Signs that questions here or on advice-giving subreddits are fake?
May 8, 2016 3:55 PM   Subscribe

I know that sometimes people send fake questions to advice columnists or post fake questions here or on relevant subreddits, but I've never suspected that any given question is fake. I think some of you are good are spotting potential fakes. What things tip you off that a given question is fake?
posted by Alluring Mouthbreather to Human Relations (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I am suspicious if a question is written like an outrageous story, with paragraphs of excess detail and tons of dialog. There's a style of writing that goes with it. The best I can describe it is as fanfictionish. I am also suspicious (especially on Reddit) if a question seems designed to pander to the subreddit's audience and draw a lot of attention, especially moral panic.
posted by Stonkle at 4:17 PM on May 8, 2016 [22 favorites]

There's no checklist.

An obvious one is details that I know to be wrong--for example, someone claims that X happened when I know X is impossible.

But ore frequently it's just a case of it being ... too perfect. Fakes are often posted in order to get attention, so they'll have a narrative that is crafted to hit hot-button issues. But real people's narratives don't usually hit hot-button issues perfectly on-center; there will be complicating factors, slight differences, etc.

You can also sometimes see it when the creator of the fake has a warped worldview that leaks into their writing. For example, an MRA troll is sometimes identifiable because they'll invent a fake female villain who has motivations taken straight from MRA talking points.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 4:25 PM on May 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

Ooh, this is a sport for me.

Excess unnecessary detail -- it reads like a novel. The characters always have names, and they're Sebastians, not Janes.

Improbable situations, usually involving deaths, with strangely little grief -- both parents dead in a tragic auto accident, but anyhoo la la la la terrific life! After my first husband died of cancer my five kids were sad for a bit but they adore my new BF; no mention of counselling, years of grief, financial hardship, anything like that.

There's just too much unlikely stuff stacked together. My BF is a tattoo artist and he makes $100k/yr and owns his own shop; BF is 21 years old. My aunt died and left us (loads and loads of cash because for some reason they were the only ones to leave it to).

The question is stupid. There's a long-winded thing about some situation that is just "So, given that he owns his own tattoo shop and I drive a Benz, what should I say when my great-aunt tells me we're not ready to get married and have kids? That's wrong of her, right?"

Never a dull moment! Everything in the story is remarkable. People do not write fake questions about everyday things like spats over fair division of housework. They would like you to predict if it will work out well for them to marry a rich boy in a foreign country even though their high school sweetie still loves them and has also asked to marry them. She does care for the HS guy, but she's ever so in love with the well-to-do foreigner.

Bad things usually only happen to others. Sometimes there is a call for pity for OP; OP's child has a rare disease or some such. But OP is always living the life of Riley. (There is a major exception to this, which often involves a scam where OP will start working the audience for $.)

If it reads like stuff you daydreamed about when you were 12 and just got in trouble it is probably BS. The parents die (instantly and painlessly, but, dead); they left behind tonnes of cash so it's all okay as OP bought a house with a pool (these mansions never require maintenance) and her aunt and uncle are, like, BFFs who she always wanted as parents -- they stop in once a week to make sure she's okay, but other than that there's no adult oversight; standard young teen fantasy.

The "no maintenance" thing extends to a lot -- the OP clearly has no experience with the reality of, oh, parenting, house/car/pool maintenance, managing large sums of money, the ups and downs that accompany many years of marriage, et cetera.

Partners are either total scum -- they don't just cheat, they have whole separate families in another city or something -- or fairy-tale folk -- my god, $$,$$$$ in diamond jewellery just because!

It is mostly the attention given to the wholly unnecessary detail that gives away the most obvious ones, I think. Stonkle is bang on about the fanfic style. Unrealistic dialogue is always a giveaway (a bad writer who is paraphrasing will generally say "I'm paraphrasing, but it was roughly like..."), and Kutsuwamushi nailed the worldview issue. Reddit gets fake sexual assault stories posted by MRA kooks.
posted by kmennie at 4:30 PM on May 8, 2016 [30 favorites]

You can also sometimes see it when the creator of the fake has a warped worldview that leaks into their writing. For example, an MRA troll is sometimes identifiable because they'll invent a fake female villain who has motivations taken straight from MRA talking points.

These ones turn up on Reddit a fair bit, but their fakeness isn't always obvious to men who aren't familiar with MRA rhetoric but are running into issues with SOs who want a more egalitarian relationship. These posts will validate their feelings of being nagged, etc. I dated someone who, frankly, wasn't culturally literate enough to recognize a couple of these posts as being the work of MRA trolls, which led to some interesting issues oh god I broke out in hives just thinking about it.
posted by blerghamot at 4:40 PM on May 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

-Sexually titillating. I'd ask myself if this person seems to be getting off somehow.

