Sky News message board users get 'zapped'

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 20 February 2008

It seems that Sky News have been having a torrid time on their message boards this week, to the extent that Simon Bucks yesterday posted an apology and explanation on their Editors Blog. A technical glitch and some unsporting behaviour have practically decimated the boards, which are dominated with discussions of the mysterious 'zapping' phenomena.

"OK, first the apology. We have had a technical problem with the discussion boards which allows perverse individuals to block other people's identities. It's an anti-spamming device but it worked in a way we hadn't expected. The law of unintended consequences. We are working on fixing it, hopefully today.

Yes, it was mistake on our part, and it has taken a while to figure out the problem, so we apologise for that. Contrary to some views, we do care about the forums and we invest a lot in making them run properly."

It seems Sky's system had a simple defence mechanism against spam or DOS attacks. If it received a handful of invalid login attempts on an account within a short space of time, it suspended the account. Which was fine, until someone discovered this, and started using it to disable the accounts of active posters on the board. After someone posted how to do it on the board, others seem to have joined in the 'fun', and the social fabric of the board collapsed.

"Who nose how to ZAP? YOU WAN'T TO NO? Type some ones id then there pass word. Dont no it? Course you dont. 6 times is enough"

During the course of the last week regular posters have had to re-register and re-register again, as the nefarious trouble makers repeatedly 'zapped' their accounts. There were fears of identity theft, and threats of getting the police involved.

Of course, the technical 'glitch' was a somewhat naive application design error by Sky, but it seems they compounded that error by not reacting.

Sky News message boards

Sky had a volatile community in turmoil on their hands. People were making accusations of who they thought might be behind the 'zapping', whilst bitterly complaining that Sky was ignoring their plight. Until yesterday, Sky offered no communication to the community about what was going on. One poster claimed that when they phoned Sky about the issue, they were told to contact the police, rather than getting any proper feedback on what was going on.

Clear communication to your users is absolutely vital in this kind of scenario. At the very least, confessing that there is a 'technical problem' with your system will help stop the message board witch hunts than can, and did, develop in this scenario.

I still think Sky could be doing a better job at communicating to their users here. Although it is great that Simon posted to the Editors Blog, the response on the message boards themselves seems confined to one or two threads, and hoping that the community themselves dissemenate the information.

If I was product manager on that system, by now I would have hacked into the template a message in big <strong> tags at the top of every page saying something like "Recent message board technical issues: Please read our apology here". This would make sure that every user was seeing the meassage first-hand, rather than getting it second-hand from other members of the community.

Despite admitting culpability for the design flaw, Sky were very much on the defensive in their apology.

But let's be clear: it's the troublemakers who are actually responsible for messing things up.

The post finishes with an appeal to the users for ideas on how the boards can work better, and be made a troll free zone:

So my question to the board-users is this: have you got any ideas for keeping away the trouble-makers and ensuring the discussion boards are always a fun place to talk about the news? All contributions gratefully received.

Sadly, the answers so far are pretty predictible - pretty much boiling down to 'ban everybody I disagree with' and 'give the regulars the power of moderation so we can turn the community into a like-minded clique'.


Hi sky, as paying customers to sky, when do you think we will get some new progammes, getting a bit sick of five year old repeats, same old films,documentories,cooking programmes thank you.

Ssshh! It was me! HEE HEE HEE HEE!

I was behind the CLONE WARS (cloning other ID's) too.

How about getting new programmers. I'm sure this is going to be a pretty big blow to their forum's user base, especially with thoughts of identity theft flying around.
The idea was to help stop spam but in fact this has caused more damage than spam. Should always test before going live.

When are we gonna get the Sky news viewers' comments board back?

I would have thought the answer was pretty simple. Have vetted volunteers whose role is to police the boards as did AOL at one point. Any troublemakers get three warnings and then their account is cancelled. Initially it will cost Sky some money but in the end the idiots will get the message.
The trolls spoil it for the decent posters

Anon is talking bollocks and will not let him take my credit.

Whoever wrote this article and Bucks is getting 2/3 separate hacks mixed up.

The first was:

1. The Password Reset Hack: simply involved pressing a link to reset a users password (a password remind function). All you need was the user name.

2. Arial Font Attack: used the weaknesses of the Arial font (in particularly the capital I and lower case l looking identical). Therefore one could re-create a user such as Skull to Skuil and it would look the same to all users online. THE CLONE.

3. The Report/Delete function - report a post more than 5 times and it gets automatically deleted.

And that's how it was done.

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