66

I've had a few concerns over a new form of "spam" - that is, through voting.

A while back, I had seen some wild reputation increases to my account, amongst others, that seemingly felt weird - as I've barely participated in asking questions or providing answers. Earlier today, this sentiment was echoed by another user in chat:

and like 250 this month? it seems like someone is spam upvoting

This was another user that saw a 250 rep increase, but has been inactive for quite a while. For a site that hasn't seen more than 5 questions a day, that was really weird. To put things even more out of hand, it seems like each vote has been placed on a question.


I did some investigation of my own, and it seems like I've found a badge hunter. More of a... gold badge hunter. This user is among the top 3 voters of the site.

Looking into this user's profile, this user only has under 200 rep, and has posted a single question, which was received differently. One thing caught my eye:

Votes

all time              by type
581   up              535    question
1     down            47     answer

Each vote is an up vote (with the exception of one), and there are 535 up votes on questions. There are 535 questions in the entire site.

Using reputation stats from user profiles, I came with the conclusion that these votes are...

  • Done within a short period of time. 5 question votes within a couple of minutes
  • Done in [near] perfect chronological order: The earlier the vote, the earlier the question was asked. As if the user had gone through the list of questions in order, and placed an up vote on each one.

I see this as incredibly problematic. First:

  • It dangerously inflates reputation.

    Votes are not done based on their content, but simply for voting. Therefore, reputation loses it value as a way to measure expertise.

  • It's like serial up voting.

    Generally, when we hear the term "serial up voting", we think of a voting ring, where one user continuously up votes another. This is negative for the targeted user. Well, here, we've got a voting ring with the site and this user. A user continuously up votes the site, causing negative damage for the site.

  • We mix good and bad content.

    Since low quality questions are a victim of the voting spree, many get meddled with the rest of "good quality" questions, despite being closed as off-topic, too broad, or whatever the reason. We can no longer reliably sort questions by quality with the very system that was designed to help us.

... And the rest of voting fraud issues outlined in this meta post.


I've got a couple questions on this:

  • Is this comparable to serial voting? Should such votes be reversed? How should we determine whether or not to reverse them?

  • Should we stop this? Let it be? Is this really that big of a problem for sites? (I would argue that it's less of an issue for graduated sites that receive large amounts of content, but what about beta sites that rarely see more than a few questions a day)

  • 14
    This is definitely a problem, and a worse one than serial voting IMO. Other than revenge downvoting and sock puppetry (which are relatively rare), [unintentional] serial upvoting comes from a pour soul who appreciates what good deed someone else has done on the site, but doesn't know how to be thankful properly. While random post upvoting usually comes and bites you when you're proving that an answer is wrong. – Margarine Nov 8 '15 at 22:44
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    It's not difficult to work out who the individual is. I see they have also received electorate on other sites they participate in. Often their only gold badge on that site. – Martin Smith Nov 8 '15 at 22:47
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    @MartinSmith It may be easy to identify the individual, but that is not the purpose of the post. There is no point in pointing out someone, and calling them names. It's important that we focus on the problem, and the root cause of it, as well as any solutions, instead of any people who may be involved. – Zizouz212 Nov 8 '15 at 22:48
  • 1
    I didn't name the individual. Just pointed out that their behaviour affects multiple sites. – Martin Smith Nov 8 '15 at 22:50
  • Not actually sure how this could be prevented automatically though. Someone determined to blindly upvote to get a badge will be able to evade any timing restrictions between votes if patient enough. And whilst up voting 100% of questions available is pretty obvious on smaller sites this would get drowned out on StackOverflow. – Martin Smith Nov 8 '15 at 23:28
  • @MartinSmith Yeah, I was wondering fairly heavily about that. It doesn't look as if it would be favourable to invalidate any votes, since there are tons of factors involved, and even then, it might not even match this situation. That's why I was asking what should we do, rather than make it a feature request that asks for the implementation of such a system. – Zizouz212 Nov 9 '15 at 0:11
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    @MartinSmith: In fact, any attempts to automatically prevent this might backfire: it's arguably better for someone to consistently upvote all questions than to, say, randomly upvote 50% of them. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 9 '15 at 15:21
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    I suppose if there were a significant portion of the membership of a site doing this it would be a problem, but one person? It's something to discuss, I suppose, but I don't know that we should encourage Stack Overflow, Inc to spend time looking into solutions without evidence that it's causing a substantial problem. – Adam Davis Nov 9 '15 at 15:38
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    It arguably wouldn't be an issue for Stack Overflow, given their question traffic. But when someone votes on each question in a beta site within a month, it's an issue. This also occurs on multiple beta sites, and my concerns are shared with other mods. @AdamDavis what evidence would you like to see? – Zizouz212 Nov 9 '15 at 15:41
  • Spam voting might be partly due to a prize given for voting; I think a certain amount of votes; maybe for a badge. Perhaps not rewarding votes would cut down the voting. – user6035379 Jan 19 '17 at 19:16
23
+500

