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Digg Faces New Accusations Of Censorship: An Inside Look

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The Blogosphere has erupted with accusations against Digg.com, claiming voting fraud and then censorship. Kevin Rose, founder of Digg, has responded, and so have others.

I know a little bit about how this works, having gone through a lot of drama with Digg myself and having talked to Kevin Rose several times to resolve it. For some time I was also convinced that Digg was saying one thing in public (“Digg is a community-driven site”) and another things in private (banning users and entire sites without warning or reason). I’ve since come to see things a different way, and the truth seems to be somewhere in the middle.

My Story:

I’m an owner of a site called Blogcritics: this site. We’ve had a number of articles submitted to Digg. Some by random readers, but many by our own editors. For some time we instituted a program we called “Red Alerts,” where articles we thought would be a good match for Digg (and several other sites) would be submitted by an editor and then the URL listed on the article page so that registered Digg users could more easily vote for the article.

We also sent out emails to our writers via a group we use for site-related communication, inviting them to read the article and vote for it if they found it worthy. I personally voted for many, but not all, of the articles “red alerted” in this way. I’m not entirely sure how many votes it takes to reach Digg’s front page, but I’m quite certain we never bullied our way on to it.

At most I believe we had around a dozen people I recognized as site members voting for articles, and it takes at least three times that to make it on to Digg’s front page. What those votes from multiple people did do, however, was raise the profile of the submission in Digg Spy, which is where a lot of people look to try to filter through the tons of submissions. Every time someone votes for an article, it pops up in Digg Spy, and people scanning the list get another chance to click and check it out for themselves. Most of the articles we submitted never made it to the front page, but some did.

Then came a series of articles from an exuberant young writer about two prominent companies well known among tech blog readers. While his first article was clearly speculative and interesting and not unreasonable, subsequent articles in the series (there were four) took the writer increasingly farther out on a limb. I protested the red alerting of the last one entirely, but — and this is an important point — even as a site owner, I don’t have control over everything that happens related to the site. It was red alerted, some people voted for it, and because it involved two popular companies, lots of people completely unrelated to the site also voted for it. All four of these stories made it to the front page, infuriating many people.

I should stop here and make sure that people understand that nothing we did was or is against the Terms of Service at Digg. We never created fake accounts, we never voted using other people’s accounts, we never did anything but vote for articles we liked. I’m personally a Digg user anyway, and read and voted for lots of articles that had nothing to do with Blogcritics, but some people didn’t. That’s their choice, and again, not against the rules then or now. Whenever you allow voting, you will eventually attract “voting blocs,” and while we weren’t the most organized or consistent of blocs when compared to, say, Congressional caucuses, we did tend to vote in groups.

Here is where things get interesting: People assumed the worst – not Kevin Rose, not Digg staffers, but commenters and readers: Digg users. They accused the writer of those articles of attempted stock manipulation, prompting him to add disclaimers to the articles that he didn’t stand to profit in any way and owned no stock in any of the companies involved. Many people refused to believe him even then.

Digg users generally misunderstood the function of Blogcritics.org as an online magazine with more than 1200 writers, and seemed to believe that Blogcritics was the personal blog of the writer of those articles. Digg users noticed some of the same names showing up among the first twenty or so diggs on each of the four articles and assumed that zombie accounts were being used (they weren’t), and that the votes were fraudulent (they weren’t). And here’s the important part: they acted. They reported the articles as Lame and Inaccurate and Spam and any number of other things.

Digg seems to have been in the process of developing some of these features just as this was happening, so for those of us who had been Digg users for a while and had never seen submissions disappear before, it appeared to be censorship. When Digg staff investigated and saw widely divergent IP addresses and voting patterns and so on, they quickly realized that nothing untoward had been happening, but Digg users didn’t believe the public statements of Kevin Rose and Jay Edelson and others when they stated that there had been no violation of Digg’s TOS. And as a result of the negative reports on the article, the article disappeared. I wasn’t too concerned about that article, because I wished nobody had ever submitted in the first place, but I was very concerned about what happened next.

Shortly after that, someone submitted another Blogcritics article and sent out a Red Alert email, and some of the usual crowd read the article and liked it enough to vote for it. While Digg staffers considered the previous issue resolved and felt we had done no wrong, Digg users felt differently, and reported the article, the site, and all users voting for it, getting each banned.

Please note, I believe Kevin Rose when he assured me that this was all automatic and all driven by the users of the site. He seemed genuinely sympathetic to our plight, and un-banned the site and all users upon request, but stated that because Digg is a community-driven site, our challenge was to convince Digg readers not to report us and trigger the automatic bans.

