LinkedIn’s ‘Blacklist’ Censors Thousands of Legitimate Users

LinkedIn fail page

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  • A moderator can stop a member from posting in any group they belong to
  • LinkedIn power users losing thousands of dollars a month in lost opportunities
  • SWAM blacklist used for retributive strikes against competitors

In early June Rini Das couldn’t work out why her posts to LinkedIn groups had stopped appearing.

“I kept saying, That’s odd, I’m getting moderated continuously. I thought it must be something wrong with my Firefox settings,” says Das, whose company in Ohio, US, generates 90 percent of its revenue from LinkedIn traffic.

It took Das, chief executive of software company Pakra, a week to discover she had been blocked and deleted by a moderator in one group and, by default, placed on a blacklist that restricted her from posting comments on any other group on the network.

In LinkedIn speak, Das had been SWAMed.

SWAM, or Site Wide Auto-Moderation, a LinkedIn policy introduced in December, is effectively a form of crowd-sourced blacklisting. It’s a weapon in the professional network’s covert war on spammers who use fake accounts to post links in groups or email members.

But Das, as well as at least several thousand other legitimate LinkedIn users, had been mistakenly classified as spammers. LinkedIn has some 218 million  members worlwide, 4 million in Australia. It has more than 1.5 million groups.

Rini Das SWAM

Rini Das, CEO, Pakra Games

LinkedIn has confirmed the existence of the policy but has aggravated the situation by refusing to establish an appeals process. Members say the company pushes angry users back on unaware moderators – and, in some cases, deletes support tickets that dare mention SWAM.

While mid-level LinkedIn executives have claimed to know nothing about the blacklist, BoxFreeIT has sighted emails alerting the most senior levels of management. SWAM has continued to operate despite the company’s commitment to “putting our members first”.

“LinkedIn may have had the best of intentions putting this out there, but (SWAM is) destroying the LinkedIn community, it’s destroying the users of the groups, and their approach really lays bare their bad management practices,” says Matthew Weaver, a project management consultant in Washington, DC who moderates LinkedIn groups with over 250,000 members.

Outsiders may wonder why people would care so much about being ejected from a social network. But unlike a Facebook profile, members use LinkedIn indirectly to generate business leads.

Das’ company Pakra uses LinkedIn to find leads for its $40,000 enterprise software. Weaver and other consultants give advice in forum groups and in return are asked to quote on proposals. SWAM has cost some users thousands of dollars a month in lost opportunities, and LinkedIn has lost premium memberships and advertising as frustrated users protest their pariah status.

Have You Have Been SWAMed? Here’s How to Find Out

Mark Vang, a social media expert in Virginia, US who has moderated groups with over 700,000 members, says SWAM is undermining LinkedIn’s most loyal users – the people who post discussions and comment on groups which drive up LinkedIn’s internet traffic and popularity.

“They’re watching their business being destroyed by the same company that says they’re trying to help you become a success in business,” Vang says.

 

LinkedIn’s secret weapon against spam

When LinkedIn introduced SWAM in December it massively upgraded the power of the Block and Delete button used by group moderators to throw out spammers and problem members.

Block and Delete, sometimes referred to as “going nuclear”, deletes all posts by a member from the group, delists them as a member and bans them from joining the group again. With Site Wide Auto-Moderation, the blocked member is effectively labelled a spammer by LinkedIn and flagged for moderation in every other group they belong to (members can belong to up to 50 groups).

Users who have found themselves SWAMed have reacted angrily to its severity and the way it was introduced.

Next page: Power without oversight

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About Sholto Macpherson

Sholto Macpherson is a business technology journalist specialising in cloud software. He lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

Comments
43 Responses to “LinkedIn’s ‘Blacklist’ Censors Thousands of Legitimate Users”
  1. GaryE says:

    SWAM support group on LinkedIn
    http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=4911853

    LinkedIn SWAM (Site Wide Auto Moderation) Support group on Google+
    https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/116051139530449057060

    We have an open LinkedIn SWAM group on Facebook at
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/557130204328046/

    • Chuck Wright says:

      Gary you have a great place for those who have been SWAMed to come together. Everyone who believes in free speech should connect on the sites Gary has shared to stop the epidemic from spreading.

  2. Chuck Wright says:

    Sholto & Rini,

    Thank you for bringing this devastating problem to the public. LinkedIn fails to realize that giving one person the power to stop free speech stops the world from sharing thoughts that make us better.

    I have witnessed group managers block people for discriminatory reasons to enhance their cause. 230 million people discuss important issues on the site and now they are afraid of being censored. Now they are leaving to other platforms that don’t allow this type of blatant censorship.

    The days of LinkedIn being a respected discussion platform are over unless they can listen to the members who made them what they once were.

  3. Rinidas says:

    Sholto: This is a great assessment of the situation.

    I still find it amazing that a company that was built as a community platform and claims to be data-driven, would continue to crowd-source spam and fake profile monitoring.

    If LinkedIn claims to have reduced spam, then Mazel to them and they should promote their best practice at Blackhat conferences and various other security conferences as they seem to have found the magic bullet to reduce fake subscribers and spammers.

    The reality is more likely they have not. The immaturity of the functionality and UX experience thinking is stunning.
    Not the first example, but this is becoming the best example of how crowd-sourcing is NOT helping them build a community but destroy it.
    Also this is slowly becoming an example of what @Stibel calls “reaching the breaking point of a network” in his book Breaking Point.

