It turns out the the recent question regarding the misuse of rm -rf in Ansible was actually just a hoax (English) in some kind of viral marketing effort. It become quite famous on various media and gathered a large number of views.

Since I don't think we should allow ServerFault to be abused in such way, I deleted the question once I learned about the hoax. However, this will rob the kind people that took the time to answer him of the rep points they earned for this, in particular the Journeyman Geek with 185 upvotes.

So, how should we deal with this question? Vote below.

There is a clear majority towards merging the question into this one. I'll do this now.

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    Have we had any input from community@stack? – Mark Henderson Apr 15 '16 at 13:47
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    Was the question a valid and useful question for server fault? If so why does it matter what the motivations of the asker were? Stack exchange is about building a Q and A for the public at large. – Martin Smith Apr 15 '16 at 13:49
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    @MartinSmith no - it was a duplicate. The original poster said in a recent article it was " a guerrilla marketing operation" so blatant spam/troll. – tombull89 Apr 15 '16 at 13:51
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    For those, like me, left high and dry because we aren't yet at 10k, google does have a cache of most of the page content: webcache.googleusercontent.com/… – Adam Davis Apr 15 '16 at 17:10
  • Side question: why were my comments to this question deleted, and only mine (other comments are still there)? They were neither spam nor off-topic, as I was remarking the importance of proper backups and how being able at all to delete everything with a single command implied fundamental design flaws, rather than simple bad luck. – Massimo Apr 15 '16 at 17:56
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    @Massimo there are a lot of deleted comments on that post. Not just yours. As to why they were deleted, I'm unsure. – Mark Henderson Apr 15 '16 at 17:59
  • Deleting as dup seems wrong. I don't have an opinion on what to do. Maybe just keep deleted but, how can something be a duplicated question if it was a FORGED situation? The problem didn't even existed at first place... – user122772 Apr 15 '16 at 18:01
  • @MarkHenderson Fine, I can't see deleted comments at all; however, one of mine ("I won't even begin enumerating how many errors are simultaneously required in order to be able to completely erase all your servers and all your backups in a single strike. This is not bad luck: it's astonishingly bad design reinforced by complete carelessness.”) was upvoted a lot and even cited in the Independent article talking about the fact; I just wonder what logic exactly led to its deletion. – Massimo Apr 15 '16 at 18:03
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    Someone with a lot of time on their hands could contact all the news outlets which have run this story and advise them of the situation. – Michael Hampton Apr 15 '16 at 22:29
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    @MichaelHampton It's actually shocking to see how "respectable" newspapers have run this story as fact, without any research (like trying to find the name of the company he works for or any of the websites affected). But it is at least a good demonstration of which news sources cannot be trusted. – joeytwiddle Apr 16 '16 at 3:31
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    The hoax author seems to mouth off against SE users in the newspaper article for not catching him at his hoax. Can anyone with more italian knowledge than my google translate skills verify this? I think this would make a dangerous precedent (@Massimo ?) – dualed Apr 16 '16 at 9:56
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    @Massimo we went into it thinking he was an idiot. We've came out of it thinking he's an idiot, but for a different reason. I don't think the joke is on us. – Sirex Apr 17 '16 at 7:02
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    At least use a better link to an article explaining the hoax. The current link points to an Italian website. Here's one in English. I don't think many people here are fluent in Italian? – aroth Apr 18 '16 at 14:32
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    @gldraphael I wonder if it could possibly be connected to this story of a real UK hosting company who did very recently accidentally delete the entire contents of several servers: bbc.com/news/technology-36072240 – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 19 '16 at 10:46
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    @Mzn: He admitted it in a mod message. – Sven Apr 27 '16 at 9:18

12 Answers 12


It was closed as a dupe. Delete the hoax and keep the dupe. Consider merging the answers from the hoax into it. Remember SF is for practical problems you are trying to solve. A hoax by definition isn't this.

