Combating Message Board Spam — Find the supplier

Infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier!

In the 2012 action comedy film 21st Jump Street, based on the police procedural crime drama television series from the eighties that is famous primarily because it propelled a pre-bohemian Johnny Depp to fame, police Captain Dickson, frantically trying to impress the objective of an under-cover operation on his two dim-witted officers, repeatedly exclaims “Infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier!”

Looking at the amazing amount of spam that appeared on the Yahoo Finance message board for MER Telemanagement Systems in the wake of a recent violent move of the per share price of its equity, MTSL, it is clear to me that one of the most important reasons why Yahoo is doomed (together with, by the way, Monster, LinkedIn, and Craig’s List — something that I plan and/or hope to write about in a separate posting,) is that Yahoo’s executive and senior management do not appreciate — or care about — the simple strength inherent in Captain Dickson’s instructions to his officers.

Yahoo Finance message boards for companies with low equity trading volume and low volatility typically contain reasonably civilized and data-rich discourses among a low, but steady number of long-term followers of the companies and their equities and are normally void of spamming.  Immediately upon any signs of significant volume or volatility, however, these boards are inundated with spam, effectively drowning out the meaningful discourse at a time when it is needed the most.

Spam Taxonomy

Spam on Yahoo Finance message boards fall in four broad categories:

  • The first category, which I usually designate as information-seeking postings, is relatively innocuous, consisting of retail investors or retail traders publishing one-paragraph postings (often in remarkably poor English,) seeking an explanation as to what has caused the recent change in volume or volatility.  Aside from the very real issue of whether or not the posters of this category of postings, who are exhibiting what is clearly very limited money management skills and very poor judgment — as witnessed by the fact that they contemplate making investment decisions on the basis of opinions that they solicit from people that they don’t know — ought to be prohibited from trading or investing in order to protect them from predators and, frankly, themselves,  the issue with this category is that the mere volume of information-seeking exclamations is overwhelming and that the information requests are duplicated ad nauseam.

    One of the most interesting things about postings in this category is that they rarely are replied to (and when they are replied to, the replies are mostly idiotic declarative statements (see below,)) and, so, you can marvel at the posters’ persistence in the face of adversity, much like that of weeds in your garden.

    This category of spam, by the way, qualify more as a nuisance than as spam in that the associated postings are not part of a deliberate, organised attempt at swaying the reader.
  • The second category, idiotic declarative statements, is made up from postings that have no substantial purpose except to express joy, schadenfreude, excitement, or glee, and, here, as it was the case with the information-seeking postings, the issue with the postings in this category is that they clutter the posting boards and stifles the discourse.  

    This category of spam, too, qualify more as a nuisance than as spam.
  • The third category, agenda-bearing postings, is made up from postings by retail investors or retail traders, attempting to sway the reader in one direction or another — hold, sell, or buy.  

    Typically posters publishing posts in this category will be very active, publishing many posts and replies in a very short time, and will frequently quote quasi-data, including historic performance of unrelated equities, comments by analysts, comments by the company management, and the recent movements in price or volume, but rarely applying any real or substantive data.  Also, the posters of this category of postings will most frequently demonstrate exceptionally poor command of the English language, a poor grasp of facts and data, and extreme combative behavior, mostly reverting to abusive ad hominem attacks.

    Sometimes the postings in this category appear scientific, referring vaguely to trading mumbo-jumbo, such as head-and-shoulder, or exotic accounting terms, such as days sales outstanding, but, mostly, there is no substance behind these references.

    This category of spam is harmful because it has high volume, appears scientific, and has the clear intent of moving the reader in some direction — a direction, which, ultimately, is intended to provide value to the poster, rather than the reader.

  • The fourth category, institutional spam, consists of relatively simple postings that make some sort of strong declarative — and often sensational — statement, intended to catch a reader’s interest, followed by a URL pointing to a web-site, frequently the web-site of a stock-picking news-letter or service, and supplemented by 10 or more one-line replies from supporting spammers along the line of “Great posting,” “Thank you for the link,” “Your news-letter really helped me” — you get the gist, I am sure.

    Postings in this category represent the heavy-weight class of spamming, being undertaken by quasi-professional services, applying significant resources and working on a near 24×7 basis.

    This category of spam is extremely harmful because it has overwhelmingly high volume, is deceptive, is intended to lead the reader to follow a URL to locations unknown, with the clear goal of somehow capitalizing — in real monetary terms — on this URL following, and, importantly, because it is on the rise.

Yahoo’s Approach

Yahoo’s way of dealing with spam on its public, non-moderated message boards is to apply a quasi-community approach, inspired by Craig’s List’s powergful community-controlled, flagging concept, but implemented in such a poor and cumbersome way as to make reporting spam a chore rather than a joy.  Simply put, it is possible to report spamming through a rather idiotic Yahoo abuse reporting process requiring the opening of a new web-page and subsequent data entry (often requiring the scroll down on the page,) and once a sufficient amount of readers have complained, and, presumably. the offending posting has been reviewed by an actual human being in the Yahoo office, the offending spam posting will be deleted.

