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The Rigging Of Digg: How A Covert Mob Of Conservatives Hijacked The Web’s Top Social News Site

If you’re at all web-savvy, you’ve probably heard of Digg.com. Founded in 2006, Digg is the reigning king of the social news ecosystem, cracking the top 50 websites in the U.S. and the top 100 worldwide. Its million-plus users democratically filter the torrent of online media, upvoting or “digging” desired content while “burying” rubbish and spam. The most popular content is promoted to the site’s highly-trafficked front page. The result is a peek into the consciousness of the internet: a mixture of comics, videos, sensationalism, and breaking news that is the growing face of new media.

Digg’s popularity makes it a tempting target. Endless SEO schemes and link farms attempt to subvert the site, often successfully. Some exist merely to push spam blogs and commercial messages – many a Digger has seen comment sections peppered with poorly-spelled pitches for drug outlets and online jewelry stores. And others offer to use the power of the Digg homepage to give a boost to fledgling websites, promising instant popularity to webmasters that pony up a pay-per-vote fee.

But more recently, the site has been under attack by a variety of groups seeking to promote their personal cause célèbre. Perhaps the most infamous was the Ron Paul movement that swept the web in early 2008, when libertarian activists dominated Digg and other social media sites with content praising the Republican presidential hopeful. This ill-fated gambit was soon followed by efforts from other sources, including a comical push by the radical nativist British National Party in the run-up to the 2009 EU elections (Digg’s audience is largely American).

Such efforts, however, pale in comparison to what we have uncovered: a highly organized underground collective of right-wing partisans using an assortment of tactics, from tried-and-true spamming methods to the vilest and most dishonest tricks, in order to not only spread conservative disinformation throughout the internet, but to censor and suppress anything resembling a liberal opinion.  Our researchers have gained access to the secure web forum where they discuss their strategy and rally their troops, and everything we have learned is detailed in this report.

Welcome to the Digg Patriots.

EVOLUTION

The Digg Patriots arguably found their origin at FreeRepublic, a bastion of radical right-wing opinion. FreeRepublic members, or “freepers,” are infamous for ganging up on internet polls, using coordinated force of numbers to swamp the poll, “freeping” it to their desired result. And when they find themselves outnumbered, freepers have no trouble simply cheating, changing their IP addresses and using automated scripts to vote thousands of times.

As Digg grew in popularity and influence, it soon came to the attention of FreeRepublic’s forums. Prominent users began recruiting others to the site, penning articles explaining what Digg was and how best to cheat it. As one freeper explains in a 2009 post:

BuckeyeTexan: I’m not asking you to deal with obnoxious liberals. You don’t have to read their comments. You don’t have to respond to them. All I’m asking you to do is vote for an article at Digg and then leave. That’s it! Digging conservative articles is the same thing as FReeping a poll.

As FreeRepublic’s targeted raids grew more successful, their methods became more sophisticated.  Several users set up “ping lists,” rosters of Freepers that could be alerted through the site’s internal mail system to digg or bury an article at the same time. As the ping lists grew unwieldy, they transferred to public alert sites such as a blog (Diggs & Buries) and a Twitter board called DiggCons, maintained by the conservative DontGo outfit.

But these resources, while effective, were ill-conceived. The websites were soon discovered by regular Digg users confused by the sharp uptick in conservative propaganda on the site.

Le0pardess: just want to let you know that someone leaked and/or found the D&B blog and has posted it in a story that went popular a few hours ago

Soon, these efforts at gamesmanship petered out and failed. The cause was abandoned.

Or so it seemed.

HEADQUARTERS

Using private backchannels, Digg’s disaffected conservative activists soon reconvened at a new and improved location: an invitation-only Yahoo! group called Digg Patriots. Members took pains to hide the group like a shameful secret:

ChronicColonic: Please remember this is a group that we are trying to keep below the radar. Please do not disclose this group’s existence to anyone outside the group on Digg or elsewhere. The longer we can keep this group on the down low, the better. I know you probably aready knew that, but I wanted to make sure we are all on the same page as far as the keeping this group from being exposed to the public. Thanks and let’s continue making a conservative difference on Digg!

Established in May 2009, the group started off slow, but quickly gained momentum as old friends and contacts from other partisan sites were ushered into the fold. By August, the Digg Patriots (DP) group was steadily generating more than 3,000 messages per month.

