Strange circle of spammers

I recently found a set of duplicate observations by different users in Polk County, Florida. I decided to dig deeper to see who owned the original photos, and who was violating copyright. I found an ever-growing list of users all posting eachothers’ photos with different dates of observations. It seems like most, if not all, of their ~100 observations are unoriginal, but I have yet to find the true origin since the network is so convoluted.

Some of the users actually seem a little engaged with the site and apparently know who to call on for help with IDs at times. None of these observations are associated with any projects, so I don’t understand the angle. Why spam the site with fake observations and agree with eachothers’ AI IDs? So far, after 15 mins of investigating, I’ve found five users who participated in this network, but there are certainly more. One of them has a bizarre profile picture with stuff that I’m thinking users in the forum would rather not read about.

At any rate, how are curators supposed to expose conspiracies like this? The users have been inactive for a couple years, and they don’t respond to messages. We could suspend them, but their content is still on the site (much of it research grade). I guess I’m hoping to hear from the admins, because I have a list of usernames burning a hole in my pocket.

9 Likes

I’d send a message to help@inaturalist.org directly. One thing you can do is check to see if any of them are part of any projects, and ask the project admins if they might know what’s going on.

6 Likes

It sounds like they might be students, who are purely on iNaturalist to get credit for a class.

22 Likes

I often add comments or questions to the submitter on a record that seems hinky for whatever reason – maybe it’s really a legitimate record or includes an honest mistake or maybe it’s totally bogus. The submitter might be long gone, but it can provide a heads-up to anyone who might want to use the record. Sometimes you can’t be sure what’s going on with a record but it just seems wrong.

3 Likes

This looks like it’s may be some type of class or student project associated with Warner University where some of the observations are from. I think I remember some surges of observations from there. A Bio professor from Warner is active on iNat and has been on the forum (though not recently). They may know more (feel free to DM me for username if interested).

4 Likes

Yep, this is it! There must have been a class assignment (no iNat project was made). None of the students(?) are following anyone, followed by anyone, or posting to any projects. They sometimes @ that bio professor, but they never communicate apart from blindly agreeing with eachothers’ IDs. And everyone cheats!!! This is a perfect example of how poorly executed class projects can make big messes. I’ll send an email tonight after I round up all the usernames.

11 Likes

Not really sure what sending an email or to whom will help. The project is 2.5 years old. Everyone involved has long since stopped posting to the site. Only staff can delete records, and they don’t have resources to micro manage this stuff

I have a list of users, observations, and flags. Those lists can be used to remove the thousand+ observations that are harmful to the site. I personally don’t like falsified data cluttering the community data that we work hard to polish, so I’m going to work towards removing it somehow. That’s why I came here looking for advice. And I think the solution proposed by @bouteloua is the proper and a reasonable course of action.

6 Likes

As a general rule, the site does not delete copyright violations, possible fake sightings etc they just dont have the capacity to double check and verify every report. Flagging them as such removes them from research grade, from GBIF etc.

1 Like

If the professor(s) can be identified, maybe send them a message asking if they have any comments about this. Politely point out these observations give an appearance they were just copying each others’ work and point out that the multiple duplication observations might be affecting other peoples’ research or statistics. If the professor(s) does not have an active account you can probably find their email on the university website.

This might do nothing regarding the existing observations but it might help prevent the same thing from happening in a future class.

A question: if a few people stand around a plant and talk about it, but only one person has a camera and they take one picture, is it okay if all the people make an observation using the same picture? After all, each person really did observe the plant and the photo is just the evidence.

3 Likes

Yes, so long as:

  • the person who took the photograph is identified in the post
  • the photographer gives permission
  • it does truly represent what the person putting it in saw, ie, they have to have been present when the photo was taken.

All 3 must be met.

For example this is a perfectly valid and permitted submission:
https://www.inaturalist.org/observations/70509550

4 Likes

That’s a good point @onyxrat . It’s super important to make the professors who do these things aware of the consequences. It’s easy to jump into iNat without knowing how complicated and particular it can be. But the false observations still need to be removed, so additional actions are needed (like emailing iNat admins or whoever).

@cmcheatle An additional criterion is that the date and location should be nearly the same. Most of these observations are screenshots or reuploaded jpgs with different times and locations. Also licensing issues come up because a lot of these observations are all rights reserved originally or subsequent to reposting.

3 Likes

That’s covered by #3 if you were present when it was taken, then the date and location need to match (or be very close, it’s not invalid if 1 person puts in 1405 and another as 1407 as time seen)

All rights reserved data or photos can be legally used with both permission and attribution.

1 Like

How did I get 16 likes on a one-sentence-long reply that barely contributed anything to this post. Amazing lol.

my guess is that forum users appreciate short and to the point responses. And it still looks to be pretty on point for cause!

5 Likes

I agree, talk to the professor. I was involved in a somewhat similar case - multiple users piling on to a bad (wrong family) ID and outvoting the legitimate species ID. Turned out it was students who were assigned a certain number of IDs as well as obs in iNat. The professor took it seriously, cleared things up, and has a better idea how to do things next year. Work politely with people before you get nasty or call in the “cops”; it usually works out.

5 Likes

this certainly sounds like a group of (probably Middle School) students who were required to get some number of verified observations as part of a class. There is an educational module in many of the school programs that uses iNaturalist as a learning tool.

You were the first to say out loud exactly the explanation suspected by everybody scrolling through the thread

1 Like