Hold the praise (re: comments)

By Razib Khan | June 1, 2011 12:11 am

So over the past few months there has been an issue where manual comment spam is getting more sophisticated. The strategy is to leave an anodyne comment with really vague references to how the post is “great” and “very informative” or something like that. The English would usually pass a grammar check, but there’s a strangeness that suggests to me that the commenter isn’t a native speaker, and quite often they link back to some spam site. Obviously I don’t post these and tag them as spam, but it’s kind of becoming harder & harder to avoid false positives while also keeping a check on false negatives.

What I’m asking is that if you want to leave a short comment to the effect of “thanks, great post!”, please think twice. The spammers have ruined this sort of polite and human interaction at this point, as I’m often suspicious now that someone who is expressing heartfelt praise is trying to get me to approve the comment so that they can get a little PageRank.I’m prompted to put this post up mostly because I’ve had some “near misses” where I assumed that an individual was leaving comment spam, when they were just being a normal decent human being.

Here’s what you can do as an alternative:

– Share my post on twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.

– Or, you can send me a direct message on twitter or Facebook

– And of course, you can go old school and email me at contactgnxp -at- gmail -dot- com. I get a fair amount of appreciative emails, and if you take the time out to write something nice that’s certainly a mitzvah

Sorry for wasting your time with this. But I really need to head this off at the pass.

MORE ABOUT: Comments
  • David

    This was a great post. Very informative! By the way have you seen my collection of genuine high end watches? I’m selling them cheap because I lost a lot of money in the financial crisis and have loans to pay off….

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    now that’s getting meta. impersonate the impersonators! though to be fair, they’re getting much better. a lot less transparent flattery over the past few weeks has been showing up.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Hi Razib,
    One way of dealing with these is to put them in limbo for a month- at least with blogspot, if the account linked to the comment gets terminated before the comment is approved, it fails to post. I dunno if your web guy has an automatic bad link disqualifier, though.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #3, how’d i put them in limbo without checking them out? honestly the issue is that they’re starting to map really closely on some of the shorter comments, which means i have a tendency to almost nuking genuine comments.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ Bee

    I delete everything that contains links unless it’s a commenter I know. You’re right that the spam comments are getting more sophisticated. I’ve had a few that did grab some random nouns from the text and made up some sentence around it that actually would have passed as okay English. Just that the content was complete utter nonsense (I mean some things just aren’t ‘cute *lol*’ no matter how you turn it.)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #5, by link, i’m talking about the link which you can embed in your handle. so your name, “Bee,” goes to http://backreaction.blogspot.com. that’s what they’re doing. the “tell” is that the spammers are often linking to a specific page/post. but that’s not a total tell, some regular commenters do that too, especially if the link is relevant to the thread in question.

  • John Emerson

    If people just quit being normal decent human beings there’d be no problem.

  • http://scepticalbanter.com uksceptic

    What I find sucks the most about spam comments is that most of them are so nice that you start to wish they were real. Of course all that does is merely highlight the lack of genuine nice comments I get on my blog. Then I quietly weep to myself, wonder what the point of blogging is and don’t write anything for a month but that’s probably just me. 😉

  • Darkseid

    This was an interesting post, R. Kan. I enjoyed the discussion in the comments as well! For a great time i also like to check out freesingleconnection.com. seriously, though, if anyone wants to get GNXP some serious traffic just take 30 seconds to create a reddit account and post his entries on there. 100,000 clicks for one blog post is much better thanks than a “Thanks!”

  • dave chamberlin

    I recall an NPR story where there was a contest on whose computer program could make the most friends. The winner did just what is described here, sending out thousands of happy complimentary vague comments and often engaging real people for long exchanges. Wouldn’t it be nice if some lonely heart out there fell in love with a computer program.

