Sunday, November 15, 2015

A Modest Proposal to Fight Spam

Ever since I started writing for Money Crashers, I've been receiving messages several times a week notifying me about new comments on my posts. Unfortunately, very few of them are actually comments on my posts. Actual comments would support or dispute the information in my posts, or add new information that I didn't cover, or in some way address the subject matter covered in the post. But the majority of the comments I get do none of those things. Instead, they look something like this:
I left` my desk` `job` and now` I `get` paid` $85` every` h. ...Wonder` how? I` freelance` `online!` My` old` job` was` making` me `unhappy` ,so I chose to take my chance on something` new… 2 years` after`...I say it was the smartest` decision i ever` made!` Let` me show you what` i` do...go and check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`
+ffffffff
or this:
May` I Tell you `Something` `really` Interesting` and which is`Worth` paying` `Attention`. An `effective` and `excellent` online` `opportunity` for those people` who want to `utilise` their free time so that they can `Earn some `extra `Money` using their `computers`... I have been `working` on this for last two and half years and I am earning` 60-90 `dollar`/ hour` … In the `Past` `Week` I` Have `Earned` 13,70 `DoLLars` For `Almost `20` hours` `Sitting` ….
`Any` Special``kind` of `Skills, `Degree` or Specific qualification is not `required` for this, just `typing` and a `good` `working` and `reliable` `internet` `connection` ….
`Any` `Time` `Boundations` to `Start work` is not `Required` … You may do this `work` at any `time` when you `Willing` to do it ….
I have Been Working on this and Getting Results.....….Hope over to``website`` `page` `LINK` which is on Prrof!le of mine
^wersxcxc
In other words, they're spam.

Now, Disqus, which handles the comments system on Money Crashers, does offer some tools to combat spam. Any time I get a comment that is clearly spam, I can flag it, and the moderators will eventually spot it and remove it. I can also flag the user as a spammer, with a link to the spam message in question, in hopes that the moderators will block that user from posting any more comments.

The problem with this approach is that it puts the burden on me, the victim, to spend my time responding individually to each spam comment and each spam poster. It only takes a few seconds to flag a comment, and perhaps 30 seconds to flag a user, but that adds up when there are a lot of comments at once. In many cases, a single user will put the same piece of spam on several of my posts at once, and I have to spend five minutes flagging all of them. So it would be a lot more useful to have a way of blocking out these spam comments before they're posted.

Disqus provides some ways, within limits, to limit the comments you get. For instance, in its document on "Dealing With Spam," it explains how you can blacklist specific users who are known spammers—but here, once again, the burden is on you to identify and block those individual users, and that takes time. And these spam sites are a bit like the hydra: every time you cut off one individual source, two more pop up in its place. It's quite easy for a spammer to create a new fake online identity, carpet-bomb the Internet with comments, and then disappear into the ether. Trying to catch the individual users is pointless, because by the time you catch one identity, they've already moved on to the next.

Another feature Disqus offers is the ability to block any comments containing links, so that they must be approved before they're published. But this doesn't get around the problem, because I still have to look at every one of these comments myself before rejecting it. Moreover, most spammers have figured out that comments containing links may be rejected, so they've come up with a sneaky little workaround: instead of putting the link in the comment itself, they put it in their "user profile" and tell readers to "check` this ``websiteLINK`` my` `Proffile!` for `detailed` `info`." (The random misspellings and haphazard punctuation are apparently yet another way to try and foil spam filters.)

Now, one thing I've noticed about these users who have links in their profiles is that the profiles themselves are invariably set to "Private." That is, when you click on the profile, you get a picture of a little smiley-face that isn't smiling, wearing sunglasses, with a message saying "Deal with it: This user's activity is private." This, presumably, is to keep interested users who click on the profile from noticing that every single one of the user's posted comments is exactly the same and suddenly realizing, "Hey, wait a minute! This is just spam! It's probably not a real unbelievable businesses opportunity at all!" instead of clicking blithely through. (Frankly, I don't see how any user who fails to realize that a comment like the ones posted above is spam could be tipped off by seeing the same message posted in 200 other places, but apparently it happens.)

So it seems to me that what would really be useful for authors who are sick of dealing with spam comments on a piecemeal basis is a way to block comments from ANY user who has a a private profile that contains a URL. Users who want to put their legitimate website in their profiles would be allowed to post, as long as they make their activity public. Users who want to keep their activity private for some reason would also be allowed to post, as long as they aren't linking to a website. But any user who has both a private profile and a link in that profile would be blocked, because in my experience, every single post that comes from this kind of user is spam.

I tried to submit this suggestion to Disqus, but they don't make it easy. There's no link anywhere that says "contact us," and when you click on the link for "get help," it just directs you to their existing "knowledge base" of published articles—none of which tells me how to do the thing I want to do. The only way I've found to get a message through at all is to click on a link marked "Feedback?" at the bottom of a user profile page. That sends you to a Survey Monkey poll where you can submit ideas, and I sent my modest proposal to them that way. However, since I'm only one person, I have no idea whether my comment will make any impact.

So I'm turning to my own personal blog as a way to get my idea out there in the world, where maybe it can have some sort of impact. I'd like to encourage anyone else who agrees with it to submit the same idea to Disqus, via the same feedback survey or any other means you can find. Perhaps if they hear from enough of us, they might actually decide to make this change, and we will be able to make a pre-emptive strike against spam instead of just striking back against it. If we can succeed in making spam an ineffective means of reaching potential customers, then perhaps these businesses will have to turn to legitimate methods of marketing, or else go out of business. Frankly, I don't care which.
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