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This last blast we had was really huge, it lasted almost the whole day. See: http://i.stack.imgur.com/OXvpc.jpg


I have noticed across SE we are getting a lot of spam, usually titled "WATCH BLAH BLAH BLAH HERE".

It is very repetitive, regularly coming in the later afternoon/early evening (pacific time) a few times a week. This is starting to become a problem (on Ask Ubuntu at least) because this spam comes right when things start to slow down in the evening. The spam has actually stayed long enough, that when I check review in the morning I've seen it in in first posts.

What can we do to

  1. Help prevent this spam in the first place?

  2. Make sure it gets deleted faster?


Several thoughts on the subject:

It doesn't appear to be a bot, unless it's a very smart bot. I've seen the "OP" of these spam posts edit them and he once even posted an actual question about this "movie" and added legitimate answers.

enter image description here

As you can see in the one below, he asks where he can watch this movie, and then adds spam answers with links.

enter image description here

He can be pretty steady too, flooding the front page with these.

I've seen this spam on Ask Ubuntu, Security.SE, Ask Different, Smug Mug and Drupal. The spam on Smug Mug lasted several hours at least.

Possible problems I see currently:

  • Very few of these posts get more than 5-6 downvotes, and almost never get enough flags to disappear on their own, meaning they can be around for a long time.

  • Getting a score of -4 hides these questions from the main page, making it harder to kill them.

    This might be a good thing, nobody will see them until a moderator comes around, but it also takes longer to delete them. The longer it takes to delete them, the more the spammer usually posts.

Possible (maybe?) solutions:

  • Blacklisting links

    Blacklisting the links in these posts might help prevent them from being posted, but I've noticed they don't seem to all have the same link, so our mileage may vary there.

  • IP blacklisting

    I've heard that if it got bad enough, SE might consider blacklisting an IP address. I don't know if they still do this or not, but it certainly seems like there is only one spammer behind these posts.

Thoughts based on comments

  • Spam chat room

    This would really be a good idea if we can get people to hang out in it. If we could get people to hang out there, what chat site would we put it on? SO chat, MSO chat or SE chat? Seeing as they don't integrate well together.

Update

Well some more spam came around this evening (It's actually still there... waiting for a mod). The spammers got even trickier, adding tons of whitespace and <br> tags, making the post so long it hid the flag button. I almost didn't figure it out, but I had read a post (I think it was here on meta) about this and quickly figured it out.

See picture here: http://i.stack.imgur.com/xMcSg.png

share|improve this question
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Would a possible solution be requiring fewer spam flags on a post by a 1-rep user? What if a single spam flag on a post by a 1-rep user would temporarily delete the post, or at least remove it from the front page? (It would then show up on a moderator queue, so that the moderator would be able to confirm the deletion was fair, and take action against anyone who abuses the spam flag on real posts). –  David Robinson Mar 7 '13 at 20:06
4  
Opening up a spam chatroom might also help. Ask users to post spam questions in the chatroom if spotted, where flags and downvotes can quickly pile up on the spammy evildoers. This helps get around the problem with the question disappearing from the front page after a few downvotes. –  Asad Mar 7 '13 at 20:47
    
Asad: That is a really good idea! See my edit. @DavidRobinson Lowering the number of spam flags needed to delete a post is a good idea. It's usually not hard to get 3 or 4 flags. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 7 '13 at 22:14
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@Asad what if the spammer gets into the spam chat room and starts spamming about the spam questions. Then you got spam in the spam room about more spam, it's like meta spam! Goodness that's a lot of spam... –  ryan Mar 7 '13 at 23:06
    
@ryan You need 20 reputation to talk in chat. I hope the spammers won't be able to get that... but it would be funny to see them in the spam watch room ;) –  ɥʇǝS Mar 7 '13 at 23:08
    
@Seth haha, I know, I just like saying the word spam... ;P –  ryan Mar 7 '13 at 23:10
    
He liked spamming the word spam. ;-) –  Hennes Mar 17 '13 at 19:22
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Why do they do this?! It boggles the mind. –  Amicable Mar 18 '13 at 16:20
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@Amicable - money –  Jamiec Mar 18 '13 at 16:25
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FWIW, the mods tend to ping me when stuff gets really bad - I blacklisted a few "walking dead spam" related terms last night on AU and 30-some attempts were blocked. This could probably be automated somewhat - it's reasonably effective for handling short-term floods. –  Shog9 Mar 18 '13 at 22:36
    
not sure I get what you mean by "spam chat room". Do you mean a specific room where spammers could spam their messages? I'm not sure I want that. –  SPArchaeologist Mar 19 '13 at 11:00
1  
@SPArchaeologist He means a spam watch room, where people post spam questions so other people can help flag them. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 19 '13 at 13:46
    
