What QAnon and WallStreetBets Have in Common

A data-driven quest for bots and hedge fund manipulation among millions of posts from /r/WSB.

The previous blog post described how researchers are using Parity in order to securely study fringe and hateful content. However, Backchannel is designing Parity to monitor, detect, and respond to just about anything sort of real time streaming data.

Today, I am going to highlight some of the conspiracies I’ve picked out of the subreddit /r/WallStreetBets. I will illuminate some posts discovered with my tooling that will likely resonate with folks who study information operations and misinformation. It should be no surprise that there are some concerning trends from an online forum described as “if 4chan found a Bloomberg Terminal,” and I hope the examples here will provide netizens with a more discerning impression of how influence and information is peddled in this particular subreddit. 

TLDR: There are overt and covert bots on /r/WallStreetBets. Hedge funds are lurking and posting materials that gain traction and influence.


Contents

  • Background: The collision of Wall Street, retail investors, and social media

  • Talk of conspiracies amongst /r/WSB

    • Theory: Short seller firms are manipulating the conversation around “meme stocks” with bots

    • Theory: Hedge funds are covertly exploiting retail investor behavior

  • Data: Is there observable evidence supporting these concerns?

    • The thing about “bots”

    • Top domains and URLs by volume

    • A smattering of influential materials on /r/WSB

  • Conclusion


Background: The collision of Wall Street, retail investors, and social media

My favorite explainers that answer “what’s happening with GameStop?” are from VICE’s Instagram, ArsTechnica, and The Ringer’s article capturing a large amount of the terminology at play. The summary is that /r/WallStreetBets is an established forum (“subreddit”) where hobbyists, quants, and insiders alike call out analyses and takes. Its earliest days established it as a meme and shitpost factory, though the concept of the forum driving large and coordinated market movements has been discussed before on and off the site. Recently, the subreddit has motivated millions of retail investors to go up against large short selling banks.

And beyond the memes and the shitposts, there are some genuine discussions and technical analyses shared on the forum. Redditors shared this particular analysis by /r/tsukune_surprise dozens of times throughout the week on the subreddit, and it was often mentioned on Facebook and Discord as well. And the analysis was fairly good:

Full STO is a way for us to determine the potential for a pullback or rise in stock price. GME’s STO value is 83.02. This is an overbought situation. It’s also known as overbought buried situation. Anything above 65 is considered bearish. But once you get above 80 the script flips and shows a strong short term bull situation.

Not only is the author right in pointing out the usefulness of stochastics as a technical indicator, but it's completely applicable to the stock right now as $GME positions attempt to weather the sell off this week. 

The point being is that characterizing this online community as any one thing is conversationally dishonest and anthropologically insufficient. Like any community, online or off, there are intricacies and actors driven by their own motivations. This post seeks to bring some of those motivations to light.

Talk of conspiracies amongst /r/WSB

Amongst the rare quant analysis on /r/WallStreetBets are a flood of shitposts, memes, and conspiracies. Sometimes there is even actual fraud mixed in too.

But ultimately a striking metaphor to me is how the community on /r/WSB has devolved to a QAnon-type of movement. Like QAnon, /r/WSB die hards have begun to eschew competing hypotheses that do not align with a preconceived notion (in this case, that $GME goes to the moon). 

QAnon was partly infectious because of its decentralized and distributed nature. There was no “leader” of the QAnon movement to speak of, if you don’t count the often-mimicked Q drops, and social media platforms made it fairly easy for “Truth Seekers” to collaborate and collect “evidence” across the web. Similarly, the latest /r/WSB campaign on $GME and other “meme stocks” follow a distributed nature where research is put out in the open, chewed on, and operated on. And like QAnon, the “evidence” that supports a decision in this context will be accepted or rejected based on preconceived notions.

In a 2019 intelligence bulletin citing the risks of QAnon as a terrorist movement, the FBI noted that the internet “has also enabled a ‘crowd-sourcing’ effect wherein conspiracy theory followers themselves shape a given theory by presenting information that supplements, expands, or localizes its narrative.” This type of behavior has been part of the internet forever. But we are now at a point where this behavior is tied to domestic terrorism, and now, mass movements in the stock market.

