Are Yahoo & The AP Manipulating Comments? Or Are They Just Really Bad At The Internet? [Updated]

from the do-you,-uh,-yahoo? dept

Someone who prefers to remain anonymous sent over this story about how Associated Press stories hosted on Yahoo News appear to have tons of comments from old stories. It’s not entirely clear what’s happening, though I have my suspicions (explained further down), but it appears that when new stories are showing up on certain topics, Yahoo is simply copying over older comments from previous stories on similar or related topics. The comments look as if they’re about the story posted — and the only way you can tell they’re not is if you notice the date:

I’d go from one Yahoo article to another and notice that regardless of the subject matter, the first user comment was always the same — at least on AP articles covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The comment that kept reappearing was posted by “Robert” and it was a one liner. “Hamas is now in control of the Gaza Strip after winning an election there against Abbas Palestinian Authority.” That was it. Fair enough — I’ve got no quarrel with the messenger or the message. But somehow that one comment generated an incredible 184 responses and, last I checked, readers had given it 3212 thumbs up and 2525 thumbs down.

I got a little curious about why Robert’s one liner had generated so much controversy. I’ve written hundreds of articles and never got anywhere near that kind of attention. Frankly, I was full of envy. How did ‘Robert’ pull this off with one miserly line? Then I noticed the strangest thing: it was dated March 09, 2010. The comment was two months old and was the lead comment of 40,000 responses. That seemed a little high considering the fact that the AP article I was reading had only been posted for thirty minutes.

What were Yahoo and AP up to? The answer is simple; they were porting comments from one article to another and, in this particular case, they’ve been doing it for two months.

Oddly (and inexplicably) the author of that post, Ahmed Amr, does not link to Yahoo to show this, but it’s not hard to find. Here’s a story published on June 3rd, 2010 at 9:19pm. Yet, there’s that same first comment, from March 9th, at 12:47am. And here’s a story published on May 6th at 1:09 pm with the identical comments, also beginning with the March 9th comment. To let you see what they both look like before they change (and I’ll explain in a second why I think they’ll change) I’ve turned both of those pages into PDFs, which you can see below (you may have to either download or view at full screen and scroll to see the “comments” at the bottom):

I’ve also looked around and found really similar things on other stories. While Amr is suggesting there’s something nefarious going on with the AP “manipulating” comments (and he specifically calls out the reporters from the AP who he believes are a part of this), I’m going to guess that this is more typical (embarrassing) incompetence on the part of Yahoo, rather than malice.

Take a look at the two links I put above to the Yahoo stories. The URLs (as found by a quick search for the comment string Amr mentioned in his post) are as follows:


Notice something similar? The last bit of the URL string is identical “/ml_israel_palestinian”. The only difference is that the second URL, the story from May 6th, inserts two additional directories, with the top one being the date of publication. We already know that, due to a total disregard for the basic principles of the way the internet can and does work, that the AP limits its partners from hosting AP articles for very long. I believe on most sites you can host the articles for a month and then you need to take them down completely. With most sites, what happens is you get a 404 error or page not found (to this day, I can’t figure out why they don’t at least point you to a place where you can find the missing article). However, it appears that Yahoo decides to recycle the URLs in an attempt to make the URLs simple and understandable. So, any basic story about the Israeli Palestinian conflict might appear under that first URL. For all I know, by the time you’re reading this, it’s an entirely different story than the one that was published on June 3rd.

After the date of publication, breaking the basic principle of a link to a news story being a link to that news story alone, Yahoo moves the story to a new date-defined directory, and the original URL is freed up for the next story on that particular topic. If this seems stupid and confusing to users and destructive to the very idea of the “link economy” or valuing earned or passed links, you’re right. But take that up with Yahoo and the Associated Press.

Of course, here’s where the real level of tech incompetence comes in: It appears that Yahoo News’ comment system doesn’t understand that Yahoo does this. So, it associates the comments to that last bit of the URL string “/ml_israel_palestinian” and the same comments will appear every time that string is used as the final part of a URL string. It’s bizarre that Yahoo would do this, but apparently, that’s how Yahoo rolls.

