion section of the FAQ ("Post good, relevant answers, and if some (but not all) happen to be about your product or website, so be it. However, you must disclose your affiliation in your answers.").

  4. Indiscriminately – The answers were on-topic on both cases, so "indiscriminately" does not apply. Also, they don't sound like they were posted by a bot.

So, the answers in question only qualify as one of the four conditions for beings spam.

But it still looks like spam!

Many users, including myself, still feel that answers like those should go away, and even that similar accounts should be deleted (like that particular account eventually was). Maybe the -100 rep penalty should not apply, but that wouldn't make much difference if the account is deleted too. Some moderators do act on similar answers as if they were spam (or, at least, delete-worthy). So some of us are making decisions based on a unofficial, loose definition of spam. Apparently, we have a double standard here, and that's a problem.

What should we do, then?

I see two options: stick with the current definition of spam, or change it into something less strict. Regardless of what we choose, it's essential that we all abide to the same definition of spam.

I didn't agree with animuson initially, but now I believe his proposed solution is very practical. If we get rid of most (all?) shopping list questions (which are prone to attract spam), similar link-only answers then become really "unsolicited", or "not an answer" – or both. Then we can stick to the strict definition of spam. Of course, questionable answers will still exist, but they should become less frequent, and can be discussed on Meta, chat, etc., on a case by case basis.

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Incidentally, the "Bulk" part of the spam definition applies to even a single link in a single post; because the post can potentially be seen by many people. –  Andrew's a Unitato Nov 26 '12 at 18:54
Oh, and I agree with your conclusion; the 'shopping list' questions are definitely inviting spam-like answers. –  Andrew's a Unitato Nov 26 '12 at 19:05
by definition, shopping questions are not constructive. See Q&A is Hard, Let's Go Shopping. These kinds of questions are already things we target for closure/deletion. They also tend to attract spam and very low quality answers. –  jmort253 Nov 27 '12 at 1:21
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