Site Notes

Update on Comment Spam

By Ryan McGreal
Published June 10, 2008

Regular RTH readers may have noticed a heavy deluge of spam over the past few weeks. Clearly our spam filters were not working!

These comments are posted not by bored or malicious users but by spambots, computer programs that trawl the internet by jumping from link to link and try to fill in comment forms.

For a website dedicated to citizen engagement and collaboration, this poses a problem: we want to make it as easy as possible for people to post authentic comments, while simultaneously making it as hard as possible for bots to post spam.

It's clear that our design was out of balance, allowing so many spam comments to get through that real discussions have been disrupted.

Our long-term plan still entails subscribing to a comment spam service (we're looking closely at akismet), but in the meantime, we've implemented several new measures to weed out spam in anonymous comments:

As always, these restrictions won't apply for registered users who have confirmed their user account via a valid email address.

We've also tried provide more detailed information for real anonymous commenters whose comments are caught by the spam filters.

For example, if your comment includes text that looks like spam, the error message will include the text - but in a white-on-white colour scheme so you have to highlight the text to read it. (The reason for this is that some of the spam words are not considered fit for polite conversation.)

If you experience persistent problems posting comments, please feel free to contact me with the details so I can try and fix the problem.

We'll watch comments closely over the next while to see if this reduces the spam to a more manageable level.

Thanks for your patience while we struggle to deal with this unpleasant by-product of the ease of web-based communications.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By Screen Name for Hire (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2008 at 11:53:20

Let's see if anonymous comments work...

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By Screen Name for Hire (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2008 at 11:54:59

Hey, so far so good.

My only question is, where am I gonna go to get my [spam keywords go here] fix??

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By Testy McTest (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2008 at 16:40:03

This is a test

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By Rob+1 (anonymous) | Posted June 10, 2008 at 17:40:35

Check out recaptcha.net for a neat CAPTCHA system that I've been using lots. It gives the user two words from old public-domain books, one that the system knows, and the other that the OCR software was unable to recognize. The user doesn't know which is which, and if the known one is right, it assumes the unknown one is right, and thus your commenter has just helped digitize a public domain book!

Sometimes the words aren't recognizable, but there's a refresh button that doesn't involve a full page refresh, making that issue negligible.

(by the way, having a hard time posting here.. it's saying my account is unconfirmed [I never got any emails asking for confirmation], and its not accepting my answer to the security question.. it seems misleading as "type the numeral" suggests typing it full out as "six" not "6".. also won't let me post my name because my afore-mentioned unconfirmed account already uses the name.. man I'm having a bad day here!)

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 10, 2008 at 20:42:53

Hi Rob+1,

Thanks for bringing your troubles to my attention. I think I've fixed the problem, and I delete your (unconfirmed) user account, so you should be able to create a new one and receive the confirmation email.

I looked at recaptcha and respect the idea behind it, but I'm pretty resistant to the idea of an image captcha - if only for sheer usability.

In the meantime I'll change the language around the text captcha, though the word "numeral" does mean the numeric symbol, not the typed out word. :)

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By Green Eggs (anonymous) | Posted June 12, 2008 at 16:06:55

Well, it seems to be working so far. The Comments page is free of spam. It was getting ridiculous.

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By Bee (anonymous) | Posted June 13, 2008 at 19:31:15

I keep getting "What do you get if you subtract 5 from 3?" and it's completely unanswerable. neither -2 nor 2 are accepted.

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By beluga2 (anonymous) | Posted June 18, 2008 at 11:50:27

What's with the "beluga2" thing? I moused-over the "Screen Name" box, and that's what popped up.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted June 18, 2008 at 12:13:19

Bee,

Thanks for pointing this out. It should now be fixed.

Beluga2,

Sorry for the confusion. That was just for testing. It should now be gone.

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