Concerns of Reddit Moderators over Potential Spam Overload Following Departure of “Antagonistic” BotDefense

Concerns of Reddit Moderators over Potential Spam Overload Following Departure of Antagonistic BotDefense

The recent increase in API prices on Reddit has had far-reaching consequences for the platform. It has resulted in the closure of numerous third-party Reddit apps and has prompted significant communities, such as those organizing Ask Me Anything (AMAs), to scale back or cease their activities on the site.

Joining the list of departures is BotDefense, a group that plays a vital role in eliminating malicious submission and comment bots from Reddit. Run by volunteer moderators, BotDefense is responsible for moderating around 3,650 subreddits. According to the creator of BotDefense, the team has decided to quit due to what they perceive as Reddit’s confrontational behavior towards moderators and developers. This development raises concerns about the future of spam moderation, particularly on large subreddits like r/space.

Esteemed warrior against bots

BotDefense was established in 2019 as a volunteer project and has been operated by Reddit moderators known as “dequeued” and “abrownn.” Over time, it has compiled a ban list of 144,926 accounts and has been instrumental in moderating popular subreddits with massive followings, including r/gaming (37.4 million members), r/aww (34.2 million), r/music (32.4 million), r/Jokes (26.2 million), r/space (23.5 million), and r/LifeProTips (22.2 million). Other notable subreddits supported by BotDefense include r/food, r/EarthPorn, r/DIY, and r/mildlyinteresting.

However, BotDefense recently announced that it will be shutting down its operations. It is no longer accepting submissions of bot accounts and will disable any future actions related to bots. The announcement specified that BotDefense will continue to review appeals and process unbans for at least 90 days or until Reddit makes changes that render BotDefense inoperable. Users were advised to keep BotDefense as a moderator until October 3rd to ensure smooth processing of future unbans.

This situation has brought attention to the significance of Pushshift, a tool that lost access to Reddit’s API due to a “miscommunication” but later regained it. Pushshift, operated by the Network Contagion Research Institute, is highly valued among Reddit’s volunteer moderators. It is exempt from Reddit’s new API pricing scheme due to its non-commercial and educational nature. However, BotDefense mentioned that Reddit’s imposed restrictions have made it cumbersome to use Pushshift effectively, and many users who submit bots to BotDefense no longer have access to it.

Pushshift’s functionality is crucial for BotDefense in identifying various types of malicious bots, such as repost bots, comment copy bots, and bots using ChatGPT to mimic human behavior. Unlike Reddit’s limited search capabilities for past content, Pushshift offers a detailed system for searching through historical posts and comments.

BotDefense heavily relies on third-party Reddit apps, including Apollo and RIF Is Fun, for moderation tasks, as well as apps that serve as interfaces to Pushshift, facilitating the research of suspicious accounts. While some third-party apps like Narwhal continue to exist under paid models, the sustainability of these approaches remains uncertain.

Dequeued, a moderator with almost nine years of experience, cited Reddit’s antagonistic treatment of developers and moderators as the sole reason for BotDefense’s closure. Dequeued expressed disappointment in Reddit’s few attempts to preserve a limited number of third-party apps, emphasizing that it does not alleviate the company’s negative reputation in the eyes of BotDefense. Prior to the API dispute, dequeued had no intention of discontinuing their work on BotDefense and even had plans for future tools, including a new machine learning system to detect a broader range of bots.

Issue of spam on Reddit

Although there has been recent discussion surrounding Reddit’s handling of Content Policy violations, such as moderators protesting through NSFW tags or focusing on John Oliver, the platform’s most prevalent issue in terms of content removal typically revolves around spam.

Merari01, a Reddit moderator who prefers to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, specifically highlighted the significance of BotDefense in combating spam bot activity. The manual effort required to combat these bots is time-consuming, and Merari01 emphasized the challenges of countering spam bots, noting that karma is often sold at low prices.

According to the moderator:

With BotDefense shutting down, [fewer] spam bots will be caught, banned, and reported to site admins, which means more will be able to be sold. … The inevitable end result is that more people will be robbed of their money and/ or personal details and that more conversations will be manipulated.

According to Reddit’s 2022 Transparency Report, spam constituted a significant portion of the content removed by Reddit administrators, accounting for 79.6 percent. This category encompassed activities like karma farming and scams. The report revealed that a total of 97,264,778 spam posts and comments, as well as 2,729,489 spam private messages, were taken down.

Reddit, with its expansive network of over 100,000 subreddits, claimed in the same report that 98.3 percent of spam post and comment removals were flagged through Reddit’s automated systems. However, the subreddits that relied on BotDefense are now facing uncertainty regarding their ability to effectively manage their communities without this tool. The departure of BotDefense serves as another indication of the deteriorating state of the Reddit community.

Responding to BotDefense’s announcement, a Reddit user known as Dacvak, who moderates the r/gaming subreddit and utilizes BotDefense, expressed their concerns, stating:

What an enormous loss to the site and its users. The average person has no idea how much botspam there would be without you guys, and it’s worth noting that Reddit does not have effective tools for combating the growing complexity and number of bots.
This place will slowly but surely become a cesspool of bot-driving garbage, and I don’t blame anyone but Reddit for that.

Moderators have expressed their doubts to Ars regarding Reddit’s capacity to effectively update and sustain its own moderator tools, such as AutoMod, in the long run. There is also a prevalent skepticism about whether automated moderation tools can adequately handle the intricacies of nuanced Reddit discussions that have evolved over extended periods.

When approached by Ars for a response regarding the closure of BotDefense, Reddit did not provide any comments on the matter. Reddit’s approach to combating spam bots and karma farming, as well as the issue of users leaving the platform, also went unanswered.

In the midst of the ongoing protests…

Amid Reddit’s pursuit of new revenue through API changes that went into effect on July 1, numerous frustrated users have chosen to leave the platform, including prominent figures from popular communities like the Java Team at Mojang Studios’ Minecraft. The protests against API pricing began on June 12 when more than 8,800 subreddits pledged to go private for 48 hours. Presently, 2,108 subreddits remain inaccessible, as reported by the Reddark_247 tracker.

In response, Reddit has taken actions such as removing protesting moderators, threatening to reopen private subreddits, and urging moderators of protesting communities to remove the NSFW labels from their communities. However, this approach has caused confusion in subreddits that may have already been marked as NSFW for reasons unrelated to the protest. For instance, the moderators of r/military explained that their subreddit had always maintained an NSFW environment due to its focus on military-related discussions. Nevertheless, the uncertainty surrounding NSFW labels reflects the challenges Reddit faces in establishing trust with moderators who have been providing their services for free and fostering open dialogue with mods working in communities with distinct needs. The r/military subreddit has since removed its NSFW label, citing a lack of communication with Reddit regarding the situation.

The departure of significant community members who have dedicated their time and effort as volunteers, along with their innovative contributions, within just one week of the new API rules implementation is a concerning development. It raises questions about the value that Reddit places on the work of its moderators and the willingness to maintain an open dialogue with them.