@Shog9 That's great! It seems to be really working... –  ɥʇǝS Mar 19 '13 at 13:46
    
AAAAAHHHHHH, ok - Understood. Yes, totally worth it. We had some spam even on SharePoint exchange and I had to go round and round between rooms searching for a mod. So.. yea, a watch room would probably be good. –  SPArchaeologist Mar 19 '13 at 13:48
    
I just love the of the formats of those spammy questions, just how blatant it is that the question is spam. It would be funny if it weren't so serious. –  davblayn Mar 24 '13 at 9:30

8 Answers 8

Help prevent this spam in the first place?

There's not much that can be done, honestly. Spammers will spam. IP address blacklists/bans aren't particularly useful because the IP address used by spammers are a huge range & varies a lot. This is leads to a whack-a-mole contest & you end up blocking a lot of legitimate users.

Make sure it gets deleted faster?

Building on your question:

  • Use the spam flag, Luke

    I see this a lot, where people downvote the posts but do not use the spam flag. 6 spam flags causes the post to be deleted, immediately. This needs to be propagated. Leave a comment informing users to make use of spam flag.

  • Gather the data

    Gather the data on spam that's being splattered. Is there a pattern? Collect info on frequency of the links being posted. If that's the case then you could request for a blacklist. Note that this isn't a foolproof solution since on Super User we've seen even after blacklisting links, spammers will add links without linking them , just mentioning the website & search criteria (ex: goto example.com and search for part Y)

  • Spam chat room

    We'd tried something similar, but it's going to be incredibly noisy & I'd recommend against it. If you see a spam, flag it. If it's still there after a reasonable period of time (where reasonable period depends on site activity) ask your peers in the chat room to flag as such. If it still remains, look at rooms which are fairly active & ask them to flag if possible.

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You know I'm going to blame you, right? –  RolandiXor Mar 9 '13 at 0:28
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So you're saying there ins't anything we can/should do/change? –  ɥʇǝS Mar 9 '13 at 4:02

Here are some of my thoughts on the users aren't flagging side of this

The system does work when it is used the way it was made to be used. But it isn't

Currently (if every downvote counts as a flag) we'd have most of this spam out the door pretty quick.

But we don't The last bit of spam we had (finally) got taken care of, after 9 and 11 downvotes respectively. It should have been gone a long time before that.

What do I think the main problem is?

Educating users...

Obviously if a question gets a score of -11 before it's deleted, not enough users are using their flags. This leads to us wondering, do new user know they can flag?

Rough new user specs..

  • From looking a quick look at my site's meta participation list, we have roughly 20, more or less, highly active users. None of those are new users.

  • A look at the new users page shows that out of the top most active new users none are active on meta, even asking/answering one question. Two have cast votes on meta this year.

I'm not sure how to find out what users have chat accounts, but I haven't seen many of these new users in chat. They certainly don't come there often, nor do they usually talk when they do come.

Now what?..

Since our two main methods of communicating with users don't seem to be all that effective, we don't have many options when it comes to educating users.

Several ideas from various users:

  • Comment on spam asking users to flag it.

I've done this a couple of times and it seemed to help get the spam deleted faster.

  • Post a meta question titled "Please flag the spam!" and get a moderator to tag it

This is a good idea because it gets your question into the community bulletin for a while (one week?) and hopefully most users will see it and read it.

There doesn't appear to be much else we can do, as long as we do our part and flag.

Edit

I've started adding comments on spam along the lines of:

Attention viewers! Please help get this spam deleted by flagging it. Click "flag" and choose "it is spam". Thanks!

And the spam has gotten deleted a lot faster. Seeing as spam usually gets 4 downvotes fairly quickly, that seems to show that most viewers have taken action upon seeing the comment.


Okay, after this last blast of spam (which I only caught the tail end of) I've come to the conclusion:

We shouldn't have to do this

Yes a little spam doesn't hurt anyone. It's actually kinda fun to have a little spam once in a while.. But this is getting to be too much. We shouldn't have to be always watching and waiting for spam, hoping a moderator is around and coordinating spam flags in chat.