TL;DR: This is bad. Perhaps someone should stop it, but if so, we should be very careful when doing so.

The behavior is problematic

Upvoting every single question is problematic and undesirable behavior. It has some negative consequences:

  • Votes serve multiple purposes, including giving posters honest feedback on the quality of their question, deciding what to display on the front page, and helping readers and answerers identify which questions are worth their time. Indiscriminate upvoting of every question degrades the signal and thus impacts those purposes.

  • Upvoting every question could clutter the front page with questions that don't belong there, by causing Community to bump questions that otherwise would have a score of -1. Questions with no upvotes and no answers get deleted after a year by Roomba (if some additional conditions are met), but questions with one upvote aren't deleted and live forever, so indiscriminately upvoting every question will cause questions that have no other upvotes to become immortal. Also, questions with a score of 0 and an answer scored 0 will be periodically bumped to the front page by Community. So, if the site has some questions with a question score of -1 and an answer scored 0, after indiscriminately upvoting every question, those questions will now be eligible for bumping to the front page -- even though they're probably not worth bumping, since they had a downvote. So, indiscriminately upvoting all questions will circumvent Roomba and increase the amount of clutter on the front page.

Similarly, indiscriminately upvoting every single answer would be problematic and undesirable, too. As Ϻ.Λ.Ʀ. comments, where random answer upvoting bites you is when you're proving that an answer is wrong. To elaborate:

  • Upvoting every answer prevents site users from deleting incorrect or lousy answers. Generally, ordinary users can't delete positively-scored answers. Thus, upvoting every answer prevents community curation and moderation.

  • Upvoting an answer also causes the question to be treated as answered, so the question never gets bumped. (A positively-scored question with an answer scored zero and no positively-scored answer will get bumped periodically by Community; upvoting a zero-score answer will prevent the question from being bumped.) Thus, upvoting every answer will circumvent the intended purposes of the bumping processes.

(I understand that the particular user you are referring to was indiscriminately upvoting every question, but not every answer -- but since you asked about the general problem, I wanted to address this variant of the problem as well.)

What should we do about it?

That it's undesirable seems pretty clear. What's less clear is what we should do about it. We have to be extremely careful here, because many of the obvious responses have the potential to cause unintended, unwanted consequences.

Here is what I suggest:

Cultural norms. We should establish a cultural norm that indiscriminately upvoting every question/answer is undesirable, harmful to the site, and is best avoided. Note that I'm talking about community values and community consensus here, rather than enforceable policy. And if this is indeed a shared value, it's reasonable to communicate these values to other users.

I also suggest that this been taken narrowly. Here I'm focused only on the specific case of someone who upvotes every single question, or every single answer. I'm not talking about someone who upvotes questions or answers randomly -- that's a different situation, which needs a different discussion.

Enforcement. We need to be extremely careful about enforcement, because the opportunity for things to go awry is so substantial. If situation arises, I suggest that the site ♦-moderators first contact the user via a private chat to understand what's going on and what the user might be thinking, and see if the problem can be addressed through communication.