  • http://twitter.com/els76uk elliot

    i use wordpress’s built in spam checker for my blog http://se17.eu, and it seems very good at blocking spam – it produces very few false positives. every so often i check the spam queue anyway, and i nearly always see that the blocked messages are exactly as you described: “nice post” or “that was really interesting” – but with a link to some sort of spam. the most recent one was “your site is amazing, bookmarked!”.

    i often think that if these people used their obvious intellect to do something useful, then the world would be a much happier place.

    btw – nice post :)

  • Terry

    There was an XKCD comic and a short story I read, I think by Cory Doctorow, where the whole concept was that artificial intelligence is finally achieved by creators of spam trying to get through filters and convincing sysads they are legitimate.

  • http://www.fejes.ca Anthony

    For whatever it’s worth, there’s a plugin for WordPress (Akismet) that does an excellent job of filtering out the simple comment spam. I believe it simply compares the comments/links to other people’s blogs using the same plugin, and flags things that are likely to be spam. (Presumably, it’s easier to spot spam when using a larger sample set?) I really have no idea if it works for other blogging platforms, however, so it’s worth mentioning, but only in passing.

    At any rate, I’ve been seeing these comments for at least a couple years on my photography page, as it seems that gallery2 software was an early target for spammers using this technique – and it had a very poor comment filtering system at the start. I’m very sorry to see it’s spread far beyond that now.

  • Chrisj

    One of the most annoying variants on comment spam I’ve seen recently is posts made entirely out of quotes (usually whole paragraphs) from previous comments. It’s very easy to let one of those through by accident because it’s coherent and relevant to the topic, and only notice later that it consists of bits from the first three comments on the article.

    As an aside, while I’m here, I do enjoy reading your blog a lot; I just don’t post comments much.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    RE: askimet, it’s turned on. the spam filters catches most of the stuff. but the manual spammers are so copious than they’re getting through and i see them on the moderation queues.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Yes, I’ve been getting a few comments like this also. It is very hard to tell which are actually spam and which aren’t. In at least one case of mine, they explicitly included a mention of the topic in question. Relevant xkcd- http://xkcd.com/810/ .

  • Paul

    Spammers are also taking other people’s blog posts, running them through some sort of semi-obfuscator, then putting those up on blogs. The idea is to create something that is statistically like a real blog, but not identical to another blog (which would be detectable).

  • dave chamberlin

    Heartbroken women discovers Mr Right is just a kindly computer program trying to sell her replacement windows. Maybe it just belongs in the Onion today, but who knows about tomorrow.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    got a lot of praise spam today actually….

  • http://mythodrome.net Paula

    Razib wrote: “…now that’s getting meta. impersonate the impersonators!”

    Like Phil Dick’s “fake fakes” — maybe the spammers will double-negative themselves into actual commenters.

  • Nador

    Hi Razib,

    You could consider switching to an agglutinating language :). Apparently, it is much harder for programmers to correctly parse morphemes and parts of sentences in a highly synthetic language than in an analytical one. Vowel harmony and free word order also help recognizing machine created text. For example google translate seems to be years behind itself in non analytical languages. Sure, it is also a matter of number of users, but that’s not the whole story. If you try to translate e. g. Czech to English the results are rather useless. From Hungarian to English even the subjects [person, singular/plural…] of the sentences are wrong half the time. Clearly, English is too regular and simple.

  • magetoo

    At least you spot it. Plenty of bloggers seem unaware that someone could be so devious and just leave the “great blog! I will bookmark it and tell my friends!” ones up, so that everyone can see how desperate they are for supportive comments. :)

    If you get a lot of borderline spam, you could just remove the link (and let the praise through, of course). That should make this place useless for them in terms of link juice…

    There was an XKCD comic and a short story I read, I think by Cory Doctorow, where the whole concept was that artificial intelligence is finally achieved by creators of spam

    Obligatory favourite-author plug: The Rifters trilogy by Peter Watts also has AI spam as an element of the plot. It’s good too, and available for free (CC-licensed) at his site.

  • Pingback: Friday Fluff – June 3rd, 2011 | Gene Expression | Discover Magazine()

  • Nick

    Maybe we could all start using an unusual-sounding code phrase to accompany compliments, something that humans who regularly read the comments section here will know to use but spammers won’t. Something like “Praise be unto Razib! Great article!” Or would spammers pick up on that?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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