Well, thanks for making me harass a user over attempting to vandalize a post!

Got a flag on a question notifying us that a new, low-rep user submitted a bogus edit suggestion. Okay, so I went and took a look at it.

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Well, that certainly looks spammy.

I then checked out the user's account, which looked normal, having no signs of spam whiff. Since this person is new, I contacted the user asking what happened with the edit.

me:

We just got a flag that you attempted to deface a question with an edit

[snip details]

Can you explain?

user:

No i didn't do anything

me:

This isn't a horrible nightmare of a mess or anything, its just odd. Your account appears to be that of a real person, but this kind of behavior is indicative of a fake account.

Can you please just explain what happened?

etc etc until the point where Brad Larson figured out that this was probably a Suggested Edit audit, which was then confirmed to be the case, and I sincerely apologized to the user for harassing them over bullshit.

How is using actual accounts of random users acceptable in this situation? Why are these audits recorded in the post history just as if they are real?

This is kinda bad, guys. You gotta stop using unsuspecting users as vandals and stop recording these incidents in the post history.

  • 2
    I agree.. they should pick a random unregistered username, e.g user3998493843 – Brian Mar 7 '13 at 17:43
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    If it is clearly labeled as an audit already, why does it even need to have a username? – W5VO Mar 7 '13 at 17:46
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    @W5VO: To try and not tip you off that its an audit and its only marked after you pass or fail. – Brian Mar 7 '13 at 17:50
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    @W5VO It's only clearly marked as an audit after the person has been audited. – Robert Harvey Mar 7 '13 at 17:50
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    I'm curious as to why someone would flag a post for a moderator when they're already reviewing it correctly. Letting the review process work would have avoided this entirely. – Wooble Mar 7 '13 at 18:15
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    @Wooble: this user wasn't just suggesting a bad edit (which wouldn't require a moderator's attention)- it distinctly had the appearance of a spambot or vandal (which would) – David Robinson Mar 7 '13 at 18:17
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    Well to be fair if I hadn't seen the MSO post about failing one of these audits by trying to improve the post before I actually got hit with one myself, I would have though the user was drunk stacking. – Wooble Mar 7 '13 at 18:24
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    that may have just become my most favorite SE related phrase: drunk stacking – jcolebrand Mar 7 '13 at 18:49
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    I want to see an audit where Jon Skeet or Shog9 suggests a crap edit :p – ThiefMaster Jun 24 '13 at 9:04
  • I would find it interesting to know if my account was used for that purpose when I was a new user. – Donald Duck Sep 19 '17 at 12:08
up vote 29 down vote accepted

Woops, that's not good. I suppose we always suspected this would come back to bite us, but perhaps not so spectacularly.

Showing fake users on audits is non-ideal, because it creates an easy way to quickly detect audits: Does the display name look fake? Even if not, does clicking the display name bring me to a real user profile?

We just pushed a change (that will go live shortly) that will hopefully alleviate the problem:

Once the audit is passed/failed, then we'll always show the edit as having been created by the Community User.

But while a suggested edit audit is still reviewable, the behavior is unchanged – an unsuspecting user is randomly selected and displayed as the proposer of the edit.

  • 5
    ... until something like this happens! "Tuttle? His name is Buttle! There must be some mistake!" – Pëkka Mar 7 '13 at 19:15
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    Read to the bottom, and I'm not entirely satisfied with that – Sam I am Mar 7 '13 at 19:18
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    Why not just un-link the username field in the suggested edit queue (or not show it at all?). Having reviewed 4,000+ suggested edits, I can't say I'd miss that functionality. If I really really found myself in a situation where I'd need it, I could always navigate to the post, and find it in the suggested edit pane there. This will make user profiles easier to fake for the audits. Alternatively, you can just link to the Community User, or link to page saying "Haha, you caught us out, this user doesn't really exist; it was just an audit". – Matt Mar 7 '13 at 19:38
  • The worst part is that Suggested Edit audits don't out themselves as audits. – Dennis Mar 7 '13 at 19:49
  • @Matt We don't want people to be able to easily identify (and thus avoid) the audits. – Adam Lear Mar 7 '13 at 20:13
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    @AnnaLear: I was thinking about removing the hyperlink for a username on every suggested edit review, not just on audits. As for my additional suggestions (which would give a slight hint of a audit), if a user is inspecting the page well enough to notice the target of a URL, chances are they ain't a robo-reviewer. – Matt Mar 7 '13 at 20:15
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    @Matt I don't think removing the link from all edits would be good either. If someone is making terrible edits, reviewing their profile might be handy. And I think you underestimate the desire some folks have to grind out review badges. Putting a hover over the user link into their "routine" to make sure they pass every audit wouldn't cost much time at all. – Adam Lear Mar 7 '13 at 20:18
  • Humm, for a moderator maybe, but as I said, in the 4,000+ reviews I've carried out, I've seldom needed it... linking the username once a review has been performed, and having the link available by navigating to the post would be enough in those rare situations IMO... and haha, I'm beginning to wonder whether there is a limit to the lengths these robo-reviewers go to ;). – Matt Mar 7 '13 at 20:26
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    Can I please opt out of the fake author candidates? – fuxia Mar 8 '13 at 2:39
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    Another option would be for links on audits to redirect elsewhere. I suspect it may be enough to just skip that audit item if they click on anything other than the review response for that item. I assume that audits are there mostly to pick up when people respond to a review without thinking and suspect that if someone being audited is checking the user or other links, it's because they are thinking about the post and are thus probably a pass, or at least not a fail. *8') – Mark Booth Mar 8 '13 at 11:36
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    What sort of display names would you say look "fake"? And which users that are too lazy to bother reading the edits they approve have the wherewithall to bother checking out the edit's author in any detail at all? Sounds like we need a review (lol) as to which users we're targetting with the audit feature. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 13 '13 at 7:40
  • This really doesn't seem adequate; see <meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/284675/…> – SamB Jan 29 '15 at 18:47
  • Audits are supposed to catch people who just click Approve on everything as fast as they can without even looking at the edit (and even less the editor). So if someone takes the time to check the editor's account, they've already proven that they're paying attention. See meta.stackoverflow.com/q/288046/4284627. – Donald Duck Jul 28 at 1:10