If that fails, then I'm not sure what the next step should be: escalate to a community moderator, perhaps? In the case of a user who is not contributing positively to a site but is just systematically upvoting every question or answer, a suspension seems like it could be a justified as a response: but I would be happy to trust ♦-moderators or community managers to act in the best interests of the site. I'm not sure a specific policy on exactly how to respond is necessary or desirable -- I think it's more important to set group norms and signal what our expectations are, and handle it from there on a case-by-case basis.

8

I would consider this much, much worse then serial voting to be honest. By such a thing, the user actively damages the site in a number of ways. I would flag something he upvoted (anything then, heh) for Moderator attention and then let them deal with it.

Personally, if it was me moderating I would:

  • Invalidate all the votes
  • Dish out a heavy warning and maybe short term suspension for the user
  • Make it abundantly clear that this is considered the same type of abuse of privileges as serial voting.

I can't fathom an algo that could coherently enough detect and do this to make it a net gain for the community, so I say just let the moderators handle the cases of this that you discover. I don't think that there are many people like him.

  • 10
    Ah, for the record (and I should've said this earlier), I'm a moderator, and moderators can't actually invalidate votes. Only the powers can be have the ability to do such a thing. I would generally agree with you, in that this looks like abnormal voting, and that we should provide a warning, but what if it's not? This is easily a side effect of gamification, and not all votes may be invalid (but again, it's fine as it's a side consequence of user behaviour). Further, there's no "policy" really to define what people can/should do, which is really why I raised this issue here. – Zizouz212 Nov 9 '15 at 13:40
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    @Zizouz212 there may be no policy, but common sense strictly dictates that this behaviour hurts the site in a way equal or more then maxed out serial voting. Like in cases of serial voting, not all votes have to be invalid to have them invalidated as a whole. And if you can't do it, as I understand, Diamond Moderators have means of contacting SE staff directly, which is what I would do in this instance. A site like SE lives by shaping policies based on current events. – Magisch Nov 9 '15 at 13:50
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    @Zizouz212 you can destroy the user, and thus all its votes ;) – Patrick Hofman Nov 9 '15 at 15:25
7

(Sorry, slightly late to the party and you've possibly already dealt with this....) You've uncovered a reasonably serious issue that the tools don't alert you to.

The impact might not be as great on other sites as what it is on yours. I'd suggest you contact the mods of the other sites this user has done this on (ping them via the TL), alert them to the issue and discuss a co-ordinated approach. I'd also suggest you mod message the user about it. An immediate suspension will not be beneficial as all it will do is stop the user voting for a while, on a slower site you won't notice much impact from that and it doesn't fix the damage done. You can follow the mod message with a request to the dev team to invalidate all the user's up votes on your site (the mods of the other sites will have to determine if they want to do the same).

If the user continues the practice after a warning then you have a clear case to escalate the penalty. While it could be tempting to just eliminate their account you need to give them the benefit of the doubt and at least one chance to change their ways. Lots of people have tried to game the system in the past, this attempt isn't much different.

  • 2
    You can never be late for a party :) Nah, I'm in the process of talking to those involved and many mods have discussed it in the TL. The main reason for this post was to figure out whether this is acceptable by the community, and what actions we should take, as this behaviour is unprecedented. That said, thanks for the answer. :) – Zizouz212 Nov 13 '15 at 2:04
3

I agree this is harmful and I would classify this as serial voting. To what degree varies based on the site. On a larger site I'm sure it's barely noticeable except in extreme cases and there is enough content to mitigate the effect and active users to hopefully make sure the content that is spam voted is already fairly voted on by the community and the spam impact is minimal.

For smaller sites this is extremely harmful. Voting up every question skews what the site deems as good content and bad content especially if the user is doing it for the wrong reasons like just trying to earn a badge like electorate. On one of the sites I'm on someone is doing this where the scope is still being shaped up and voting is how the users are helping carve it out. The "spam voting" on this site is causing what the site wants to be covered up.

