The Free Internet Project

Revisiting Reddit's Attempt to Stop "Secondary Infecktion" Misinformation Campaign from Russia


Last year, Reddit announced that it banned 61 accounts in relation to a disinformation campaign dubbed “Secondary Infecktion” led by a Russia group.  The campaign group was exposed by Facebook earlier in June 2019 for creating fake news in multiple languages that involved multiple nations, aiming to “divide, discredit, and distract Western countries” through dissemination of fake information such as assassination plans, attacks on Ukraine and its pro-Western government, and disputes between Germany and US. This time, the operation created fake accounts and uploaded “leaked UK documents” on Reddit. A research firm, Graphika Labs inspected the associated accounts and concluded these were linked to Secondary Infecktion based on same grammatical errors and language patterns.

Reddit’s investigation into suspicious accounts started with its users’ report on questionable posts. It then worked with Graphika and soon found a “pattern of coordination” similar to those reported accounts linked to Secondary Infektion, making it “use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit.”

As Reddit’s statement wrote, it “encourage[s] users, moderators, and 3rd parties to report things to us as soon as they see them.” This statement reflects how much Reddit depends on its community to help moderate the site. Reddit is a platform that is heavily community-based. It is a collection of forums where users share content and comments on just about anything. To the left of every post, there are two buttons – the upvote and the downvote, which allow users themselves to rate content. The total score of a post is essentially the number of upvotes minus downvotes, making the content’s position on a page based on its score rank. Basically, a higher score means more visibility.

The voting system is liked by many users because unlike Facebook or Twitter, Reddit is more like a community curated by its users themselves. However, the voting system has its drawbacks. The system can be gamed and manipulated. First, because everyone has certain moderating power, personal beliefs and agendas may get in the way. For example, a person may create several accounts just to downvote a post with which he does not agree. As a result, information may be downgraded by gaming the systemt. Second, there's a risk of content manipulation by coordinated attacks. As the June security report stated, Reddit has been heavily focused on content manipulation around the 2020 elections and ensure minorities’ voices would be heard. Therefore, Reddit worked much on bot detection and malicious viruses. Admins have vast powers, including flagging fake accounts, and can try to ensure diversity of viewpoints and participation.

Reddit could consider changing some of its platform features. As some redditors pointed out, Reddit's “gilding” feature, which is akin to a “super-upvote,” may enable manipulation. Users can gild posts with their Gold Reddit subscription or just buy Reddit coins.  Together with the voting system, gilding may make content manipulation more easy. A malicious operation can just buy coins to promote content as they wish even without creating fake accounts. Offering subscriptions is apparently Reddit’s way to cover its cost and to profit, and subscriptions do offer other privileges such as having an ad-free experience. Nonetheless, if Reddit wants to stop content manipulation, perhaps the company needs to rethink the gilding power. 

--written by Candice Wang


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