Amr suggests that this is part of a planned bit of “corporate fraud” by Yahoo and the AP, perhaps to make it look like certain stories are getting a hell of a lot more comments than they are. He also suggests other conspiracy theories involving pro-Israeli operatives, saying that as far as he can tell, this only happens on AP stories concerning the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. I believe Amr didn’t try very hard to find alternatives. On my very first attempt to find an example related to something entirely different, I found the identical behavior. I just picked a popular story that likely would have multiple stories over multiple days: the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Then I looked for an AP story hosted by Yahoo News… Bingo.

The first news story I found was published on June 3rd at 2:28 pm, but the first comment on the story? Why it’s from May 1st at 2:06am. And the URL? The string ends with “us_gulf_oil_spill_947.” You can find the identical comments on this story which was published May 21st, but ends with the string “us_gulf_oil_spill” suggesting that Yahoo’s comment system also ignores numbers at the end of that final URL part in replicating its comments.

And here’s another story about the White House’s response to the oil spill. Published June 3rd at 11:57 pm. First comment? May 10, 2010 12:58 pm. URL string? “us_gulf_oil_spill_washington_9”. And here’s a story from May 17th with the identical comments at the end, with the closing URL string “us_gulf_oil_spill_washington_1.” Yup, Yahoo seems to just match up comments with pretty simple URL hashes.

You can see all of that below as embedded PDFs:

So while it’s easy and tempting to ascribe this to “manipulation” and suggest malice on the part of the AP or Yahoo or whoever else (Israeli operatives? Seriously?), it seems pretty clear that this is more due to technical incompetence on Yahoo’s part, somewhat driven by the AP’s ridiculous “delete this story after x days” licensing policies.

Update: The AP got in touch to make it entirely clear that this is entirely Yahoo’s incompetence and not its own:

The Associated Press distributes news content to Yahoo! News, but the display of AP stories and the curating of comments are entirely up to Yahoo!

While undoubtedly true, in the comments we’ve heard from multiple people who work at news sites that license AP content, and they note that AP has a weird feed process, whereby it gives a simple slug like the ones used above, so that it can force update stories, often leading people to see stories totally change over the course of the day. This is clearly a Yahoo issue, but AP’s policies don’t help.

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Companies: associated press, yahoo

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Comments on “Are Yahoo & The AP Manipulating Comments? Or Are They Just Really Bad At The Internet? [Updated]”

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Killer_Tofu (profile) says:


And the mainstream press says that bloggers never do any investigation.
Mike you get an all around A for figuring out how Yahoo’s system works and everything. Nice bit of figuring things out and explaining them. I will definitely attribute Yahoo’s flaws here to bad coding and not malice. I think there’s a razor for that?

Ryan says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Props

Nope, Hanlon’s razor.

The two are similiar, but Hanlon’s razor is specific to questioning whether somebody’s actions are intentionally malicious or unintentionally stupid. Although, I suppose you could make a case that a conspiracy theory is an introduction of an unnecessary element in a theory, and thus could fall under Occam’s razor as well…

Jay (profile) says:

Ya know, I’ll take the Yahoo messed up bit. That’s acceptable even if they messed up.

What bothers me is the website where the guy begins to name people and trying to call for action.

I mean really? Do you have to think it’s a conspiracy when your documented evidence consists of screenshots that they may fix? Who are you trying to pull on your side? Here’s hoping they change it soon.

Zac Morris (profile) says:

Incompetence is a strong word

As a programmer, I had to cringe at your use of the word “Incompetence”. I think this is a bit harsh and here is why:

As the single programmer for several small projects, I make “assumptions” about what the client MIGHT want, all the time. If fact, it’s usually the only way I can stay even current with what clients are asking for; that is to try to guess at what features they will ask for later on. Thus while I’m in the code (which getting to the point of actual coding can be the most time consuming piece of an application) I try to add what is asked for, and I also try to stub in as much “nice to haves” or “guess they will ask for” as possible. Thus when the client inevitably asks for such functionality I can just flip a switch and the functionality is there.

