Reddit Bug Affects Ranking Algorithm? Programmer Identifies Glitch That Allows For Manipulation, Censorship

 @ryanWneal on December 10 2013 12:15 PM

Ian Greenleaf Young, a software developer in San Diego, claimed that he identified a bug in Reddit’s platform that has serious consequences for the entire website, perhaps even compromising Reddit’s claim as a source for important news around the Internet.

Reddit, founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, is an online bulletin board that calls itself the “front page of the Internet.” After anonymously registering with Reddit, users can submit text or links to article on other websites. Other users then vote on whether they like or dislike the content, and Reddit organizes the posts accordingly to keep the “hottest” stories near the top of their respective categories.

[[nid:1503266]]

Young, identified on Reddit as “misnamed,” showed that the bug affects the algorithm that determines the ranking of the posts and allows for malicious users to game the system and even keep certain types of content censored. Young said the bug has been reported to Reddit several times by multiple users but hasn't been addressed.

Without getting to into the programming specifics, the bug essentially makes new content with any negative initial reactions to get buried under stories that can be more than a year old.

“Now imagine one submissions made a year ago, and another submission made just now,” Young wrote in a blog post. “The year-old submission received 2 upvotes, and today’s submission received two downvotes [sic]. This is a small difference -- perhaps today’s submission got off to a bad start and will rebound shortly with several upvotes. But under this implementation, today’s submission now has a negative hotness score and will rate lower than the submission from last year.”

[[nid:1503258]]

Young tested this on recent posts in relatively inactive subreddits (the name given to different categories of content on Reddit) and found that the posts were eliminated from the front page of that Reddit category just from an initial negative reaction. Even when misnamed removed the “downvote,” the post never recovered.

The bug opens the door for malicious users to manipulate Reddit pages. If someone watches new submissions on a given category closely enough, he or she can give immediate “downvotes” to content he or she objects to and effectively censor it from Reddit. A user with multiple Reddit accounts could even do coordinated strikes against certain types of content.

“This makes the gaming (by vested political interest) usually seen in r/politics r/news r/worldnews [sic] far more plausible if it is true,” Reddit user “CarolinaPunk” wrote, calling the bug “cancerous.”

Reddit has increasingly positioned itself as an important Internet tool for both serious news and entertainment. It was acquired by Condé Nast Publications in October 2006 but now operates as an independent entity owned by Condé Nast's parent company, Advance Publications.

An ability to hide certain kinds of content could damage the site’s reputation as a democratic approach to finding information online.

Young said he submitted a request to fix the bug but was told by Reddit that “it’s that way by design.” When another programmer, Jonathan Rochkind tried the same, a Reddit developer told him that he was “just incorrect.”

Young's post was at the top of the technology subreddit on Tuesday morning, with more than 3,600 votes and more than 2,000 comments. It was even given the tag, “By Special Request of the Admins.”

[[nid:1503260]]

For a short time, the post disappeared from the technology subreddit, but it has since returned.

Reddit hasn't responded to question from the International Business Times about the post or the supposed bug. This article will be updated if a response is received.   

Join the Discussion