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I've noticed some account suspensions recently. I thought this feature was meant for people who do not contribute to the site in a valuable way and do not follow the rules of asking/answering questions repeatedly. However the two accounts that were affected recently were two high reputation users who I personally haven't had any bad experience with. The suspension reason is "voting irregularities" and one of the suspension is a year long, which seems seems quite severe to me.

My question is: Do I have to worry that this could happen to myself? How come such a severe punishment?

To clarify: I don't mean to interfere with moderator activity and the punishment is probably appropriate, but it would be helpful to understand what's going on.

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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie I had asked a similar question just a few hours ago. It got closed since I linked the 2 accounts that are concerned, but 2 moderators recommended to ask a similar question without addressing the specific suspension. This is what this question is meant to be. $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 8 '16 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnRennie by sockpuppetry you mean people boosting their own accounts through an other one? $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 8 '16 at 10:54
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah, pretty much - see e.g. Wikipedia for a fairly descriptive outline, and this MSE post for more details on how they're viewed on the SE network. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Aug 8 '16 at 11:25
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Suspensions go to people who break the rules of the site, are warned about it, and don't stop. There is no requirement that the user does not contribute to the site in a valuable way - or in other words, even if someone is making valuable contributions in asking, answering, and editing, that doesn't make them immune from suspensions. No amount of rep puts you above the rules.

Specifically, "voting irregularities" typically means the person used multiple accounts ("sockpuppets" as we call them) to vote or participate in a way that they wouldn't be allowed to using one account. For example, voting multiple times on the same posts, voting on their own posts, using multiple usernames to give the illusion of broad support in a discussion (most relevant for meta posts), and so on. You can't really trust the reputation of these users because some of it may have been earned invalidly, by voting their own posts up, or by sockpuppet accounts awarding bounties to the main account. There is some more information on this on Meta Stack Exchange.

The normal progression of suspensions is that you first get a warning, then a 7-day suspension, then a 30-day suspension, then a 365-day suspension. So when you see someone who has been suspended for a year, that typically means they have been told to stop what they were doing at least 3 times in the past, but they didn't. Now, those are just guidelines, not strictly enforced limits on suspension length - sometimes we adjust the suspension length, or skip the warning in egregious cases (e.g. voting irregularities with new accounts, where the poster doesn't have an established record of good contributions) - but we rarely deviate from the default procedure, and I don't think there's ever been a case on this site of a user being suspended for 365 days without going through the full sequence of prior warnings.

Whenever a suspension is issued, it is accompanied by a message which usually looks like the following (taken from my answer on MSE):

Hello,

I'm writing in reference to your Secret Agent Stack Exchange account:

http://spies.stackexchange.com/users/007/bond-james-bond

Due to clear signs of falsified accounts being used to artificially inflate your reputation, your account has been temporarily suspended for 7 days.

It is not fair to other users of Secret Agent Stack Exchange to allow users to gain reputation through sockpuppets.

The offending accounts have been removed and the votes invalidated. Please refrain from this behavior in the future.

Regards, M
Secret Agent Stack Exchange moderator

Whenever relevant (e.g. in cases of rudeness), we usually quote 3 or 4 examples of the offending behavior in the message itself. Warning messages are usually similar, except for the part about actually suspending the user.

My question is: Do I have to worry that this could happen to myself?

Why, what have you been getting away with? :-P But seriously, I hope the above will convince you that you are not going to get suspended by surprise.

To clarify: I don't mean to interfere with moderator activity and the punishment is probably appropriate, but it would be helpful to understand what's going on.

Indeed, people are welcome to ask about the suspension process in general, as long as specific users and specific suspensions are kept out of it. The system is designed to avoid public shaming. For that reason, we (mods) do not discuss specific suspensions, and we prefer that other members don't either.

Finally, all suspensions are audited by the SE team. If you believe something inappropriate is going on with a specific user's suspension, you should contact them.

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    $\begingroup$ The problem is that the details aren't public. This results, that people once simply disappear and nobody knows, what they did. This gives the moderation a little bit of NKVD flavor. I admit, it is not your mistake, it is the system. $\endgroup$ – peterh says reinstate Monica Aug 8 '16 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @peterh See meta.stackexchange.com/q/23385 $\endgroup$ – dmckee Aug 8 '16 at 20:04
  • $\begingroup$ thanks for the extensive and very informative answer! $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger Aug 8 '16 at 22:12
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    $\begingroup$ So what you're saying is, anyone can get away with voting fraud once? :P $\endgroup$ – user253751 Aug 12 '16 at 6:41
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    $\begingroup$ @immibis you can get away with it as many times as you're skilled enough - you can only get caught, it appears, 4 times before getting a year long ban. I'm a diamond mod myself and even I admit it's pretty damned generous, especially when you know the people you ban for a day or a week are gonna come right back and do it again... but still, Stack Exchange prefers a Department of Corrections to a Department of Punishment, and I'm inclined to agree. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Aug 12 '16 at 21:11
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    $\begingroup$ I wonder if sharing your a post in the social media then telling people to upvote it if they like it is considered sockpuppetry or not. Because in the system it can appear that the same set of people (your followers) keep giving the +1 always. $\endgroup$ – Calmarius Aug 17 '16 at 12:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Calmarius If those people start upvoting many of your posts, it would look suspicious. Of course the way we detect sockpuppetry is not just looking for suspicious voting patterns. It involves correlating several pieces of evidence. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 17 '16 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Adding to the paragraph right near the end, sometimes, once in a blue moon, the user brings the matter out in the open on their own accord. Happened with a Server Fault moderator who had the diamond revoked due to questionable use of diamond moderator privileges (but the user in question wasn't suspended), and might possibly have happened in other situations as well. Of course, that doesn't apply in case of all-out account suspensions, where the user by definition would be unable to interact with the community. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 19 '16 at 13:25
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling Indeed that can happen, though our experience on this site has made us reluctant to discuss suspensions publicly even when the suspended user wants to do so after returning to the site. $\endgroup$ – David Z Aug 19 '16 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidZ You're getting no argument from me there! I'm not advocating the behavior (I can easily see it leading to much hurt feelings) and it certainly shouldn't be brought up by someone other than the user who was suspended other than possibly in very general terms (and even that is doubtful), but it does occasionally happen. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 19 '16 at 13:44

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