Granted, an experienced programmer codes in “switches” where a less experienced programmer [or a rushed programmer] might just make the functionality available without the client asking for it; but I would say this was more “exuberance” than “Incompetence”.

I can not comment whether this specific issue is something nefarious, incompetence, or just programmer exuberance; but when individuals “competence” is on the line, I would urge you to lean towards giving them the benefit of the doubt and at least ALSO point out other alternatives than just “incompetence”.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Incompetence is a strong word

I can vouch for this behaviour. Often the client doesn’t quite actually know what they want; thus when you code something EXACTLY to their specifications they’ll come back with “Oh, but I wanted it to do [blank]”

And usually, you’ll have to recode something for [blank] cause the nth time you coded it to their EXACT specifications, it turns out they didn’t know what they wanted that time either.

Dealing with user specifications sucks–why can’t people learn to accurately specify exactly what they want?

xs (profile) says:

Re: Re: Incompetence is a strong word

Why users never learn to accurately specify what they want?

Judging by your words, it’s probably because you never asked them to do it in the first place. When you receive a specification that’s unclear to you, send it back for clarification, instead of working with what you THINK is what the user want.

When you stop making assumptions about what you saw, the users will stop assuming they have created a clear specification.

Kaze (profile) says:

Re: Incompetence is a strong word

As a programmer, I had to cringe at your use of the word “Incompetence”. I think this is a bit harsh and here is why … I can not comment whether this specific issue is something nefarious, incompetence, or just programmer exuberance; but when individuals “competence” is on the line, I would urge you to lean towards giving them the benefit of the doubt and at least ALSO point out other alternatives than just “incompetence”.

As a Sr. Systems Administrator with development and database experience, I would have to agree with Mike in the statement of incompetence. Any good web developer would create unique identifiers for the articles (usually stored in a database with a link to the full article’s file on the file system if the article itself is not stored in the database, or as the unique identifier for the record of the article if it is), and utilize that unique identifier for creating a object relationship between the article and the comments. I used to do that when I was and inexperienced programmer, and do it when I’m rushed.

Thus, I, personally, find it very difficult to give the “benefit of the doubt” in this case, though I cannot directly say that it’s the programmer’s fault. It could just as easily be the project manager, or full blown management incompetence within Yahoo!, or it could be that somewhere down the line, they are trying to “pad the numbers” of their active users with some slight-of-hand (mainly for advertising).

John Doe says:

Re: Re: Incompetence is a strong word

It may not be the programmer but the user. If the original article is copied to a new location and then the original article is reused for the new article, then the comments would be tied to the right article but the article’s contents were changed.

Either way, it is incompetence or fraud on someone’s part at Yahoo and needs to change.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Incompetence is a strong word

I agree that programmers (myself included) may add in things not really asked for, or make assumptions about client intentions because the client cannot appropriately describe what they want… but I find it fairly absurd that any competent programmer would intentionally do this as a ‘future feature’. It is far more likely that it is an oversight due to multiple programmers working different areas of the code or database schemas without adequate strategy and coordination.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Incompetence is a strong word

I can not comment whether this specific issue is something nefarious, incompetence, or just programmer exuberance; but when individuals “competence” is on the line, I would urge you to lean towards giving them the benefit of the doubt and at least ALSO point out other alternatives than just “incompetence”.

Fair enough… though, I can’t see how Yahoo wouldn’t notice this broken functionality and let it live on for so long.

Simple Mind (profile) says:

Re: Incompetence is a strong word

As a programmer, Incompetence is the perfect word for it.

If there had been any thought behind this, why wouldn’t they at least have it default to “Newest comment first”? No sane person wants to read a 6 month old comment that was for some other article. The first thing I do when I read one of these articles is click “Newest”. Next time I read an article there, I have to click “Newest” again, ie., it isn’t sticky. Once again a sign of incompetence.

Why not just call a duck a duck?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Incompetence is a strong word

I absolutely want to read the oldest comments first. I *HATE* it when web sites default to newest first, and some don’t even let me change it to oldest first.

Just like this discussion thread — I read them in order, and read the messages, then replies to the messages.

zenith (profile) says:

“As a programmer, I had to cringe at your use of the word “Incompetence”.”