The conversation rarely involved discussing conservative topics. Rather, the group focused on controlling content on Digg. If conservative content was found, scores of DP members (many of them maintaining multiple accounts) were called on to boost it to the heights of artificial popularity. And if anything liberal was encountered, DPs were commanded to bury it into oblivion. Each day, everything from popular stories to individual comments was targeted for promotion or suppression in violation of Digg’s terms of service.

And the standard of judgment stood in stark opposition to the views of the Digg community, and indeed of the wider internet. While the Digg userbase skews young, progressive, and irreligious, the DPs strove to promote young earth creationism, global warming denial, and a variety of virulent conspiracy theories involving the Obama Administration. In truth, Digg Patriots was a hotbed for the most dissident of the Tea Party crowd, eagerly spreading the most baseless and inaccurate conservative memes and peppering their chosen stories with empty one-liners before forcing it to the front page.

TAKING AIM

The DPs soon encountered resistance to their plans. Webmasters of niche liberal sites that had enjoyed the occasional boost from Digg noticed their page views from the site declining, along with a corresponding rise in hard-line conservative articles. And it was easy to see that this change was being driven by the same few dozen users, time and time again.

As Digg users began complaining about the bad behavior, the DPs honed their suppression. Individuals were targeted for harassment, their activity monitored and hounded and their websites slated for blind burial. The most vocal were roundly mocked in the DP forums, their personal lives and past researched and held against them:

rjwusa: We need to mine his stuff. I think if we look hard enough, we can get him banned. We should form a team to mine his submission and another to mine his comments for incriminating material.

The demonization of the opposition was relentless – it had to be, in order to discredit anyone who might expose their activities. As one DP member so succinctly said of a progressive writer and Digg member:

We should make it our sacred mission to gang-bang this liberal bitch.

And with demonization came rationalization, projection and paranoia. DP members became convinced that they were fighting a liberal conspiracy more organized and powerful than their own. When one DP user was banned for submitting homophobic content, he lashed out with derogatory remarks towards Digg founder Kevin Rose that were quickly repeated in the group:

I’m sick of little Kevin Rose and his bunch of Frisco malcontents playing favorites with the digtards and banning guys like me, just because I post an article about a study that was critical of homosexuality. Had I attacked someone or violated the digg Terms of Service, I would expect a ban. But, because I hurt someone’s feelings, they give gays protected status and ban me?

I’ve been banned several times for submitting articles that do not support the worldview of the common rump ranger. Unless you’re a flaming liberal with scorch-marks around your butt, do not attempt posting those items. You’ll get banned quicker than Kevin Rose sticking his butt up in the air on date night with the boys.

There’s no ‘algorithm’ at digg. The ‘algorithm’ most likely consists of a bunch of liberal, bi-sexual, emo-types, who drink mimosas all day, and engage in a circle-jerk by night.

Strangely, DP users had no trouble viewing the vast left-wing conspiracy as incompetent and weak:

vrayz: I’m amazed at their lack of organization.  If they had half a wit among them they could bury any and every submission we have but as in real life I guess, liberals just roll with the tide through Digg like they do in real life.  They have no work ethic, no core values and no common sense beneath the paper thin liberal skin they cover themselves with.

Despite this strong feeling of contempt for the average Digger, DP users feel comfortable relying on the most prolific Digg submitters in order to bolster their own attempts to commandeer the site. Indeed, they emulate the strategy that so-called “power users” employ to consistently promote content to the front page: befriending hundreds of users and using automated tools to reciprocally upvote hundreds of stories per day, while using third-party statistical sites to weed out those who don’t play into the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” dynamic. By engaging in this behavior, DP power users can expect hundreds of automatic votes from blind supporters in addition to scores of extra votes from DP users and their duplicate accounts.

But the DPs do not trust their power user friends, as evidenced by their maintenance of dossiers on the political leanings of the most influential Digg users:

tccbossm4n: The top power users that are left-leaning are:

MrBabyman (he stays politically in the closet until he feels the need to wield his incredible digg power then he becomes hard core lib submitting from all the worst sources)

Noupsell (I can’t believe I was a mutual friend of his at one time. He is easily the scariest power digger, because he has lots of influence and is hard core, extreme liberal)

Badwithcomputer (Dropped him as a mutual during the election)

MSaleem

VTbarerra

Jaybol (Another mutual friend I dropped, he was much more politically active during the election)

irfanmp (always submits everything pro-liberal from Stewart and Colbert)

Bukowsky (he used to be a mutual friend until the election when his true colors came out)

1KrazyKorean (has been known to support the left quietly)

d2002 (diggs pro-left submissions and makes comments that back that up)

kplo (Another former Houston mutual friend who has turned into a hard core lefty digger)

bixby1

This information is used to develop arcane strategies for suppressing left-leaning content. For instance:

tccbossm4n: I’ve been wondering, if we have a submitter whose subs we typically bury and that person is submitting multiple stories at a time, let’s take Amprather as an example. He subs about 8-10 per day. Typically, maybe one of those stories is something very liberal, the rest are just general news, comedy and such. Would it make sense to pick one of the least harmful subs and digg it in an attempt to get it to go popular, or at least not bury it? My thought is that if we get one of the wimpy subs to go popular, it’s less likely the political sub will pop, especially if we all bury it.