That remains our challenge today, and since I wasn’t particularly impressed by the perceptiveness of many Digg users then, I’m not sure I have a much higher opinion today. Many, even most, Digg users are extremely intelligent people, but it only takes a few people reporting an article, site, or user to trigger a ban.

So I certainly don’t know that there was no fraudulent voting going on with the articles from A List Apart, and I understand that the lock-step order of the votes raises alarms, but it is easily for me to believe that it is coincidence. Unlikely? Sure, but that’s the nature of coincidences.

It is also easy for me to believe that the banning of ForeverGeek.com and all users who voted for stories from ForeverGeek.com was driven by users and not Digg staff. I didn’t believe it at first when it happened to me, either, but subsequent conversations with Kevin Rose changed my mind. A certain unknown number of reports results in an article being “buried.” A certain unknown number of articles from the same site being “buried” results in that site’s URL being banned. Users who have voted for a certain unknown number of “buried” articles (and perhaps haven’t for a certain unknown number of balancing un-buried articles) are automatically banned. And so on.

Digg’s Challenges

Digg’s challenges, as I see them, are three-fold: The first Kevin Rose has already addressed, and it is transparency. Since submissions are currently buried without notice, and sites and users banned without warning or indication, people can easily assume the worst.

Secondly, the problem is with Digg users. As I’ve just mentioned, many of them seem to assume the worst. Or the best. Like a herd, they vote by the hundreds, even thousands, for articles based on titles alone, then turn in a moment to report the same stories without thinking any more than they did in the first place. They make many assumptions, good and bad, and act too zealously to protect Digg’s reputation (and their own) at the expense of transparency.

That leads to the third problem, balance. As things stand, spam and inaccurate stories can be buried by users, but there is no check or balance for deliberate attempts to bury perfectly good stories. Voting blocs for a story (or site) can be countered, but voting blocs against a story (or site) cannot.

Digg can solve the first problem, and maybe the third, but the second is, I think, inherently an issue with community sites. They can never rise above the level of the community, and communities are like very large committees: it is mediocrity that ends up being celebrated most.

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  • Seems like the management of Digg could ease things considerably by just raising the bar for negative stuff. Double the number of votes needed to automatically bury a story or ban a site, perhaps. That way, if there’s something really egregious, it can be knocked down- but a dozen disgruntled hatas with nothing better to do than bitch about nothing can’t screw things up for everyone else.

  • Eric Olsen

    great job on this Phillip: balanced informative and very readable

  • Yes, Al, something to provide balance. I’m not sure what, because it always seems like there will be “edge cases” where the “bad guys” can gather one more person than the “good guys” can. There’s also a strong tradition of dissent in strong democracies, so it makes sense to give dissenters a *little* more power, just maybe not unfettered power, which is what they have now.

  • Funny. Positive voting block bad. Negative voting block good.

    I read the headlines at Digg, but the commenters there are such sensitive jerks, that I can’t deal anymore. All some people do there is complain that people aren’t playing by the Digg rules.

  • Oh, and Phillip, this was a great account. Thanks.

  • I was banned from Digg for making this post and it was submitted to their site by a digg member.

    Here is the link to my blog post.

  • techtweaker, the point I’ve made in the article above is that stating that “digg” blocked your site isn’t quite enough. It is possible that a digg administrator blocked your URL since you seem to be trying to flame Digg, or it’s possible that several digg users reported your URL in some way and your site was automatically banned as a result.

    At this point, we don’t know which, though Kevin Rose emailed me after I sent him a copy of this article and said that changes are coming which will allow users to find out what happenes to their submissions. We’ll have to wait and see if this is enough, I guess.

  • Since I just noticed that someone submitted this article to Digg.com hours ago, I added a digg link at the bottom. Of course, since I didn’t notice for hours, I’m sure it won’t generate enough interest to hit the front page. Ah, well.

  • Diane Kristine

    Great article. I would Digg it except my account has been disabled due to abuse. I’d protest, but it all seems pretty futile.

  • mine has been disabled as well…

  • If you send an email to abuse at digg.com, they’re apparently pretty good about reinstating accounts, so long as you’re a real person with a unique email address.

  • I was one of those who would digg, shout, or whatever a story when it was requested by the editors at blogcritics. But if for any reason, be it I didn’t agree with the post, I didn’t have any knowledge about the subject, or something along those lines, I wouldn’t vote for it.

    But I still probably ended up voting for about 2/3rds to 3/4s of the stories that were “red alerted” Why? because they were worthy of attention and should have been read by as many people as possible.(the one time it was a story of mine I refreained from voting even though it qualifies on all the criteria above)

    When the fall was reported to the group Phillip mentions in the article, to be honest I wasn’t suprised. It seems the nature of the Internet for people to take themselves far too seriously flout what little power they are ever given.

