Raising awareness of the paid shill phenomenon in crypto

 

You have some spare money you want to invest, so you check your favorite cryptocurrency subreddit. You see a few coins being mentioned, but one stands out. Its thread has so many upvotes. It has so many people commenting nice, positive things about the coin and its team. How could a coin with so many nice things being said about it be a bad investment? People can’t effectively lie on a place like Reddit, right? The karma system would punish this, wouldn’t it?

It is this train of thought that makes people vulnerable to manipulation.

A common occurrence in crypto investing is paid shilling (or its opposite, paid FUDing), in which some third party pays people to make positive (or negative) comments about a certain coin, ultimately hoping to manipulate its price or its reputation. This loosely falls under the general category of Sybil attacks, in which one entity in a network utilizes multiple identities to subvert a reputation system. In the context of something like Reddit, this could be someone paying people to make accounts (or use existing accounts) to spread a certain opinion. In this situation, the coordinator of these accounts is actively manipulating Reddit’s reputation system (karma system) by using these sockpuppet accounts to suppress dissenting opinions and force forward his own ideas. A recent (now-deleted) Reddit thread from a former paid shill outlined this process in more detail and confirmed suspicions that this was happening in r/cryptocurrency, a very large hub of crypto discussion.

 

This is not to say that the manipulation is actively spreading incorrect information. Many instances of shilling are actually just spreading correct information about the project, just without mentioning the downsides. This is not as bad as paid FUD, which oftentimes does spread actual misinformation about projects. On the whole, however, these manipulative efforts seem more interested in affecting the mindshare of a certain project, rather than the information surrounding it. For example, constantly seeing a project at the top of the subreddit is likely to lead to more (organic) discussion of the project, due to the circular logic that if something is already being discussed, it should probably continue to be discussed because it must have had some inherent merit to have been highly-discussed in the first place. This can lead people to believe a project is more important or further along in development than it really is, potentially leading to an increase in its price. The manipulation therefore disrupts discussion mechanisms that aim to deliberately promote high-quality content, where quality is determined as a function of user actions.

There have been some efforts to combat these attacks in various communities. For example, in r/cryptocurrency, commenters have their account age and karma in their flair, so people can easily identify new accounts made purely to promote a certain project. However, this type of mechanism is easily subverted by simply buying older accounts with legitimate comment history behind them. Furthermore, this reputation system does not stop attackers from mass-upvoting content that they support. Other communities use different content promotion mechanisms that are less prone to this type of manipulation. For example, 4chan’s /biz/ board, another large hub of crypto discussion, just bumps posts to the top whenever they are commented on, and does not use a reputation system like karma. This makes coordinated shilling more difficult as it requires constant activity to maintain prominence. Additionally, 4chan has the “sage” action, which acts as a sort of “downvote” that gets a thread closer to the point where it is no longer bumped to the top. Generally, the less permanent the content is, the more resistant the website is to these attacks, as more effort is required to promote content in ephemeral means of communication.

Overall, it seems very difficult to design a useful discussion mechanism that is entirely resistant to Sybil attacks without stifling legitimate discussion. The best way to personally remain resistant to these efforts is just to do your own research, and use these discussion hubs as a starting point to identify interesting projects to do more research on.