GETTING DIRTY

As the DPs grew more successful, they turned to more unorthodox tactics. They pretended to be African-Americans in order to call their opponents racists:

EdHurl: I reported DDR Skata for using the racist term ‘Beulahs and Uncle Toms’ when referring to a conservative black woman. Additionally, I also told a fib and I stated I was African-American. I said that I was deeply offended by the terms he used.

And backed it up with sanctimonious lies to Digg Abuse:

As a conservative African-American, I get deeply offended when someone (DDRSkata) refers to one of my conservative sisters and other conservative African-Americans as, ‘Beulahs and Uncle Toms’. Had I been white, and had used the terms, ‘Fag or Nigger’, I could expect to be banned from digg in a very swift fashion.

White people who aren’t in the know have no idea how derisive and abusive terms like ‘Beulah and Uncle Tom’ really are. Those using such terms know these terms are capable of inflicting great emotional harm on the same level as do the terms, ‘Fag and Nigger’ when they are hurled against the Gay and Black communities.

I trust you will do right by the people of color who use digg.

They discussed framing left-leaning users of the same behavior they were engaging in:

VRayZ: what we should do is start a fake liberal public site where we all use their names to post digg and bury submissions. We would have to figure out to do it anonymously.

They set up multiple profiles to engage in duplicitous behavior and concern trolling:

rjwusa: In the process of grooming my new personna, EmersonBiggins, I will be playing ‘devils advocate’ to some of your comments to lull the diggtards into thinking I am anyone other than EdHurl reinvented. This as they see that some of us are mutually-friended. As always, since they cannot determine whether I have dugg you up or down, or dugg a submission, I will always digg you into positive territory. Please feel free to bicker with me and to poke at me as needed as I will be doing to you. This is merely a ruse to prevent me from being detected and being banned. I promise to not take any discourse between you and me personally. At other times, you’ll see me in agreement with you. I am attempting to keep my political philosophies ambiguous for the most part.

And worst of all, they planned elaborate sexual harassment hoaxes using account names similar to users they disliked in order to slander them:

Dilberto: I have an interesting plan for screwing over the No-brigade guy.   First we need to find a female conservative/libertarian who is very active on digg and comments a lot.   We coordinate with her to be the knowing victim of sexual harassment.  (Yeah, this is going to be a false flag trolling operation.)

Meanwhile, I will create about 3 bogus no accounts that won’t bury anything but will pose as the guy that calls us all “son” and trolls our submissions.  After about a few weeks all three no accounts will let loose with some heinous sexual innuendo.  Several of us will then proceed to report all no accounts and accuse all of them of being the troll.

After a while, many diggers will just blindly report any no account that posts.  Remember that Herkimer, Onetimer, and JCM267 all got banned when they stirred up a shitstorm.  Now we just have to foment one behind the scenes.

Do you know of any willing falseflag female targets on Digg?

Dilberto delivered, fouling the site with multiple sexually graphic comments and rape threats aimed at DP user ThePartyStar. One example of many:

“NoTeaParty”: I CAN’T STOP J***ING OFF OVER THE PARTYSTAR’S SWEET HOT P****! I ATE OUT THAT PAULTARDS P**** AND F***ED HER SEVERAL TIMES AND IT FELT SO HOT!

THE MACHINE IN ACTION

As the Digg Patriots have become more adept at manipulating the site, their efforts have become ever more efficient and effective. Two case studies are illustrative of their improving methods.

First is the case of EsorNivek, one of the many accounts of DP user rjwusa. By announcing the creation of the persona on DiggPatriots, he netted the newborn account 164 friends in less than 24 hours, and his first three submissions gained 36, 40, and 59 votes, respectively. Not by growing authentic social connections or submitting quality content, but by tapping into the coordinated power of the DP group.