As a programmer, I disagree. This is out and out bad design.

Comments should be linked to a unique internal ID for a page/report/story, regardless of the URL – the URL is an end user concern, not a programmatical identifier. When the URL changes for a page/report/story, the comments, linked via a unique, internal ID, move with the page.

To use a URL in system as a unique ID for a page/report/story, when URLs are a flexible/changable system, is pure bad design.

Sorry about all the slashes/lines/clarifications… 😉

I have this in a system I use (but didn’t design). Instead of incremental arbitrary database ID’s, some nugget decided to use the concept of “page ID’s” – page ID’s are strings, and are effectively names and identifiers for the users. Everything is linked to each other via page ID’s. When page ID’s change – EVERYTHING that links to it has to be updated. It’s very, very naive database design.

Ryan says:

Doesn't Rule Out "Malice"

It does appear you figured out the logic of the comment system, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t intentional. Obviously, their screwed up URL system is intentional, so they could just as easily have decided that all comments on a particular topic will be attached to any story on that same topic – in effect making comments topic-level(ala Google Buzz or something) instead of article-level. Maybe it was malicious and an attempt to astroturf popularity. Or, as you surmise, just incompetence, but I can actually see some justification in the way they do it; though, since it’s not way the web usually works, I would think they should make the system explicitly known if they intended this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Disclaimer: I have not read this article, so I have not a single substantive comment to offer. I do, however, have an observation I believe is worthwhile to note.

Much is bantered about concerning who is a “journalist” in this new age where the internet can so easily supplant hitherto conventional journalism. As I skimmed over the article I was struck by a level of detail and research that in my opinion supports the proposition that the concept of “journalism” should be viewed in a much broader sense.

Clearly, investigative journalism is being shown to transcend the “Woodard and Bernstein” model of old.

Carol says:

How AP works

Having worked on a newspaper website in a previous job, this totally fits my understanding of how AP sends stories to sites. Every story on a general topic was given a default slug – the main Israel/Palestinian story of the day, to use your example, would always be slugged “ml_israel_palestinian”. The idea behind this, as I understood it, was to allow updates to a particular story to writethru rather than forcing an entirely new story that’s 99% identical to the previous one.

Our newsroom constantly struggled with how to deal with this, however, because for every update that was 99% the same, there were others that were only 50% or 20% or even completely different. Suddenly, a story would go from being about a rocket attack to being about a diplomat visiting the area, and we’d lose the previous story. Photos and audio were slugged the same way, so we constantly had to try to keep up with every breaking story to make sure any side content was actually still relevant to the story. I cannot tell you how many times we’d have photos that were radically inappropriate for what the story evolved into.

I cannot speak to the competence of the programmers at Yahoo! (or at my old job), but I know it was endlessly frustrating for those of us who wanted to provide information that was relevant, up-to-date, and accurate.

Kaze (profile) says:

Re: Re: How AP works

Actually, I can attest to how AP works, as we have their feeds in my current job. The way our developers handle it in our systems is that all articles are imported as new, complete with new unique identifiers. Our displayed articles, however, are a much shorter list than a typical news agency, so we don’t worry as much about duplicate articles.

Carol says:

Re: Re: How AP works

Although our system (which was built in-house) was set up to allow us to change the slug if we wanted, doing so meant that every time AP sent a new story with the original slug, we’d get duplicate content on the site. So our options were to either try to keep the related content up-to-date or try to update individual stories by hand.

In the end, they laid off the entire newsroom and let everything automate, so it’s clear where the company’s priorities were.

Comboman (profile) says:

CBC does this also

The CBC News websites do this also (though not quite as bad). When a story first breaks, it begins to collect comments. Over the course of several hours or days, the story gets rewritten as new facts come to light or details get corrected, but the original comments get carried along. You see early comments pointing out errors or omissions in the story and latter comments saying “read the article dummy” after it’s been corrected.

Here on Techdirt, the authors generally reply to comments that offer corrections (even on typos) and tag the articles as being updated, but that is fairly rare among mainstream news sites.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re: CBC does this also

Right in the text next to the correction? Don’t think so.