Spotting a voting trend like this isn't too hard and can simply be found by looking at the votes page and seeing a high voting trend in a user. The bigger thing is figuring out what to do when this is found.

Suggested enforcement:

While I do feel this is harmful, there is currently no good way to enforce this. A stay in the penalty box would be too much especially when we want people to vote, just we want people to vote for the right reasons. My suggestion would be to implement a voting ban to combat the behavior and take more serious actions if it continues. At the point this is caught reversing the votes will have serious impact across the site and affect many, many users.

  • Not to mention the fact that on larger sites it is impossible to upvote all the questions since the quantity of incoming questions per day is more than the vote cap. – Kevin B Dec 7 '15 at 16:25
-4

Votes supposed to indicate whether you think a question or answer is good or bad. I think the robo-voting that the OP describes is bad because it goes against that: if you're just blindly voting everything up, you're not applying any judgement.

But it seems to me that in pretty much all cases, the damage it does is small.

The person whose voting led to this question makes a good example: they have the electorate badge on 20+ sites where they don't have enough rep to downvote. On some of them, they've cast exactly 600 votes and that's their only activity on the site.

On a big SE site (10's of thousands of questions), I think their voting will just be lost in the noise.

On a small-medium site with a few thousand questions (e.g. bikes.SE), I think the overall impact of their voting still won't be significant. It'll be spread around among many users.

On a small site where they've voted on almost every question, I think if they stop robo-voting at that point (and either stop participating altogether or just continue to vote normally from that point on) it also probably doesn't have much impact. I'm not active on a lot of "new" sites, but I assume that newer sites still have more voting in general. If that's the case, then any "bad" upvotes should be cancelled by other people downvoting.

So in the end, although I think it's bad, I don't think anything needs to be done about it.

  • 2
    "the damage it does is small" - Can you elaborate on your reasoning for why you've concluded the damage is small? I've outlined in my answer some examples of negative impact. You don't address them in your answer. Do you want to articulate the argument that those effects don't matter much? (I'm not saying I necessarily disagree with you; I'm just interested to know how you came to that conclusion.) – D.W. Nov 10 '15 at 7:00
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    One of the ways it damages the site is that it stops the rhoomba auto-delete script from working as it would require additional downvotes to ensure the question actually gets deleted instead of staying alive from a blind upvote. – ratchet freak Nov 10 '15 at 8:55
  • Seeing that this is the fourth answer, I get the impression that this is from an uninformed point of view. There has been plenty of discussion about this so far as well. I recognize that you note that aren't active on many sites, but I at least suggest that you look at a few. My primary sites sees an average of 5 votes / question generally, so "bad" votes inflate that even more. Further, if a downvoted question is subsequently upvoted, it means that one vote will have to be used to "neutralize" that, which is just inefficient. – Zizouz212 Nov 10 '15 at 20:47
  • 1
    @Zizouz212, If you look at my profile, I think it's pretty clear that when it comes to voting on SE sites, I am far from uninformed. I've likely spent more time thinking about votes and voting than, well, anyone. – Ward Nov 10 '15 at 22:45
  • I'm not saying that you are uninformed, but rather your answer, especially considering that it is the 4th answer on this question. – Zizouz212 Nov 10 '15 at 22:47
  • @Zizouz212 I'm still not clear what difference it makes that it's a 4th answer. Would my analysis/opinion of the impact of this problematic voting pattern on large, medium, and small sites be considered better informed if I'd posted it sooner? I don't see any other answers (there are comments) about the impact on different sizes of SE sites. – Ward Nov 10 '15 at 22:59
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    @Ward, one point of relevance is that there were 3 prior answers that raised some substantive points -- and your answer doesn't appear to grapple with or comment on or acknowledge those points. It's possible this might be Zizouz212's gentle way of suggesting that your answer might be stronger if it included your analysis of those other answers and why you didn't find them persuasive. (Of course, I wrote one of the other answers, so I might be biased here.) – D.W. Nov 13 '15 at 0:34
  • Yes there is much spam voting. – user312109 Oct 31 '18 at 5:35
  • You shouldn't be able to down vote a person to a post ban with only a handful of people. – user312109 Oct 31 '18 at 5:36
-18

I disagree that this is a problem, and with several of your bullets specifically. Voting is not something we can regulate, except for specific targeted voting fraud. Voting for everything - up or down - is not targeting anyone. It is shotgunning votes across the site, but if the user wants to vote that way, let them. As aspect of gamifying the network is badges and badges lead to badge hunting. This user is actually helping the communities.