The thing is 13 hours later we were still getting a spam question every 5/10 minutes.

share|improve this answer
    
About the large number of downvotes - IIRC a spam flag adds an automatic downvote, and the user can downvote separately. Therefore, any one user can actually add two downvotes, which would explain how it got to -11 before being deleted. –  Bob Mar 17 '13 at 13:13
    
@Bob That's right, but I've never actually seen a community downvote, so I'm not sure those count. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 17 '13 at 16:44
    
@Seth Ask Ubuntu isn't the only site this is happening to. It has been happening to Drupal Answers for close to two months now. The volume ebbs and flows. It appears that most of these are humans and the posts change, and as a result, it is very hard to get blacklists in place that work for more than a few days. –  MPD Mar 18 '13 at 16:15
    
@MPD Yes I've seen it. I actually mentioned it in my question ;) –  ɥʇǝS Mar 18 '13 at 16:17

Blacklisting links does happen, but it has to be done manually by a Stack Exchange employee with sufficient privileges. IP blacklisting is also technically possible, but rarely effective as spammers often share the same IP ranges as legitimate users.

As an ordinary user, there are two things you should do when you see a spam flood:

  • Flag as spam.

    Do not downvote, it's useless, and even counterproductive in the case of a question. Questions with a score ≤-4 are not shown on the front page, but it takes 6 spam flags to kill the post, so if just two people flag and downvote, that's enough to drive the spam off the front page with 4 spam flags still to go.

    If (as happened in the recent flood) the spammer posts both a question and answers to this question, don't bother flagging the answers: they'll be deleted with the question. Conserve your flags, just flag the question.

  • Let others know.

    If you hang around in chat, leave a message. It doesn't even have to be a chatroom of the same site: the association bonus is enough to let you flag posts on a site where you've never posted.

    If there's a spam flood, leave a message in the assembly as well. That room is frequented by mods who have a faster line to Stack Exchange staff. Even though there's little traffic, often someone will notice and escalate.

    Between the Assembly (to escalate to SE staff) and more active rooms (to recruit 5 other flaggers), there's no need for yet another poorly-attended room.

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I didn't know there was a room like the assembly.. That might turn out useful. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 19 '13 at 0:06

Let’s check I understand the problem first.

  • We have users down voting spam rather then flagging it as spam.
  • It therefore is taking a long time to get rid of the spam.

So why not,

  • Exclude any item from showing in google if it has at least 1 spam flag and does not have lots of up votes e.g. make spamming of less value to the people doing it.

  • When a item is deleted as spam, inform everyone that down voted it explain how to flag as spam.

share|improve this answer

OK, spam happens. It happens on Stack Exchange, it happens on unmoderated forums, it happens on Twitter, it just happens. Provided one person in every million clicks a link then it's worth the effort for the spammers to keep trying. Spam itself is not going to go away in the near future. So, having said that:

What can we do to help prevent this spam in the first place?

The best option here is to make Stack Exchange sites not worth the effort of posting spam to. If spam posts get deleted quickly and no clickthroughs occur then in theory the spammers won't bother. It takes time (albeit not much) to sign up to a site and start posting stuff to it, so if there is no benefit to doing so spammers should stay away.

So, how can we do this then? What makes it un-attractive to post to? Well if their spam messages don't stick around long enough to be used by anyone, then that's a start. Yes, this won't stop brand new spammers from starting up, but if we can frustrate the spammers when they come to post their second, third or forth post then we reduce the chances of repeat offenses.

Yes, I've not given a useful answer to your questions yet, but I'm coming onto that. Picking up your second question:

Make sure it gets deleted faster?

Well, I propose that we put more control into the hands of the users of the site. There is already some algorithms in place around flagging - if you flag incorrectly you get punished and can't flag again for a period of time, but aside from a few badges there is no individual benefits to flagging posts, so why not do something here? I propose the following:

Users of a certain reputation and with a good flag value (say, 3000 rep as that's when you can cast close votes, but maybe higher and a Helpful flag rating of 90% or so) should have a higher weight to their flag casting than, say, a new user who hasn't flagged many posts at all.

Users of even higher reputation (10K upwards) should have an even higher flag weight.

  • So, a 101 rep user has a spam flag weight of 1. six of these users needed to flag a spam post for it to be deleted.
  • A 3000 rep user with 90%+ helpful flags has a flag weight of 2, so three of these users are needed to delete a spam post
  • A 10k user has a flag weight of 3, so only two of these users needed to delete a spam post.

This idea should work well because the larger the site the more attractive it is for spammers, but that also means there will be more higher rep users on those sites to be available to deal with this issue.

Then, once a spam post has been deleted, alert the mods to the post so they can deal with the spam poster when they are available.