Now /r/WSB has been kicking for a long time. I don’t mean to say every member of the subreddit is a conspiracy theorist. Moreover I am trying to understand the extent with which any given conspiracy theory posted on the forum has any weight with the masses or the markets.

Using the last week of data I have collected from the subreddit, along with some contextual analyses, I present two of the major conspiracies below.

Theory: Short seller firms are manipulating the conversation around “meme stocks” with bots

Members of /r/WSB have considered that the subreddit is being scraped by hedge funds for years. The reality is that it’s being scraped by everyone, from hobbyist quants to financial services intelligence firms.

A common point of discussion on /r/WSB is bots. The theory is that short seller firms like Melvin Capital, or their hedge fund backer Citadel LLC, are deploying bots to the platform in order to move markets. Funnily, calling someone a bot is also an insult on the forum, as if those who are such naysayers are only like that because they are bots. This is somewhat indicative of how counterarguments and disagreements are often handled on the subreddit.

Data from Parity suggests that there over 160k uses of the word “bot” in the past 7 days, with a rate of about 30k daily mentions on trading days.

A word cloud below is assembled from this data, showing some of the tangential keywords found in posts that mention bots.

Word cloud from Backchannel’s Parity warehouse demonstrating the most common keywords that appeared alongside the seeding keyword “bot”.

“Hedge fund” being one of the top keywords alongside “bot”. 

The posts paint a vapid impression of how redditors believe that bots roam their subreddit:

"Dude honestly it's because it's 90% bots that are pushing any other stock but GME, there is nothing solid behind any of those stocks," said one redditor content on the $GME trade.

"Stfu, we aren’t shorting. Go push BB some more you fucking bot,” said one user commenting on a bearish $GME position.

“It feels that way, but only because of the bots sowing FUD. as was predicted,” says one author commenting on a downtrodden fellow redditor.

Theory: Hedge funds are covertly exploiting retail investor behavior

It is healthy to be skeptical. One of my favorite skeptics is Carson Block, a backer of technical research that ultimately informs his firm’s financial operations. Block recently took to Bloomberg to describe his thoughts on how /r/WSB might be manipulated, commenting that the financial behavior of the retail traders looks more representative of a movement with hedge fund backing than not.

A self proclaimed financial services attorney posted a more colorful commentary on the /r/AskReddit forum: 

Redditors never seem to stop and think about why the WSB guys know so much about derivatives trading. Or how they seem to know how to access and read from a Bloomberg terminal. Or why there are so many users there that can seemingly drop tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on complicated meme plays.

Of course, the target of most of the hedge fund conspiracy theories revolve around Citadel LLC, a hedge fund that bailed out Melvin Capital’s short selling position but is also a backer of Robinhood itself.

“FYI, you smooth brains do know that Citadel is front running literally every trade you make on Robinhood right?” commented one user linking to a Financial Times article popular with the subreddit that details Citadel’s investment in Robinhood’s order flow data. This theory is compounded by a recent lawsuit against Robinhood from the SEC, who charges Robinhood with misleading customers on how their data is sold.

Data: Is there observable evidence supporting these concerns?

The thing about “bots”

Blaming everything on bots is a netizen boogeyman these days. The implication with “bots” influencing any online community is that viewpoints and opinions are purportedly being swayed by automated accounts with a maligned interest. 

To at least explore the claim of whether there are bots manipulating user behavior, I took the last week of data and filtered out the known bots on the forum such as AutoModerator and RemindMeBot.

Post volume is by no means a useful signal when looking for bots, especially when you know that the bots are sophisticated and attempting to be covert. The top poster on the subreddit Nungie is demonstrably a human judging by their posts, but also by judging by their posting behavior. 

For instance, the Nungie’s post behavior is actually fairly comparable to the rest of the top 10 redditors, in that there are clear daily gaps where the user is likely asleep. Now, sophisticated bots will typically be designed to mimic sleep patterns, but combined with other factors it seems to me like Nungie is pretty human.

Chart comparing redditor “Nungie” with the other top /r/WallStreetBets users by post volume, last 7 days. The diurnal pattern suggests that these are likely human, or at least, not “basic” bots.

A sophisticated Reddit bot designed to manipulate members of /r/WSB would likely fit the following profile:

  • Aged account: A reddit user who has been on the site for several years.