It dangerously inflates reputation.

Votes are not done based on their content, but simply for voting. Therefore, reputation loses it value as a way to measure expertise.

That isn't what reputation does. It doesn't measure expertise. It measures "this was helpful", it measures "I answered this first" and it measures "I am good at explaining an issue so that you can understand it". All of those together can show expertise, but if you are only using reputation for to determine if someone is an expert, you'll eventually get bitten by a high rep user that is good at Googling, plagiarizing, or quickly answering a duplicate before it is closed.

Reputation is the lifeblood of community moderation though. This user is providing the communities they are targeting with more reputation to keep users like them in check. More users get the ability to down vote, flag, close vote, review, edit without review and delete bad questions or answers. More reputation isn't bad. It helps the young communities become less dependent on moderators.

It's like serial up voting.

No, it's like badge hunting. Serial up voting is targeting a user. This isn't targeting. This is going for that shiny yellow circle and a bigger number next to it. This is going to the claim that they have the most badges on the network of a certain type.

We mix good and bad content.

Yes, but the trade off here is that the rest of your community can counter this user. A single user should not be able to damage a community. There are very low quality questions across the network that have been up voted, deleted/undeleted, closed/reopened, edited/unedited, and those are all countered by the rest of the community.


Is this comparable to serial voting? Should such votes be reversed? How should we determine whether or not to reverse them?

In my mind, this is not comparable at all. A user broadly targeting a community with up votes (or down votes) is helping the community. With up votes they are encouraging the rest of the community to get involved in moderation sooner. In fact, one of the leading cries during private betas are to use all your votes. This is no different.

This is encouraged all over the network. We should vote early. We should vote often. We should vote positively.: "We should encourage everyone to vote positively as often as possible!"

There are communities that explicitly say that voting on all (emphasis in the following quote is not added by me) questions is highly encouraged.

Note that we're re-featured tagging this because we want to encourage people to vote on all posts, not just the ones that you've answered or asked. Voting is an important part of the SE model, and helps the community vet users, and helps users who provide valuable contributions feel valued. – jimsug♦ Aug 29 at 2:19


Should we stop this? Let it be? Is this really that big of a problem for sites?

No. Let it go. The user is doing something we explicitly encourage during private betas and early public betas. They are also doing something the system encourages - playing the game.