-From a woman's POV, or about a woman, yet this woman is unlike any woman I (a woman) have ever been or known. Just unbelievably dim, clueless, nymho, naggy, manipulative-- extreme iterations of things that just don't ring true to me but would probably pass muster with a man who has absorbed certain cultural narratives that (some, maybe not any they have ever met, but some) women are this way or that. I'd try to imagine the story as being written by or about any women in my own actual personal experience-- big sis, GF, pal-- and see if it rings true. And cliches in general I guess, not just about women.

-Satisfying narrative structure that builds and builds like a movie and escalates to a bang! conclusion (whereas advice-seekers are usually a bit more scattered or defensive or too detailed about some things and not detailed enough about others, because they are primarily focused on themselves and not on titillating the reader.) I'd ask myself if it seems too tailored for enjoyment rather than help-seeking.

-Black and white. I'd ask myself if the answer is obvious, designed for one million indignant redditors to all reply the same way.

-Convenient answers when questioned. If someone asks "why didn't you call the police," their phone will have conveniently been dead but they just forgot to mention it. I'd keep an eye on responses--or lack of them. If they have an answer for everything, or an answer for nothing, that doesn't seem real.
posted by kapers at 5:30 PM on May 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

Black and white. I'd ask myself if the answer is obvious, designed for one million indignant redditors to all reply the same way.

This is tricky, though, given that some people who post human relations questions here or at /r/relationships (and particularly at Captain Awkward, IMHO) have a long history with codependency or have only ever been in abusive relationships, so what's obvious to people who have healthier relationships might be far outside of their frame of reference.
posted by blerghamot at 6:33 PM on May 8, 2016 [2 favorites]

I look for anything that's a little too neat and perfect where the asker was inflicting sick ownage on someone. If it could end with "And everyone stood up and clapped", it's fake.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:46 PM on May 8, 2016 [10 favorites]

I just came back in when I realised I'd forgotten fetish trolls, and kapers brought it up. Yes, MeFites are generally geniuses...

Anything with too much detail and too little genuine inquiry, stuff you could Google up in a second but for some reason need to go on and on about with a big story talking about your feelings about whatever fetish thing...

Like the "single father" who wants to know weird details about how to talk to his imaginary daughter about puberty, and I can't go into that one in too much detail lest I throw the hell up; those ones are straight-up terrible. Non-troll questions along those lines are "I see [book about puberty for girls] has really good reviews so I'm planning on buying a copy of that, but is there anything I should be prepared for as far as what questions might come up? Obviously I've never had a period. She has an aunt who is happy to answer questions but is there anything I should be ready for?" You tell that guy "buy a box of tampons AND a box of pads so she doesn't have to discuss what she wants to try with you, it'll just be there and then later she can say "I need more X"" and he says "Wouldn't have thought of that, great, thanks." The fetish troll wants to know a lot of details about what kind of tampons/pads, and will the cashier look at him funny? Fetish trolls want loads of attention, and advice on how to get even more attention, and...oh man, so gross. Brain molestation once you realise what's going on. I have had some trouble with the "/r/Parenting" mods for "benefit of the doubt" policies there that extend to that stuff.
posted by kmennie at 6:48 PM on May 8, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe I'm too credulous, and maybe it's a matter of being only in this particularly civilized place and not on Reddit, but I kind of assume all questions are real. If not for the asker, than in their tutelary value for others in the same position.
posted by jackbishop at 7:56 PM on May 8, 2016 [7 favorites]

As kalmya's post points out -- while we can guess all we want as to which questions are fake, but it's rare to *really* know whether a question is real or not. Even if there's details in it that are provably false, it could be a mistake on the asker's part or an attempt to obscure their identity. You're more asking "what makes a question sound fake?" than "how do you know a question is fake?" Because you don't.

That said, looking at posting history is a common tell. On a site like reddit, a rookie mistake is having a posting history that is inconsistent with their question (like saying in the question that you're married with school-age kids, but having mentioned in a comment six months ago that you're in high school). Questions coming from accounts that are brand new or have no established posting history are also a little suspect, for this reason -- sometimes the account is new because the asker wants to be anonymous or is new to the site, but sometimes it's because question contains details inconsistent with the poster's main account.
posted by phoenixy at 1:13 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

[One comment deleted. Please note: This post remains here since it's more a general question than specifically just about Metafilter (which would belong in Metatalk), but please don't spotlight Ask Me questions you suspect of being fake. Just contact mods if you think that something is hinky. The one mentioned in the deleted comment is definitely not fake, and it's not okay to throw out unfounded accusations about posters/posts.]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:27 AM on May 9, 2016

I think it's important to walk into various questions with the default mindset being "this is true" -- but to be on the lookout for a lot of the items previous posters have brought up.