I am sure you immediately grasp the inherent problems here (raising, of course, the question as to why Yahoo’s management does not?)   First, a lot of time passes before the posting is removed; second, the process is reliant on readers actually reporting the spamming, which, because of the cumbersome reporting process, is a dicey proposition; and third, some level of human intervention is required by Yahoo, which has led to an arms-race between Yahoo and the professional spammers — an arms-race that the professional spammers have handily won.  Moreover, amazingly, once Yahoo discovers a spammer (or, as it may be, a spamming organization,) it appears to take little or no steps to prevent the spammer from spamming again, and, crucially, the deletion of an institutional spam, does not lead to the automatic deletion of the supporting replies in the thread.


On a side-note, Yahoo’s spam abuse process is among the top ten worst abuse reporting functions that I have ever seen, ranking right up there with Do-Not-Call’s abuse reporting function, which, in an amusing twist of mission against purpose, is clearly engineered to ensure that consumers do not report telemarketers. How anyone can be responsible for this area within Yahoo and not commit seppuku is a mystery to me.

Yahoo accounts used for spamming and spamming support have short life-spans, typically one day — staying well ahead of Yahoo’s abuse function, although some accounts used for spamming support last months — an indication of the weakness of Yahoo’s abuse function. Furthermore, on average, each Yahoo account used for spamming or for spamming support generates 15 to 20 postings or replies per day.

Combating Spam — How to do it

Since Yahoo’s public message boards, including the Yahoo Finance message boards, are marketed as free services, it is not hard to understand why Yahoo does not take proactive steps to improve the spam management process.   However, Yahoo is heavily dependent on advertising and, therefore, must stay relevant to the reader in the face of increasing competition, such a Yahoo Finance’s competition from Google Finance, and — in my view — must find a way to facilitate the increasingly important cross-reader communications, and, so, the decision to — effectively — do nothing about spammers, particularly those spammers who are behind institutional spam, is a near-fatal error.

Surprisingly perhaps, stemming the tide of institutional spam can be achieved with relative ease and very little costs, greatly enhancing the relevancy of Yahoo’s message boards:

  • The first step is to ease the reporting process, enabling a reader to report a posting as spam by simply clicking on button — a technology that Yahoo already has in hand and is applying as part of a rating scheme for postings.
  • The second step is to empower the Yahoo abuse function to — whole-sale — delete the entire offending thread and, critically, on a global Yahoo board level, delete any other posts and threads originated by the spammer — as well as deleting any posts made by — and threads originated by — supporting spammers.
  • The third step is to cancel the spammer’s and the supporting spammers’ Yahoo accounts and, for a period of at least 30 days, block the creation of any new Yahoo account from the IP address of the spammer and the supporting spammers.
  • The fourth step is to note the URLs and the identity of the companies underlying the linked URLs, which, ultimately, are paying for the spamming (they are, in Captain Dickson’s terminology, the suppliers,) and prevent the publishing of any post that include these URLs or any reference to the identified companies.   This would require the application of technology that Yahoo — in what I believe is a bizarre manifestation of enforcement of a non-published policy — already have deployed for its message boards (you cannot, for instance, on the Yahoo Finance message board write a posting that includes the term “Israeli” — such posting is automatically deleted, without any notice — try it if you doubt me.)

The fourth step, in particular, will be efficient at stemming the tide of institutional spam — at least for a while.   It focuses on shutting down the financial source, rather than the (infinite number of) zombie organizations that feed of the source.  As Captain Dickson said “Infiltrate the dealers, find the supplier!”

By the way, I am aware that the suppliers will claim that they are not responsible for third parties’ postings of URLs pointing to their web-sites, and, therefore, the application of a system of automatic censure would be unfair. The underlying contention, that there are hundreds of Yahoo posters who, for entirely altruistic reasons, spend their entire day promoting the supplier’s web-site on 15 to 20 message boards, is, of course, patently absurd. However, if there is a sense that this is a concern that needs to be addressed, Yahoo could set up a comprehensive and in-depth appeal process — effectively placing the burden of proof on the supplier, where it belongs.

Oh, and Marissa Mayer, in the event that you are taking time to read this posting in between preparing to give birth, purchasing Prada purses, posing for publicity shots, and battling Alibaba Group’s blatant attempt to steal Yahoo’s property, here is a a couple of URLs for what I believe are suppliers — all extracted from recent postings on the Yahoo Finance message board for MER Telemanagement Systems:


Banning any posting containing these URLs would, I believe, radically cut down on spam in Yahoo Finance message boards, reducing spam by perhaps as much as 10%. That, of course, is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but it should be enough to get your staff started — if they care to deal with the problem.

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3 Comments on “Combating Message Board Spam — Find the supplier”

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