  • Membership: A longtime member of /r/WSB

  • High Karma: Peer approval of posts result in user karma on the site.

  • Human-like posting behavior: Diurnal pattern, use of threading.

  • Human-like posting content: A consistent style, including typos and “voice”.

And these are just the “above platform” signals. Someone working on Reddit’s Trust & Safety team or Security Operations Center would have a much larger set of signals that they can profile users with.

Looking for indicators of influence

Regardless if your preferred flavor of conspiracy involves bots, hedge fund surveillance, or both, a common function of these theories is the use of influence to manipulate markets. So, a better means of flagging suspicious behavior would be to create indicators around influence and to treat this as an information operation. As such, along with the signals above, we would also want to look at:

  • Potential links, documents, and files being shared

    • Do these artifacts have any particular viewpoint?

    • Are they well received?

    • What is their reception by users on-platform (Reddit)

    • What is their reception off-platform? (off-Reddit)

  • Post reception and propagation

    • What posts received the most reactions in a given time span?

    • What posts received the most replies in a given time span?

    • What posts are shared the most off Reddit?

    • What posts are shared the most on other subreddits?

Top domains and URLs by volume

A common thing to share on Reddit are URLs to files and other sites; it’s kinda the point of Reddit! Looking at the last week's data in Parity I extracted the top domains that members of /r/WSB were linking to. These sources aren’t incredibly surprising, and many are common domains to find in just about any subreddit.

Chart depicting the top domains shared in /r/WSB posts in the past week.

With links and domains extracted, what I actually want to look at is how many unique shares there are for every url.

A “unique share” in this case is constituted of a distinct user at a given timestamp sharing a particular link. However, this only gets us an indication of volume, not necessarily impact. Because of that, we also want to bring in some sort of proxy for reception, such as clicks (a datapoint only known to Reddit themselves), replies, post karma, author reputation, etc.

A smattering of influential materials on /r/WSB

Using a combination of unique shares, author reputation, comment interaction, and off-reddit discussion, I uncovered some pretty interesting results from my pseudo algorithm to identify influence. Some of the best hits below.


This bullish $BB Technical Analysis by redditor “SmahD55” makes the case for the Blackberry trade. It calls for a $100 price target, but it was published days after the stock peaked at $28.38.


A YouTube link to the scene from Snowpiercer where the lower class train citizens storm into oppressive soldiers of the ruling class.


An article from Science Direct: “Detecting the great short squeeze on Volkswagen'' by Keith R.L. Godfrey. The URL was posted on January 27, and is continuing to make the rounds. The article describes the technical circumstances of a 2008 short squeeze. The link was heavily shared by a series of bot accounts.


A webpage for Citadel’s positions in $SLV on financial intelligence site Fintel. This link was shared as a point of contention. Some users shared it stating “Citadel is the 5th largest shareholder of $SLV.” while other users shared it stating “No, they aren't. That's disinformation.” I don’t really care enough to pick one.


The technical analysis “Mother of all TA for the Mother of all Squeezes” by /u/tsukune_surprise is a comprehensive and research-rich document predicting a $1000 peak for $GME and at least “two short squeezes” on January 28 (neither happened).


A document called “WSB Potential Target List,” which purportedly demonstrates hedge funds’ interest in /r/WSB. I tracked down the author of this document, an individual who works at a “long-short and long-equity investment management firm based in New York”. I will update this article if I receive a response from them.

Screenshot of influential document “WSB Potential Target List,” which purportedly demonstrates hedge funds’ interest in /r/WSB and price targets associated stocks observed in scraped content.

Conclusion

I think a big thing that keeps me sane is the constant quest to find patterns, reason, and trends behind what I observe in the world. I think @chhlss put it best on her Instagram story covering the markets: “I have such a personality that strives to understand things, at any cost. And this is inexplicable.” The post that followed appropriately depicted a drink being poured to ABBA’s “SOS”.

While this was just an exploratory look, I hope some of the demonstrations here help you stay frosty as you venture across the web. Thanks for reading. Follow up with any questions or comments on Backchannel’s Twitter @backchannelre, would love to hear about your thoughts on the $GME short squeeze and the retail revolt. Diamond hands.