I couldn't agree more. This is impersonation in an explicitly negative scenario, which amounts to libel if you look at it too closely. I thought it was kinda creepy when I first figured it out (which took a while), but got used to it. You've reminded me that I shouldn't have done that.

On a practical note, if you're a user who accepts edits blindly (which the audit is supposed to weed out), it seems unlikely that you're gonna spend time investigating the editor. Thus it seems that there is little benefit in co-opting an authentic account, other than the dev time required to present a fake one that passes even just cursory examination.

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    I agree with this; the inconsistency in the defense of audits is quite puzzling to me. Shog has said, I believe in more than one place, that they're only meant to test that you're paying the minimum of attention, but Anna Lear and Emmet reply here that an audit needs to stand up to scrutiny. – Josh Caswell Mar 12 '13 at 22:42
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    Thanks for posting this, I was going to post the same thing. I think assigning random people to vandalizing-suggested-edits is completely unacceptable, and also completely unnecessary. – Ben Lee Mar 14 '13 at 19:25
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    @BenLee: Much more succinct than I could have put it :) – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 18 '13 at 11:45

Wait, merely having an account on a site that uses audits means I could have actions falsely attributed to me? That's bad, and waiting until after the audit is complete to reveal the truth -- to anybody who's still looking at that point -- is insufficient. People sometimes look at the profile during the review, not just after it's resolved. You're setting people up for people to think "oh, Skeet -- that was that spammer I saw in the review queue" when they next encounter the user. You can update the review event but you can't update people's memories.

The audit code impersonates users. Our terms of service don't allow people to do that, yet our own code does it? That's not cool.

Surely we have, or can create, some real accounts to use in audits. They don't need to show site activity; users with no posts sometimes do suggest edits, after all. If you're worried that people will learn to recognize the fake users over time, change the names for each audit -- most people won't click through. If you're concerned that somebody will click through, notice the name difference, and say "aha, this was an audit", maybe somebody who does that level of investigation isn't the type that you're most worried about catching with audits in the first place.

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    According to a post from 2015 that I just closed and can't seem to find, they've changed this behavior and now only show fake accounts. – forest Jul 21 at 7:20

I agree with the other answerers so far that this behavior is disconcerting. A user's identity should be sacrosanct. There's probably no way to know whether this has caused any real problems (and if so, how severe they were), but it's a matter of principle.

I have a somewhat different idea for a solution: while an edit suggestion is still pending, whether a real one or an audit, don't show the edit suggestor's name or other information at all.

I want to be explicit here that I am not proposing completely removing credit for suggested edits. After a given edit suggestion is judged, the relevant post edit history and suggestor profile should be updated as normal.

From Emmett's answer, the concern seems to be that people may try to use edit suggestor information as a kludgey way to determine whether edits are audits. I submit that such behavior is an anti-pattern. Proper reviewers should judge edit suggestions based on their content, not the identity of their authors. Regardless, my proposal eliminates the problem; you can't try to analyze profile information that isn't there in the first place. And removing this from all profiles rather than just audits prevents reviewers from having any hint at all.

The main complaint I anticipate to my idea is that people won't want to lose visibility on real suggestors' information. I don't think there's a big cost here, though. No information is being destroyed; just hidden for the short period when suggestions are under review. And showing names during review leads mostly to negative behaviors, not positive ones (e.g. introducing bias, and distracting from content). The most legitimate use case I can think of is that higher-rep users might be more trustworthy editors than anonymous or low-rep users; however, once a user reaches 2000 rep (lower on betas) their edits stop being suggestions, so even this is of limited utility.

  • While rep is largely irrelevant for suggesting edits, sometimes specific suggesters show patterns of troublesome edits that are worthwhile for users to spot (so that they can be flagged or otherwise escalated), so I'm a little reluctant to lose that. – Nathan Tuggy Jul 21 at 1:22
  • @NathanTuggy That's valid. I don't have a good solution at top of mind. To play this out... you already note that there's no direct action item here for the regular user; the only option is escalating the issue. Perhaps if mods retained visibility of suggestor names? Then people could still flag to say "Yo, I've seen troublesome thing X in multiple suggestions recently, including this one; could you look into it?" and the responding mods would still have enough info to run those leads down. – SOLO Jul 23 at 17:56
  • The problem I was thinking of is that, in many cases, no pattern is likely to even emerge unless you have suggester names to start with. On SO, for example, there's a lot of occasional suggesters that add in unnecessary code formatting at least once in a while. But flagging all of those for mods to check and make sure none of them are doing nothing but adding bad code formatting would not scale for mods or users. – Nathan Tuggy Jul 23 at 18:03
  • I guess this is a workflow thing. The one or two times I've noticed something like this, I have noticed the pattern weird behavior first and only later looked at the associated user. But I'm not a power reviewer, so I acknowledge others could be going about it differently, especially if the problems are being spread out over time. – SOLO Jul 23 at 18:16

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