For those of you who run web sites that have large discussion forums, this question is for you.
I have a dilemma and I haven't the foggiest how to handle it. I run a web site on a particular health topic. We have a policy that there is absolutely no participation allowed on the Forums by other website owners, vendors, doctors, surgeons, or anyone affiliated with any product or service. Basically, no stealing free advertising, trying to farm new clients from our forum users, and no pretending you're an end user when you're really trying to promote something. Basic stuff.
There's a section on our site dedicated to cosmetic surgery options. Along with this comes legitimate posts by legitimate users who reporting feedback on a procedure they've had by a specific surgeon. Unfortunately numerous surgeons are aware of our site. Its got a very good reputation. And we are starting to see a strange influx of brand new users who have less than 10 posts all creating new threads saying "Procedure by Dr. Xxxxx - My experience" .... over and over ... and over ....
In fact I logged in yesterday and there were 10 new threads on page 1 alone, with this phrasing in the title. Each thread was a brand new user, 3 paragraphs of text, thumbnail pictures showing progress, and always certain to mention the doctors name and location in sentences.
The problem? I dont want Doctors or their representatives or even satisfied customers of theirs who are getting kickbacks, to post this stuff on my site. I only want legitimate end-users. My solution? I start looking at IP addresses. A couple users have matching IP's but different usernames. Both created a new thread promoting the same doctor. So I make an executive decision to ban both users. Next thing i know? The guy is back under 6 different usernames screaming censorship. I had to ban him 6 times. Then he sends me an email saying "You are just BANNING people for sharing their experiences?"
Naturally the problem is - how do you handle something like this? I know most forum owners will kick and ban people without a second thought, but theres a lot of drama and web sites get blacklisted and talked trash about in this small circle I exist in. So site owners can't just go around banning people.
Was just wondering how you all have handled this sort of thing on your web sites. That whole dilemma of trying to determine if the user is legitimate or affiliated with a company.
Here on Sitepoint Forums we assiduously hunt down and destroy spammers and trolls. We have a continual stream of spammers and spambots that often get nuked before they even make a post, but they are usually using a scattergun approach so we don't tend to get any comeback from those. Sometimes we get recurring spam, and we deal with it by being vigilant (but that's much easier with a team of 40 than if you're trying to manage it on your own) and by adding certain words to the blacklist. Again, if the posts you're getting are similar to genuine posts and related to your field, it might be harder to do that effectively. We have also on a handful of occasions had trolls who kept creating new accounts as quickly as we banned the old ones. The tactic there was just to be utterly relentless.
Remember, it is your forum and you have every right to put whatever restrictions you want on posting to that forum. If you want to outlaw certain types of post, or certain people, you can do that, and it is entirely your prerogative. If they don't like it, they can lump it. If they cause you any trouble, ban them immediately.
There are various options to you. One would be to put a restriction on new posters so that any posts had to be manually approved, or likewise any posts with attachments/links. If you are able to prove who it is and what ISP they are using, you could try contacting the ISP, but you are unlikely to get anywhere with that. We have discussed blocking IP ranges here on SPF but it's a drastic action and it is likely to take out a chunk of legitimate users as well, which is why we have never yet implemented it.
Depending on the volume of traffic you get, manually approving suspicious posts is probably the best strategy.
I appreciate your response. Allow me to clarify this situation a little further. This isn't really an issue of just hunting down spam and nuking it.
This has been a major problem for me and I don't know how to handle it. My web site is on a health condition, and I must attend conferences where these surgeons are often present. There are also salon owners who attend these conferences. It didn't take long for these surgeons and salon owners to realize that my forums are a perfect place to get new customers. People come to my site to get help and information and resources. So they are a "sale" waiting to happen.
The problem is, if you have 10 of my users, one may actually go get a procedure done by a surgeon. And he may actually come back and want to tell everyone about his experience. Post photos, etc. Likewise, a lady may go to a specific Salon and want the freedom to talk about it. After all, that's what Forums are for. The problem arises when the Surgeon or the Salon Owner gets wind of my site, and wants people to talk about them more. They may seed the forums with new users who say glowing things about the Salon. They may even ask a customer of theirs to go to my web site and post their "story" on my forums for a discount on the product or service.
So you've got legit users, and you've got meddling Surgeons and Salon Owners. One salon owner actually told me: "We offer a discount to XXXX.com members!" I told her this made me extremely uncomfortable because I don't like that she's so involved with my forums. It makes me feel like there are many people who are posting her Salon praises (even if they're doing so honestly!), just to get discounts. Likewise, these surgeons may offer a cheaper procedure if the user goes to my site and talks about it.
The only way I've managed to snag some of these "biased" posts (what do I call it? Soft spam?) ... is that these people aren't always very smart. I logged in the other day and in one forum there were 5 new threads in the last month. All from users with less than 10 posts, who wanted to share their experience with so and so Surgeon. All the same surgeon. Too many coincidences to be real.
But that's my problem. How do I know if they're real or not? How do I handle this? I mentioned conferences. Sometimes I have to appear at these conferences - just as a visitor of course - and these Surgeons could confront me or accuse me of censoring their patients, etc.
See so the problem here is - not really knowing who is real and who isn't. That's my problem. Not knowing which user is just there to talk about the Salon because the Salon Owner offered her a 10% discount if she "shared her experience". See what i mean? Technically they're not doing anything wrong. My forums are there to share experiences. But not disingenuously like that. It pisses me off. I ended up banning all the users who created those 5 threads about the Surgeon. Just deleted everything and blocked them. Needless to say there has been a hailstorm of "Censorship" screaming by nearly everyone. But I know there's no way 5 users with less than 10 posts just showed up coincidentally and started talking about this one Surgeon.
Is the fact that there are legit users mixed in with the fakes that makes this so difficult.
Thanks for any insight.
A couple of suggestions:
If a surgeon confronts you about censoring his patients then it's a pretty sure bet that he has at the very least seeded the comments, if not written them himself. So by the very fact that he is accusing you, he is proving your own case for you. If they were genuine comments written unsolicited by patients, he would not be aware of the comments going up, let alone being taken down. Legitimate users who are banned are, if you explain why you have done it, more likely to be sympathetic to your plight than angry about having been censored – that can also give you a clue.
It sounds like you just need a simple change to your T&C to prohibit any reviews that are "paid", including any for which the patient receives a discount or kickback. I don't know whether it would be possible to enforce it, but if you get any inkling that there is something amiss with a post, it gives you another string to your bow.
Ultimately, it's a decision you have to make on each post as to whether it's legit or fraudulent. If you think it's fraudulent, you ban it. Your site, your prerogative. You don't have to prove it in court, you don't have to give any evidence at all. If you ban someone, they're banned, and that's the end of it. Anyone who kicks up a fuss almost certainly deserved what they got.
Have a rule against mentioning Salon or Surgeon names in the actual thread, but then allow the Surgeons or Salons to become featured businesses for a payment, and then allow them to manage reviews that are posted on a specific thread for their location as a featured business.
I've thought aobut that DVDUVAL .... but then you get into the realm of your site being of zero help to people. I use a lot of sites to get doctor names or product information, etc... i cant imagine going to a site and having all that info blocked. I'd never be able to get help with my situation. I honestly think this is an impossible issue to resolve. Unless you are God and are all-knowing, you couldn't possibly know who is posting with dishonest intentions, and who is just a happy customer. I end up banning legit users because of the bad apples.
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