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    If the answers can be made to fit the dup-target, this is reasonable. – Shog9 Apr 15 '16 at 14:30
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    Why merge answers from a question that was a hoax? I don't think this could help any serious question, by merging answers that came from questions that are a lie! – user122772 Apr 15 '16 at 18:16
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    @nwildner This isn't the first time we've seen "Halp, I deleted all my things, what do I do?!?!?", (or even the more specific Linux/rm -rf variant) and it won't be the last. So, next time, we can point to the question and say "nope, you're screwed, like this guy. And that guy. And that guy, and..." That's how it helps. – HopelessN00b Apr 15 '16 at 18:38
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    Yeah, but if rm -fr / will not work, there is no need to "document" this, and use as proof to other questions since they will not show something real, and could be hoaxes too – user122772 Apr 15 '16 at 18:43
  • @nwildner I was being somewhat pink-and-fluffy; people are more likely to react well to something that preserves content and UIPs than to the thermonuclear option of deleting the whole mess (which I'd quite happily do too)... Anyway that's my last word on the matter if you want to continue discussing this with the noob please to it $elsewhere. – user9517 Apr 15 '16 at 18:46
  • I just disagree on merging answers. That's why i also gave a suggestion below :) Mark as spam, edit to explain the hoax and let the question closed. This way will preserve content and avoid mixing true answers with anwers of a question that was a lie :P – user122772 Apr 15 '16 at 19:07
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    @nwildner: It will work with non-GNU rm. So i guess with FreeBSD you're out of luck with the same problem. Too lazy to fire up a vm just to test it, but most real unices do not prevent you from doing stupid things. – allo Apr 16 '16 at 21:43
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    Deleting is bad - too many outside sources are pointing to it. Edit it, declare it's a hoax, and lock it. Or redirect the page to this page. – Aaron Hall Apr 17 '16 at 11:55
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    @allo That used to be true, but don't assume it still is: github.com/freebsd/freebsd/commit/… – user264234 Apr 18 '16 at 15:22
  • The question was closed before I was able to answer. If they had used set -u in their shell script, the faux problem would not have occured. Setting set-u will cause bash to exit, due to unbound variables. rm -Rf ${foo}/${bar} – Aaron Apr 20 '16 at 15:38

Consider Nuking the OP's account too. Anything less will just encourage other marketing stunts like this.

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    Agreed. Push the big red button. – tombull89 Apr 15 '16 at 14:00
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    This I disagree with. A single transgression does not warrant this. – Mark Henderson Apr 15 '16 at 14:04
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    Permlock his account but keep it around. Edit the profile description with a link to this Meta question with the words "Don't be like this guy" – TheCleaner Apr 15 '16 at 14:04
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    @MarkHenderson - businesspundit.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/10/… – TheCleaner Apr 15 '16 at 14:05
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    @MarkHenderson If this were a mistake? or April Fools then I would agree with you but it's neither. It is a deliberate act and should be punished as such. – user9517 Apr 15 '16 at 14:06
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    @Iain Show me where it says that moderators can unilaterally delete someone's entire account based on their own discretion. – Mark Henderson Apr 15 '16 at 14:06
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    @Iain moderators do not enforce the community's wish. They enforce the rules. – Mark Henderson Apr 15 '16 at 14:09
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    I think we're going to have to agree to disagree on that. – user9517 Apr 15 '16 at 14:11
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    Bit late for that; question and user have had a fairly insane amount of attention already; best to make the truth known. – Shog9 Apr 15 '16 at 14:23
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    @ArtOfCode I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you read the mobile version of the story. By the poster's own admission this was part of an attempt to advertise his startup. The content of the Q&A itself may not be spam, but it exists for the purpose of commercial self-promotion, and therefore meets the definition. – Andrew B Apr 15 '16 at 22:17
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    @Mark I understand that this topic is important to you, but can you please pick your examples better? I've respected your stance up until now, but the idea that only the OP suffered here is demonstrably false. Some of the coverage this has gotten left people on mailing lists that I frequent with the impression that we're too stupid to understand what block level recovery is. – Andrew B Apr 16 '16 at 0:48
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    As for people saying we are too stupid to understand block level recovery, that is 100% our fault. We write smartass smug answers and we reap what we sow. – Mark Henderson Apr 16 '16 at 0:53
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    Imagine the great publicity we could have got if more people wrote answers like Journeymans, and were way less dickish in the comments – Mark Henderson Apr 16 '16 at 0:54
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    @MarkHenderson Yeah, right. And the moral of the story is: feel free to use SF as a platform for your viral spamming campaign, because you'll get a week's suspension, even if the community is 8:1 in favor of treating a spammer like a spammer. – HopelessN00b Apr 18 '16 at 0:34
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    Why is everyone getting so hung up on the spam argument? It's much more simple than that. From the ToS (emphasis mine): "Under no circumstances will Subscriber use the Network or the Service to ... (d) knowingly post any false, inaccurate or incomplete material..." – Iszi Apr 21 '16 at 19:24

Undelete the question and edit it to explain the situation.