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I've given you the bounty because you were the first person to mention a solution other than just flagging and asking others to flag. While I think raising the power of a spam flag with reputation might be a good idea, I think the exact values you suggest might make it a little too easy to get things deleted and make the spam flag open to abuse. Maybe it would be better to just give 5 or 10k users a flag weight of 1.5/2. That way no two users could band together and delete whatever they wanted. Just some thoughts. –  ɥʇǝS Mar 25 '13 at 0:09

Notice that most, if not all, of the spam has the same theme: "Watch this episode", "watch that event", "where can I watch that show?", and so on. For now, a good solution may be to improve the quality filters to reject questions like these, especially if they're off-topic on a Stack Exchange site like Ask Ubuntu.

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Most of the posts I downvote are just that, posts that could be changed to show more effort and eventually salvaged into decent questions/answers. I haven't run across this on SO (the SE I frequent), but I think this is something for "flagging". I see they have a lot of downvotes, but I think someone who was downvoting should have flagged it for a mod. Correct me if I am wrong, but those posts seem like the prime example of a flag for a moderator allowing for swift justice without too much hassle/work.

If I saw this amount of spam consistently I would flag all those posts. Is that sustainable in the long run or does that just overburden the mods, I am not sure (not a mod, don't know how much traffic they get).

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I think the idea behind the question is that maybe there should be some proactive measures to prevent floods of spam (like what happened). The effects of downvotes were outlined in the post as well, which include decreased visibility (harder to flag). Is your answer merely saying "Downvotes and flags are enough"? –  Wesley Murch Mar 7 '13 at 20:05
    
@WesleyMurch I don't think downvotes alone deter this. IMHO, I think downvotes are there to let the OP know the question needs to be modified before people might help/understand the question. A downvoted question allows the OP to fix the post. A spam question should be flagged, since the mods can then deal with it, downvoting it a ton isn't enough. I also am not a mod, so I am not sure from a mod perspective if the flagging system is viable by itself as is. –  Walls Mar 7 '13 at 20:07
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@Walls: Questions downvoted to -4 or below also disappear from the front page, which is quite important for fighting spam. –  David Robinson Mar 7 '13 at 20:08
    
@DavidRobinson I am agreeing the -4 downvoted posts go away, but I am saying I think it's more of a problem/responsibility on the 4 people who downvoted it. When you downvote a post, if it is spam, shouldn't the downvoter ALSO flag it for review from a moderation? THAT system, is already in place it seems, it just might not be used as it should. –  Walls Mar 7 '13 at 20:12
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@Walls Raising a spam flag causes an automatic downvote from Community. So after four people flagged as spam, even without personal downvotes, the spam post is at -4. –  Daniel Fischer Mar 7 '13 at 20:13
    
@DanielFischer I had thought the flagging added the post into some moderator queue for review. I guess I misunderstood how the flagging system works (in terms of spam flagging). –  Walls Mar 7 '13 at 20:15
    
Not spam flags. They are only shown to the actual mods. We get "Not an answer" and such. –  Daniel Fischer Mar 7 '13 at 20:16
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I don't see why spam flags aren't added to the 10k moderator queue- it would help users add spam flags quickly. –  David Robinson Mar 7 '13 at 20:19
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@DavidRobinson: Probably to reduce the pile-on effect; spam flags are sometimes abused. Spam flags are promoted to the top of the mod queue, and get dispatched fairly quickly. –  Robert Harvey Mar 7 '13 at 20:40
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@DavidRobinson - As Robert says, these once were visible to 10k users. This led to some nasty piling-on so these were only made visible to moderators. On SO, spam does not last long. In fact, I worry that the community sometimes handles it a little too fast, where we don't see spam posts before they are destroyed. I often find connections between spammers through my tools, so I like to check the users behind these posts when I see them. –  Brad Larson Mar 7 '13 at 21:49

Very few of these posts get more than 5-6 downvotes, and almost never get enough flags to disappear on their own, meaning they can be around for a long time.

Perhaps a badge would mitigate this issue? What if down-voting a question/answer which gets flagged as spam by another user granted a badge? That might encourage users to down-vote posts they suspect other community members will consider spam.

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Actually, it's a bad idea to downvote a spam question. Downvoting it makes it fall off the front page faster (questions with a score ≤-4 disappear from the front page) so it decreases the chance that 6 people will see it and flag it. –  Gilles Mar 18 '13 at 23:49
    
@Gilles - The heart of my answer lies with the badge notion. Do you think it's still not workable if we grant badges to users who successfully flag as spam, instead of users who down-vote? –  Richard JP Le Guen Mar 19 '13 at 0:00
    
That already exists with Deputy and Marshall. –  Gilles Mar 19 '13 at 0:02
    
@Gilles - I suppose - but those are for flags in general. Do you think it would detract to have something which focuses on "flag as spam" flags? –  Richard JP Le Guen Mar 19 '13 at 0:11

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