  • 20
    This is pure nonsense. Nowhere we encourage users to up-vote every question there is. We encourage to vote for usefulness. This isn't useful voting at all. – Patrick Hofman Nov 9 '15 at 15:24
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    Yes we do. All over the place. On many different sites. Vote Early, Vote often: "We should encourage everyone to vote positively as often as possible!" – Andy Nov 9 '15 at 15:26
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    If more indiscriminate reputation gain was desirable, SE could just hand out free rep to everyone. The whole point of rep (besides being a gamification mechanic to encourage users to contribute) is to grant additional privileges to those users the contribute good content. It doesn't work perfectly, of course, but the only reason why privileges are tied to rep at all is because, on average, users with more rep tend to be more experienced and invested in the site, and thus more likely to use the tools wisely. Indiscriminate upvoting weakens this correlation, and is thus damaging. – Ilmari Karonen Nov 9 '15 at 15:28
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    Indiscriminate voting from a single user to an entire community doesn't do damage. It provides the community with more users that can utilize those additional priviledges. – Andy Nov 9 '15 at 15:29
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    "Vote early, vote often" does not mean "vote indiscriminately." We strongly encourage people to vote up the posts that they consider good, and to vote down those they consider bad. Upvoting everything is just as useless as a quality signal as not voting at all, and arguably worse since it inflates rep. (It's just like with review: we strongly encourage people to review, but also strongly discourage robo-reviewing. What we want is for people to actually look at posts and up/down/close/etc. vote them based on their quality.) – Ilmari Karonen Nov 9 '15 at 15:34
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  • 3
    You have to see that in context. The comparison is made between questions you have an interest in and 'the rest'. You should vote on the rest too, but not all! – Patrick Hofman Nov 9 '15 at 16:14
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    @Andy I think I should point out, is that voting is important in private betas, yes. All votes are encouraged, and rep levels are even lowered to help foster that. Those posts are like "generic" posts, just a little reminder to help grow the community. But nowhere does it ever say to vote everything. For an inactive user to come up and do this out of the blue is kind of unprecedented, and I certainly wouldn't welcome it. The fact that each vote goes up is also kind of surprising. Out of 535 questions, some blatantly off-topic, would there not be room for even a single down vote? (cont.) – Zizouz212 Nov 9 '15 at 17:19
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    ... What about answers? Why are they receiving nearly no votes? You're right in that Law mods re-featured a post to try to encourage users to vote. But I think that Law has a sort of voting issue, largely in part because they are a mature site: at least 80% of their questions come from new users that have never been to SE, and can't vote themselves. Since they're also new, they also don't have that big of a community. For (75?) avid users, it would be harder to sustain 10/questions a day. The situations I think are vastly different. – Zizouz212 Nov 9 '15 at 17:23
  • 8
    Regarding the quote, “Voting is an important part of the SE model, and helps the community vet users, and helps users who provide valuable contributions feel valued”, note that neither of the goals mentioned is achieved by just-upvote-everything voting: That will not “help vet users”, not will it make users with valuable contributions feel valued if literally everything gets upvoted. Also note that, even if one were to accept that voting on everything is good, this doesn’t mean you should only upvote. – chirlu Nov 9 '15 at 18:05
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    someone going around upvoting everything indiscriminately is no better than someone going around downvoting everything indiscriminately. It's completely useless, and possibly harmful to the users/community due encouraging low quality posts (or discouraging high quality posts in the case of mass downvoting.) but... as far as what we should do about it, I don't know. maybe a message to them by a moderator. – Kevin B Nov 9 '15 at 18:24
  • 2
    I see several people disagree with my opinion. Great. I'm happy to discuss it (and change my mind, if I'm wrong). From what I'm seeing, it looks like people think this is bad. My question, regarding that point of view, is how do we know the difference between users that never down vote, users that use all their votes frequently and users that are doing something "wrong" (how ever that is eventually defined). – Andy Nov 9 '15 at 18:25
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    @Andy: Good point. On TeX - LaTeX we have a very "positive community", with many upvotes compared to downvotes. In fact, some people use voting as a measure of "having read a post", since no other such measure exists. And true, that's the way they vote, and may be very difficult to discern between those who vote that way out of habit (and perhaps negatively affect the community) and those who intentionally vote that way for other purposes. In short, it's difficult to force people to do certain things that is considered anonymous. – Werner Nov 9 '15 at 20:25
  • 2
    You can vote on anything (this is encouraged), but not everything. Serially voting on literally everybody without regard to post content is abuse of the voting system and exploitive of the low question rate so that rate limiting does not kick in. – bjb568 Nov 10 '15 at 4:06
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    I'm confused by the responses to this answer. Nowhere is Andy encouraging people to upvote all the things regardless of their usefulness. There is absolutely nothing wrong with upvoting all 500 questions on a site if all 500 questions actually are useful. It just happens to be vanishingly unlikely that 100% of content on a UGC site is useful (hell, even if it wasn't UGC). Consequently, there is also absolutely nothing wrong with upvoting 250 useful questions and downvoting 250 harmful questions on a site with 500 questions - provided the votes are applied correctly. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Jan 8 '16 at 6:31

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