More troubling is the meteoric rise of a DP-backed website, The Rattington Post. “RatPo,” as its makers refer to it, is like the Platonic ideal of an inferior partisan blog. Its logo is an oversized repulsive image of President Obama’s face photoshopped on the body of a rat. Its description is a rambling mixture of isms and grammatical mistakes:

Joined in solidarity, we fight against Progressivism, Liberalism, Marxism, Socialism, and any other ‘ism’ that threaten American ideals. The United States is still the best damn country on the face of this planet. We seek to shine a light upon those from the left and to expose them for their hypocrisy and corruption. No one from either side of the political aisle is safe from scrutiny or commentary when they may act contrary to the U.S. Constitution and the interests of the American people.

Unsurprisingly, the editorial viewpoint of the site is viciously right-wing.

Despite these detriments, within its first week of existence The Rattington Post was submitted to Digg ten times by four separate users, all of them DP members. Half of the submissions garnered 100 votes or more, and one advanced to the front page, barely one week after the site was created.

This instant success is not shocking, as the Rattington Post was conceived, named, and promoted on Digg Patriots:

rjwusa: Ok guys, I have a proposal.

I propose that I create a blogger account. The purpose of the blogger account it to engage in the same tactics that Anomaly, JanineWallace, Novy and the remaining gaggle of Leftard malcontents engage in. That is, to take a news story and to spin it in such a fashion that we editorialize the submission title and the byline (Description). That’s what they do to get around the digg Terms of Usage agreement.

Editorializing a submission is considered the ‘hijacking’ of a submission by digg. Doing so can (and has gotten me) get you banned.

By utilizing the same tactic, we can stoop to their level, not be in violation of the digg TOU and at the same time we can have some fun.

phil dobson: Okay, I’m about done dusting off old pieces I can use so I’m not gonna be able to post as easily the rest of the week. I’ll keep my eyes open for press releases that I can re-write or outright steal (they’re not copy written) but otherwise we need to keep the flow going daily!!! The more we post the more exposure we’ll get.

It is clear that the Digg Patriots are now capable of lifting any content they wish to the forefront of the largest social news site on the web, no matter how vitriolic and biased the content is and no matter how artificial its support may be.

THE NEW DIGG

One wrinkle in the future plans of the DPs has been the advent of Digg 4.0. This new version of Digg implements fundamental changes in how stories are submitted and voted on for the front page. But despite the relative lack of knowledge in how the new Digg will function, the DPs have already set their sights on how best to subvert it for their own ends:

allisonrose870: for those who have been testing the waters, Liz, Boss, J, Ron, with the new version, I was wondering if thru some feed back mechanism or discussion thread if its been asked why digg chose to abandon the bury feature or something like that and if they have given any feedback, if at all? separately, whatever avenue you guys take, I will follow…

And if the new Digg is not to their liking, there is already talk of focusing on smaller sites like Reddit, Mixx, and Propeller, sites which many prominent DPs already have accounts on.

In the course of researching this report, we reached out to the staff of Digg with extensive documentation of this group and their efforts to undermine the site. Our concerns went unanswered.

WHY IT MATTERS

The value of sites like Digg is in the way they enable a community of people to organically raise up the most interesting and engaging content on the internet. When people who do not respect that interfere with the system, they degrade it and reduce it to yet another noisy platform for the most effective cheaters. Many outsiders criticize Digg for its lowbrow humor or its more immature users. But the truth is that it receives more than a third the daily readership of the New York Times and is, for better or worse, a powerful driver of content and opinion on the web.

When unrepentant manipulators like those found at Digg Patriots cheat the system, they are piggybacking on years of community-building from countless Digg contributors in order to spread their fringe message to an unearned audience of millions. Their content effectively gains the Digg seal of approval, and no matter how quickly the site’s regular users bury spammed content, that content still receives the ad revenue and exposure that most sites must labor for years to acquire.

Digg users must ask themselves if they want to allow this material to be forced on their community. If they want creationist essays from Conservapedia administrators or misleading videos from Andrew Breitbart or slanted headlines from the Drudge Report to grace what is supposed to be their front page. If the answer is yes, then acquiesce to the advances of the Digg Patriots and their affiliates, and allow them and their schemes to control political opinion on the site.

But if the answer is no? Then be vigilant, take responsibility in keeping the site free of disinformation and gamesmanship, cleanse the Upcoming sections of spam before they are forced to “popularity,” and be aware of Digg Patriots agents in all their incarnations. Only then can content of true quality that has authentic support from the Digg community flourish, and the malicious propaganda of activists intent on domineering social media for their own ends fails.

Ole Ole Olson is Senior News Editor and Chief New Media Strategist for News Junkie Post.