Things like small font italics at the bottom don’t count.

Besides your point about refreshing the page is stupid. You see, if the page weren’t refreshed, then the user’s comments noting an error would still appear correct, and nobody would say “read the article dummy”.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

It nice to be optimistic

AP manipulating stories….nah…cant be…NOT:
“I’m going to guess that this is more typical (embarrassing) incompetence on the part of Yahoo, rather than malice.”

AP omits sign had Osama w/Bush on puppet strings

BBC does it too

They even get to go back on TV and lie about what they said while reporting on a live event as it happened:
Traitor to the USA

Does not surprise me one bit.

vvurdsmyth (profile) says:

yah, phony comments

I had been wondering the same thing – I’d write lucid, on point, pro or con anaysis; what they keep posting are half brained, cannabis-like influenced responses – and mine would not appear. Now, together with what you observed, it seems that the WWW is entering a delusional stage, where slight of hand, smoke, mirrors and ‘reality is what you can make people believe’ is becoming the ‘new manipulated reality’.

out_of_the_blue says:

Don't rule out a mix of motives.

One hazard of a “razor” is simplistic over-use on limited data — and mistaken smugness is the result. We need to first find or at least consider what benefits might result from this, and those don’t have to be external. For instance, programmer might have done it to make the internal suits happy with a high number of apparent comments, and then when they lost interest, he never got round to changing it, left, whatever.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Post updated with AP response

What do you expect them to say? And what do you think Yahoo will respond? This is all AP’s fault 🙂

Then again, Yahoo might actually take responsibility for its misteps, kinda like Google, whereas the AP will never accept responsibility for what it does wrong. The mainstream media is never wrong on anything, they can’t be.

Anonymous Coward says:

The AP’s unique ID for an article is unique to each modification of a document. There is no way to identify a single document for updating with the AP’s data. About the closest thing you get is a slug field, similar to “ml_israel_palestinian”. Throughout the course of at least that day, this is the same article. Oftentimes, it is the same article even across days.

Because the AP fails to provide a unique identifier for an article that can be correlated to all revisions of that article, you get stupid implementations like the one Yahoo! was likely forced into using to prevent duplicates article posts from every spelling mistake, title write-through, etc. It’s easy for the AP to claim Yahoo! failed here – but the reality is that the AP’s feed format is for wire purposes and not for updating web pages.

The only recommendation to Yahoo! I might have is force a cut off of the slug as a unique ID by scoping updates to only 2 day windows. Consider it a new story past 2 days. Then point the finger back at the AP and say “fail”.

Brad Davis says:

Re: Re:

I can attest to AP’s behavior as well. The ‘story unique id’ for an individual story is useless because they invariably update with sometimes dozens of updates as a story develops (or corrections are made) and each update has a different story unique id. At the company I work for I was tasked with importing the AP feed into our database and I ended up developing a heursitic whereby when a story came in we matched it to the DB looking for a story with the same slug. If one was found and it was less than X hours old, it was considered an update and the DB entry was updated. Otherwise it was considered a new story and a new internal unique id was generated. All in all it was kind of a hassle that AP didn’t create a ‘story unique id’ that covered all the updates for a given story but didn’t (like the slug) extend to covering a story 3 months later on the same topic. On the other hand AP’s news replication is based on NNTP which I find a surprisingly rational design choice considering what they’re doing. Reuters on the other hand (at least last time I worked with them) had a custom java apps that was only certified to work on a pre-1.4 version of java that hasn’t had official support in something like a decade.

Not fond of yahoo says:

Yahoo's technical incompetence goes beyond this

The commenting system just does not work well at all.

You can look at the comment guidelines, including word limits, and make 100 comments in a day that fit within those guidelines, and maybe 50 of them will actually post, and 25 of them will actually be browsable later from your Yahoo profile. Moreover, some that post will disappear after a refresh, reappear, then disappear. Maybe this is some sort of “eventual consistency” caching architecture, but it just looks like crap.

Reddit has a much more usable commenting model as one example.