    There is no such thing as “community” on the Internet in the true sense of the word. A community is a group of people who work and live together in a supportive and enriching environment. Attempts at artificailly creating them either virtually or physically are not going to work because there are too many opportunities for abuse.

    Digg is a perfect example of this. By creating the illusion of democracy, they have actually created a dictatorship of any minority opinion that wants to block something they disagree with.

    It would make far more sense to not have automatic bannings, but rather investigations into reports before. This is too much like mob justice and lynchings (okay that’s extreme but sometimes you need to be to get people’s attention)All it needs in these situations is for one person to yell “rape” or whatever, and a mob quickly forms to condemm the so called crimnial without a trial.

    They need to scrap the whole idea of community controlled content because it will never work. Let people report a problem and have investigated like they would any “crime”. Take the power out of the hands of the people who don’t deserve to have power in the first place and it will make for a lot happier world.

    Richard Marcus

  • D. Walker

    “Digg is a perfect example of this. By creating the illusion of democracy, they have actually created a dictatorship of any minority opinion that wants to block something they disagree with”

    You hit it on the head exactly. Digg uses the “user controlled content” as a front for what Digg REALLY does……it doesnt take a rocket scientist to see it….

  • It seems to me — that there needs to be a tie-in between arbitrary diggs and reasoned diggs. Perhaps a scaling system.

    That is, assign a ‘report’ and ‘digg’ base value to every user, say, 1.0.

    For reports, any time the report a user submits is later overturned as unsubstantiated or unfounded, multiply that user’s report value by 0.6. Before long, a report by a report-prone, misled user won’t count for much. Any time a reported article is reviewed and sustained, muliply the report base by 1.2, with a lid at 2.0 or 2.5 (reports by concientious users should be highly valued). Adjust the values only when a report-dropped article is reviewed, not a mechanical evaluation that could be manipulated.

    Similarly, a digg on an article that makes the top ten (before it makes the top 1000) could be multiplied by 1.03, with a cap at 1.5. Perhaps start the digg score at 0.5, to weight scores a bit in favor of the best-hitting users. Any user that gets banned would have the score reset to 0.01, or restored if a ban is overturned.

    Some sort of system should reward good behavior, and allow monitoring of progress, ‘seniority’ if you will.

  • The editors know me as the one who wasn’t too comfortable with the Red Alert process, and this just may be why. Not so much that promoting ourselves is a bad idea (it’s not and we should) but to go through an untested medium just to get more impressions rather than build a readership.

    It’s unlikely that I will ever use Digg as a resource for finding articles unless they turn into a Slashdot where they pick and choose what goes on the front, much like what us section editors do with our spotlight pages.

  • Diane Kristine

    Contradicting your article slightly, where you say they acknowledge that nothing we did was against the TOS, the response I got from them was this:

    “Our internal spam controls flagged multiple accounts all digging the same stories. Mass digging (digg story fraud) is in violation of our Terms of Service. If users, websites or companies violate our TOS we block them from the site.”

    I didn’t vote for all articles Blogcritics editors flagged – I voted for the ones I thought were worthy – so I highly doubt my voting pattern was identical to anyone else’s. They say they’ll reinstate if I promise not to do it again, but do what again? Not vote for any articles because they’re from Blogcritics? This is ridiculous.

  • Diane, the terms of service are posted right on the site, and you can see for yourself that the only term that corresponds in any way to the idea of “mass digging” reads: “9. to create separate user accounts with the intention of artificially inflating the ‘digg count’, blog count, comments, or any other Digg service.”

    I’m not one to rely on technicalities. If anything in the TOS even *hinted* that voting for articles from a particular site, or a site with which you’re involved, as against the rules, then that would be that. But it isn’t even close. Kevin Rose has personally assured me that they have no intention of ever blocking people from submitting or voting for their own sites.

    There is a contingent of the digg user community that sees that as “wrong,” but it isn’t a view shared by the majority, or by the TOS, or Digg staff. The email you got from abuse is misleading at least, but since you’re a real person and not a fake separate user account, you shouldn’t have to worry about it.

  • I hope our experience is better than yours. Digg just banned our domain!

    They say they did it because of Terms of Use violations, but that’s absurd… among the three of us, we only submitted 20 posts over the three days we were live. We suspect they actually banned us because of the content of our posts, which were mainly excerpts from a book by one of us debunking human-caused climate change.

    We want to be reinstated in the Digg index. Not so much out of love for Digg, mind you, as to make a point. Read our story here; the level of censorship at Digg, organized or not, is just unbelievable.