  4. elizabethn says:

    This is an excellent assessment of the SWAM problem. It’s an extremely punitive feature that treats adult professionals like children. The Block & Delete feature has value, but it creates nothing but problems now that it affects people in their other groups. I manage two groups. No group manager should ever have the power to affect a member’s experience in another group. This is costing people leads, referrals from LinkedIn, the ability to communicate with business connections, and bottom line – thousands of dollars.

    What is even more maddening is that LinkedIn never announced it to group owners/managers/ moderators or to LinkedIn membership at large. So, people have found out about either by being SWAM’d or by being in the LinkedIn Group Products Forum. Their are over two million groups on LinkedIn. Most people in group management still do not know that SWAM even exists. So they aren’t aware that when they Block & Delete a group member, that person is being SWAM’d.

    LinkedIn has still not sent any type of announcement to anyone, despite repeated requests. They refuse to reverse the process, and offer no recourse. For a company that says it is based on giving the best value possible to its members, it sure has a strange of showing it.

    In fact, LinkedIn appears to have little or no regard for its customers at all.

  5. Gary says:

    There is more than one dimension to this issue. I openly declare a vested interest in this topic because I am manager in a few groups who has, with reluctance, occasionally had to exercise SWAM restrictions on group members who have acted inappropriately. I have never used the power unfairly or vindictively and have only ever used it on spammers and other clear abusers of the privilege of group membership. I also tend to give warnings about abuse of infringements of LinkedIn regulations in preference to blocking or deleting, giving the person the option to delete or rectify any unsuitable contributions themselves.

    There is a very serious problem with spam on LinkedIn which degrades the professionalism and integrity of the site. Spam infested groups discourage professional participation because serious LinkedIn members don’t want their discussions and comments devalued and associated-by-proximity with the contributions of spammers. So the introduction of a powerful tool to combat the spam was needed.

    Another genuine problem but under-reported problem on LinkedIn (that can often appear to be indistinguishable from spam) is the extensive and determined marketing of products and services in general discussion threads instead of in the promotion threads they should be in. Cynical sales, marketing and promotional people and vendors with undeclared interest in specific products, services and websites occasionally stray into casually “recommending” their own or their suppliers’ products, services and websites, while trying to giving a false impression of impartiality or objectivity.

    These are some of the LI members that I believe sometimes get caught up in the net of SWAM restrictions and find themselves flushed out with spammers and scammers but cannot understand why it has happened to them. The moderators who do this are often the ones that are most intolerant of any level of deception on the site and therefore tend to include undeclared advocacy and opaque promotional practices as forms of deception.

    For balance, I must make it clear that the incautious, negligent, arbitrary or indiscriminate use of moderation powers and misuse or abuse such as vendettas and exercises in discrimination are all totally inexcusable. This sort of malpractice should be reported to group owners and to LinkedIn Trust & Safety if the owners are the culprits or fail to respond. Heavy sanctions exist for genuine cases of misuse or abuse of moderation powers.

    A good compromise could be to have a transparent and effective SWAM Appeals Process carried out specifically by the group owner (and)/or (supervised) by the LinkedIn Trust & Safety Team. A successful appeal could include an explicit requirement to refrain from posting marketing materials in general discussion threads and indulging in undeclared advocacy and other dubious promotional practices. In return, the appellant could be granted conditional readmission to the group with a probationary period of relaxation of SWAM restrictions to ensure that good sales, marketing and promotional best practice are adhered to. A penalty of permanent blocking and deletion should remain in play in the event of any re-emergence of the behavior in question.

    • Thanks Gary for outlining the other dimensions to this issue. I agree that some people are unaware of protocol against self-promotion and end up SWAMMed, but there are also many innocents too. An appeals process would go a long way to fixing it but LinkedIn has shown no interest in going down this path.

      • Gary says:

        Thanks for taking the time to reply, Sholto. I agree. There is no way of legislating for human nature. It’s clear that some innocents have indeed been caught up the SWAM initiative and your insightful article clearly illustrates the problem. I am strongly in favor of an appeals process. Without such a process, it’s inevitable that human nature and the law of averages will conspire, resulting in negligent or unscrupulous moderators and innocent victims.

        As for the practicalities of LI implementing an appeals process, there are two main obstacles that have to be overcome. The first is the fact that LI’s 2 million group owners and the moderators they appoint are all unpaid volunteers. This means that LI in fact has a relatively small payroll for a business of its commercial scale and position in the market. The policing of the tidal wave of activity generated by 2 million LI groups requires man hours of labor that LI simply cannot provide with its current structure.

        This ushers in the second obstacle. Any appeal process would therefore probably be conducted by group owners. If the group owner is also the moderator, you have the makings of a dilemma. So, my suggestion would be for a two stage appeals process, with the first conducted by group owners and any unresolved cases conducted by LI Trust & Safety (headed by Paul Rockwell, as you kinow).

        This is a salient issue, Sholto. Please keep writing about it and keep pressing LI for an appeals process. After all, if an avenue of appeal for innocent victims is not forthcoming, the result could be a very expensive class action lawsuit, with all the attendant bad publicity.

  6. SWAMMED BY LINKEDIN

    LinkedIn has pretty well ignored most all the SWAM complaints but I think this one (website link) got their attention. First LinkedIn’s moderator, Katarina Berg, deleted mine and some of the other members’ comments. When we questioned LinkedIn’s handling of this discussion, they never responded.

    This morning mine and some of the members on this discussion have their accounts placed on HIGH RESTRICTION, no access.

    Chuck Wilson

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