This and other issues in the past just convince me that Yahoo’s developers are not the best devs in the world. Google regularly impresses me more just for their technical prowess.

Anonymous Coward says:

To who ever is making sure I can not make any comments or thumbs up or down,in the yahoo house….I know this to be true because every time i make a comment or thumbs up or down it lets me when I change my password,,,,someone should not be in the yahoo house you know who you are!!!!!!!!!!!!Where is the freedom of speech??????????I have just as much as anyone else to voice my opion as long i’m not breaking your rules……and I see alot of people breaking your rules I don’t seeeee yooooou ….blocking them!!!!!!!!!!!

tammy says:

To who ever is making sure I can not make any comments or thumbs up or down,in the yahoo house….I know this to be true because every time i make a comment or thumbs up or down it lets me when I change my password,,,,someone should not be in the yahoo house you know who you are!!!!!!!!!!!!Where is the freedom of speech??????????I have just as much as anyone else to voice my opion as long i’m not breaking your rules……and I see alot of people breaking your rules I don’t seeeee yooooou ….blocking them!!!!!!!!!!!

Tom says:


Why is Yahoo! purposely blocking my, L. C. by T, comments?
Comments are available when I come through the backdoor using something other then IE giving me at least on comment before I’m blocked again.

Is speech on the Internet entitled to as much protection as speech in more traditional media?
the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in Reno v. ACLU (1997) that speech on the Internet receives the highest level of First Amendment protection. The Supreme Court explained that ?our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.?

Robert says:

Incompetence is a strong word

Instead of making assumptions on what the client MIGHT want, why not ask them what they want? Draw up requirements, and then go from there. What happens if you ‘stub’ something in, and the client doesn’t ask for it, does it just bloat your code? Is it the proverbial sponge left in the patient.. not doing anything other than sucking up resources because you’re too busy coding ‘stubs’ to contact the client? This doesn’t sound like something an experienced programmer would do. Instead of incompetence, how about we use the word ‘lazy’?

anna says:

posting comments on yahoo on bottom of articles

I’m so new at this posting stuff at Yahoo. I was posting a whole bunch of comments to a lot of people. I don’t know all of Yahoo’s rules. But noticed some of my comments were not posted. Once I posted to one person 5x. Twice was the real message and 3x was a test page. Only the 3 test pages came out. (I deleted them). This proved to me someone was right there waiting for me to post. Also some of my posts didn’t show on the main page for others to see but I saw them when I clicked on the MY COMMENTS tab. I do have to say, that I think the majority did stick, especially the ones that I left replies to. Unfortunately I replied to a crude comment in a satirical way & gave a reluctant thumbs up. I didn’t agree with the vulgar way it was written, but I agreed with the premise, & being a newbie & wanting to have a little fun, I commented. Well, this was a big sin (especially since it was an article about priests & LGBT issues). Now I’m probably on Yahoo’s racist crap list. Yahoo also took away my thumbs up I left for his comment too. I think the took his comment down too. Man I was poking fun at the author of the comment not the gays. I was just having fun. Because that commenter sounded racist & I was trying to lighten him up. Yahoo needs to lighten up with some of the overmoderating. They shold get rid of the vulger stuff & keep stuff like mine there. Well, Ill see what happens next.

Tom Barrister says:

Was actually a scripting error

A few notes:

Yahoo has an anti-spam mechanism that will auto-block comments if X number are made in X time, if the same exact text is posted more than X times by the same person, or if most URLs are included.

The situation with comments appearing was a bug in the comment daemon. It was fixed.

If you don’t want to see Yahoo News comments at all, and you have Adblock Plus for either Chrome or Firefox, make a filter for:


This will NOT block the entire Yahoo News website as one would guess. As far as I can tell, it only blocks the comments. They’ll appear as “Loading” and will never load. everything else works fine.

Sidney says:

Yahoo and amazon blocking my view

They both has stopped my commented on on going daily affairs!! They are very democratic supporters so it seems! And when a replubican makes a view they block it by pushing your statement into another area which you can not reply to!! All you can do is start over again and the same damn thing happens!!! Help

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