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    The big advantage of this is since this question has had a lot of attention, if people follow the links back, least they know what happened. On the other hand, they'll know this guy didn't actually delete his entire company's data. On the gripping hand, I'm not sure that his 'official' excuse - that its a viral stunt, makes him look much better. – Journeyman Geek Apr 15 '16 at 14:57
  • I would add a bit about this on top of the merged question to explain what happened. – Sven Apr 15 '16 at 15:06
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    Deleting the question makes it pretty obvious what happened, too. – Michael Hampton Apr 15 '16 at 17:43
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    you would think so but I've seen comments on "news" articles about this which mention the deletion but assume it was because the feedback on the problem got too "brutal" (whatever that's meant to mean) and not because it was a hoax – Rory McCune Apr 15 '16 at 18:11
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    @RоryMcCune I don't think that's what anyone really wants, and given that, I've undeleted the question for the time being. – Michael Hampton Apr 15 '16 at 18:45
  • @Michael With that perception of brutal feedback in mind, you might also want to edit the "f*****" part out. While that was sufficient for "internal documentation" purposes, people who aren't going to run that URL through a translator need to understand that this was a publicity stunt. – Andrew B Apr 15 '16 at 20:19
  • @AndrewB Done. Thanks for the reminder. – Michael Hampton Apr 15 '16 at 20:21
  • @MichaelHampton Do you know what happened to my comments, especially the one that had several upvotes and was even quoted in the Independent article? I don't understand why they were deleted, and I'd like them back, if possible; also, I'd really like to know why they have been deleted, while others have not. – Massimo Apr 15 '16 at 21:35
  • @Massimo A Stack Overflow employee deleted your comments. I don't know exactly why, but I can guess. As some news outlets noted, they weren't exactly helpful... – Michael Hampton Apr 15 '16 at 21:39
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    @MichaelHampton Well, I was remarking (on the assumption he was not a troll) how you need a really flawed setup to be able to delete all your servers, all your data and all your backups with a single command; that was not to be blamed on a mistake or bad luck, but on an astonishing series of design and implementation errors. And it looks like my remark was on point, because IIRC last time I saw it, it had 15 upvotes... – Massimo Apr 15 '16 at 21:56

Undelete the question, mark it as a dupe, add a note, and lock it.

It has a significant number of inbound links, and a lot of traffic right now. Deleting it leaves these links broken, "Page Not Found" to the vast majority of viewers.

Marking it as a duplicate directs users to the more pertinent real question, while not denying people the opportunity to read and laugh at the hoax.

Locking it prevents any further issues with it.

Further, even hoax questions can provide some value, and there is a lot of value in the answers, even if they can't be moved as-is to the new question.

Lastly, those who spent time giving great answers are not denied the reputation gained, but once locked also won't continue to see their reputation climb due to the popularity of the question versus the value of their answer.

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    Merging will redirect links to the merge target, so they are not broken. – Sven Apr 15 '16 at 17:14
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    @Sven I don't believe the duplicate is exact - one is about getting access to a possibly still running system, the other is about recovering data. If there were an exact duplicate, then I'd be with you, but even then it's not as good a solution as undeleting and closing as dupe. – Adam Davis Apr 15 '16 at 17:19

His account should be deleted, and the question should be heavily edited in content, along with a warning message explaining what happened.

I'll outline why I think so:

His hoax post in itself has the following issues:

  • it abuses free help
  • he claimed basically that people answering are stupid for not noticing he didn't show the GNU option that'd catch his error
    • that lacks relevance because humans trying to help someone who made a mistake will often assume he made more than the one he's showing around
    • there is a lot of operating systems, even linux-based ones where it'd have worked
  • he violates ethical standards for systems administrators. as such it's a pity he's holding the job. we don't just got technical requirements but also a certain code to work by.

intentionally misleading people fails that code. even more so if it is for "marketing purposes"

  • he fails to even thank people
  • he failed to understand that people tried to help him and assumed we don't spot his error (while the dupe pointed to no-preserve-root case, making obvious to a sane person that mods assumed he DID run that and was just too stupid to properly give his example
  • he's also not aware older ansible versions might have let him come away with empty vars (iirc that's the case if you go back 2 years in versions)

Finally, I also think if this is not stopped now, we will get a larger problem. A much larger one. This is a very similar story as the first spam message ever, which went to usenet and didn't get policed hard enough. That is why we have spam now. it goes back over 20 years because some company got away with it.

