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On Ask Ubuntu we've got a bunch of users who we believe to be friends at school together.

  • They ask questions for each other to answer
  • They vote for each other (and recently also against each other)
  • They have thousands of invalidated points between their numerous accounts
  • They started in 2012 and I wrote this meta question about voting for friends, we contacted the users and they all quit... but a year they came back and started doing it again (with more people, more accounts)
  • There have been multiple reputation wipe-outs from SE staff
  • They complain to us when they see votes cancelled out or they serially down-vote each other
  • We have deleted their sock-puppets
  • We have banned their accounts multiple times but they just come back with more of the above
  • They are also contributing users. It's hard to know how much reputation is valid but they are posting helpful content and submitting helpful edit suggestions.

It's basically an unsustainable situation. Our only scope for dealing with this at the moment is banning them indefinitely or dealing with their nonsense every day and having SE try to wipe up behind them. It's been going on for months and it's a mess.

I'm a developer so my first thought now (given that we've attempted diplomacy and punishment) is to try introducing some technology. As mods, we've been fairly decent at detecting our deviant users. We know who they are and we're pretty decent at finding their Tor sock-puppets. The problem is we don't have a decent feature to handle the problem.

I'm suggesting moderator-defined relationships to stem their ill-gotten reputation.

  • Mods can create a "ring" and add users to it
  • Within a ring, users can still vote for each other but they get no reputation from it.
  • This inclusion in a ring and even the loss of reputation could be obscured from the user. I'm just thinking about how many more sock-puppets this could create.

People are usually pretty anti-Oli when I suggest punitive measures on MSO but even if you don't like my idea, I'd like to know: What would you do (or like to) in this this crappy situation?


Regarding the need for a feature, the answer for this instance of this problem might be nuking the users from orbit or another round of suspensions but this is not an isolated issue.

We have had several groups of users who accidentally fall into targeted voting habits on Ask Ubuntu and when we spot them, usually just contacting them to point out the problems is enough but sometimes people just fall back into bad habits. If we can formalise physical relationships between users, we can pro-actively help stop this being an issue.

Sock-puppets will continue to be an issue for people who really want to cheat the system but I have no problem deleting a sock account. It's much harder to handle an account with several thousand reputation with hundreds of posts.

@SE Staff, feel free to pop into our mod room to discuss specifics.

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If all the previous efforts didn't do anything, I'd expect them to simply create even more sock puppets if something like this would be implemented. –  Mad Scientist Mar 12 at 16:39
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@MadScientist That may well be what happens but we mods can delete the found sock-puppets as we find them... Is the big accounts with thousands of rep we can't viably deal with, that a boundary-blocker like this would help fix. –  Oli Mar 12 at 16:42
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Why do you think this will help? Even if you are able to do this it wouldn't prevent them from creating sockpuppets. –  Mhmd Mar 12 at 16:46
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Why is banning the main account indefinitely not a good option? They might be contributing some valuable content, but from the way you describe the situation, they are certainly more trouble than they are worth. –  Yannis Mar 12 at 16:47
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@Yannis That might be the outcome in this situation it's just hard to predict what the next stage will be. Most people who get caught doing this don't go quietly in my experience. They have nothing left to lose so take to Tor and we'll have a month of targeted abuse from somewhere between three and six real people. That's not something I'm keen to take on at the moment :) –  Oli Mar 12 at 16:49
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@user689 As I said before, socks are a bit easier to deal with. I'm much less hesitant to nuke them from orbit. –  Oli Mar 12 at 16:50
    
Should this be specific to Ask Ubuntu? Because there isn't such a problem in other SE sites. –  Mhmd Mar 12 at 16:55
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@user689 I'm certain voting rings exist on all the big SE sites. I'm posting here because the system (SE) is ill-equipped to deal with this behaviour. More than that, I'd really like to hear from other moderators on other sites and what they'd do. We've been dealing with these people for months now. –  Oli Mar 12 at 17:03
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"Within a ring, users can still vote for each other but they get no reputation from it." - The problem with voting rings isn't false reputation (who really cares about fake Internet points?), it's the artificial elevation of votes on bad or wrong content. Leaving votes while nullifying reputation is I think solving the wrong problem. I see no reason why we couldn't just nullify all voting between identified users in a ring. –  Brad Larson Mar 12 at 17:32
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@BradLarson Part of the points problem is it gives these guys abilities on the site they shouldn't have and portrays them as "good users" –  ɥʇǝS Mar 12 at 17:40
    
@BradLarson +1 Those are good points... I'm probably over-engineering the problem but there's a certain glory in the hell-ban style of punishment where they think they're still getting away with it. It's a game of chess with some people... You have to try and work out what they'll do next time. –  Oli Mar 12 at 17:42
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@BradLarson: "(who really cares about fake Internet points?)" Well, the people who would do this sort of thing, obviously... –  Wooble Mar 12 at 18:04
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I hate to say it, but from their actions, it sounds like forcible deletion is what needs to be done. Their bad actions far outweigh their good contributions, and their attitudes about bypassing the rules also don't help. –  fbueckert Mar 12 at 18:50
    
Clique –  gnat Mar 12 at 21:02

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