For me, something will just feel wrong. Should I find myself saying "my God, that's horrible/terrible/amazing/wonderful!" a lot, that's usually a sign that hey, maybe someone's trying to manipulate me.

I've witnessed two cases of people who have faked their deaths in various online communities. While not entirely the same situation as fake questions, it's reasonably similar in terms of what's going to trip them up, because there's a great deal of fiction either way.

The first one had to do with someone who had supposedly passed away from cancer and her "cousin" started participating in the community. Big clues:

- new person used the same email address as old person (it was the 90s so this wasn't quite as farfetched as it would be today)
- new person had the same IP addresses as old person (same ISP)
- "funeral" program was overly detailed and had all kinds of names for various family members and they read like bad fanfic names
- the cancer details kept shifting (poking holes into any story often results in the person saying "oh, no, I was wrong, it's really THIS")
- supposed relative in the US Senate (creating a link to someone "famous")
- no obituary anywhere

I eventually looked up the family in the phone book and confirmed that the person in question was, in fact alive.

The second was less detailed, but had the claim that someone in the community had committed suicide -- we were "notified" by her best friend. We all took it quite seriously until it became evident that the story told by the "best friend" didn't hold up. Again, shifting details, excessive details, using the same IP address, typing in an excessively similar fashion... It just didn't add up.

As I said, though, I think it's important to default to thinking it's true until such point as your "spider sense" starts to tingle. One of the most difficult parts of what I've dealt with in these particular situations is that I felt like an ass for doubting any of it. There's a very fine line between something that never happened and something that did happen, however incredulous it is. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but the fiction will have a sense of incredulity about it and will usually have holes or details that shift.

An interesting example that will showcase a lot of what people are mentioning is the whole Kaycee Nicole situation that happened about 15 years ago, much of it happening right here on MeFi (and, FWIW, is what got me started reading MeFi in the first place):
posted by juliebug at 1:28 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think it's easier to spot fakes on reddit than on AskMe, because there's more back-and-forth. But in general, here are some signs:

1. If the logic of the story just completely unravels the more people ask questions, and the answers the OP give make less and less sense.

2. Another big sign on reddit is if someone posts some huge dramatic story asking for advice and then doesn't ever reply.

3. Also, any question directed to women (usually on women's forums or subreddits) that goes like this, "So, ladies, we all know how us women love our pussies, let's talk about what we love the most! I'll go first. As a woman, did I mention that I'm a girl, we're all just girls here, like..." The chances are very high that that person is actually a dude looking for masturbation fodder, rather than a woman.

4. If the timeline makes absolutely no sense (usually things happen way more quickly in the story than they could in real life). For instance, if someone talks about getting arrested, getting a lawyer, going to court and getting a judgement all in a week.
posted by colfax at 1:37 AM on May 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yes to noticing if something in the story feels a little, like, put in there because it's a fetishistic detail rather than actually relevant to the story.

Also, I would be suspicious if their profile page was relatively new and showed very low activity other than the question and follow-ups.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:50 AM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Something I've noticed on another, frequently-trolled, forum I visit (which probably wouldn't work here because AskMe isn't suited for back-and-forth discussions, but might be more the case on Reddit?) is when you see the story developing in response to the bits that get the most attention/reaction.

"My husband just left me for my sister!"
"Oh no, OP! What a bastard. And how cruel of your sister, too. She sounds really mean."
"Yes, she is! She left her partner and six children behind too."
"Wow, what a cow. Doesn't she care about other people at all?"
"No, she doesn't care about anyone. It was their anniversary, too."
"omg, seriously? Watch your back, OP - someone who'd do that clearly doesn't care about you either."
"Guess what? I just got a facebook message from her! It says "So long, suckers - we're off to Hawaii with all your savings!"

Maybe not quite that extreme (although... close, sometimes), but you start getting pretty sensitive to it after a while.

Also, this pattern:

Poster #1: "Wait a minute, OP. Last week you said you were an only child. Where did the sister come from?"
OP: [silence]
Poster #2: "Yeah, that's a bit weird. What's going on there, OP?"
OP: [silence]
Poster #3: "God, stop attacking her! She's really upset! Obviously she meant a stepsister."
Poster #4: "yeah, stepsister makes sense. Are you okay, OP? Don't let those meanies drag you down! We believe you."
OP: "Sorry, I was washing the car. Yes, it's my stepsister. Anyway, the latest postcard from Hawaii..." etc etc
posted by Catseye at 6:02 AM on May 9, 2016

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