Delete the guy's account and email him that he is to never come back unless he vows to act in a manner that respects this place. He spit in SO's face and there's no reason to keep him around.

And most definitely not the question if we lose rep. over it.

IMO the most important answer in the thread was the one "you need a lawyer", pointing him at the point where you need to interrupt technical measures for business measures to not totally fail in compliance. I felt really sorry for this poor guy trying to fix it on a technical level where he has to let go and come out.

IMO duping is not really enough, since the linked question iirc concerned only one server whereas he pretended to have taken out everything. (system failure vs. everything failure)

As for verification in news etc.: I found out enough that he's working in some isp context and his past questions weren't super-duped skilled, so it was plausible. I tried to verify via webhostingtalk if there's any outcries from affected customers but a) italy isn't well represented there b) there's always a few dead incompetent ISP's. This makes it kinda futile - this guy assumes we should have caught him on it when we just tried to calm someone who was (pretense) completely out of their depth.

That, in my mind, shows he's not really a kind person anyway. I don't him around here and much less so I want his "marketing" to be a thing we encounter again. They can buy adspace for that.

As a sysadmin I feel insulted by the fact he thinks he's doing the same job.

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    +1, The last sentence really sums it all. – Massimo Apr 17 '16 at 15:08
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    +1. He's a spammer. The fact that he has a handful of upvotes from a handful of other posts doesn't change that. We delete spammers' accounts all the time, and should dispose of this spammer in the same manner we dispose of other spammers. – HopelessN00b Apr 18 '16 at 0:14
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    May the fleas from a thousand camels take up residence in his pubic hair. – Tom O'Connor Apr 23 '16 at 16:30

Option 3, disassociate the question from the user. Lets the question and its useful answers stay around, and denies this troll the promotional value of his little experiment in viral trolling.

  • I can't do this without deleting the user, but since this wasn't his only post, I don't want to do this. I really like Iain's approach, which I hadn't considered. – Sven Apr 15 '16 at 13:54
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    Nuke the user, it's the only way to be sure. – user9517 Apr 15 '16 at 13:55
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    @Sven You can ask the SE devs to do it. They've done it for me for a lot less, so I imagine they'd be willing to do it for you, given that this impacts other users and is a documented hoax at this point. – Desperatuss0ccus Apr 15 '16 at 14:01
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    This gets into weird situations WRT the content license; normally we only disassociate upon author request, and only when deletion isn't desirable. Dup'd or merged, the question serves as a useful redirect to the original, which could actually do some good as a public-service message of sorts here. – Shog9 Apr 15 '16 at 14:31

Edit the question, don't delete it. The great thing about Stack Exchange is that we have the ability to turn bad questions into good ones.

It doesn't matter that the story isn't true; the problem with this question is that the story is irrelevant. It can be improved by removing the details that are both useless and false.

I accidentally ran rm -rf / on multiple machines, deleting everything on them (including offsite backups because the remote storage was mounted).

How I can recover from a rm -rf / now in a timely manner?


How do we deal with actual spam? This is actual spam, and should be treated the same way.


Simply deleting the question might actually teach a lesson everyone who decided to make a story off a simple question on a Q/A website, without even considering the possibility that the claims in the original post might be inaccurate (though I am pretty sure they have). Even if there was no ill intent involved it's still a duplicate of a question which has been asked countless times on ServerFault and many other websites on the StackExchange network. The popularity of the thread and countless websites linking to it should not warrant any exceptions in this case.

As for punishing the author, I don't think his motivations should be grounds for actually punishing him in any way as long as his question adhered to the rules. And I believe it did, except for the duplication part.


So, this question would have absolutely nothing to do with this actual situation?

It sounds to me as if the OP was pancaking in his message when I read the question, the comments also clarify him trying to cover his backside. The change of his profile is likely to protect his employability in future given that majority of employers will use Stack Exchange and source developers from it. Especially senior engineers who will conduct the interviews.

In which case there were two points that I think would benefit people and reasons for why this question shouldn't be deleted.

  1. Someone raised a valid questions about the --no-preserve-root and a comment suggesting this is valid only for new versions of Linux from 2012 (or something)
  2. Although there is no solution to a physical deletion without any form of back-up giving answers that can assist in snapshots, back-up procedures etc would be very beneficial.

Keep the question deleted. This has no place here at all.

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    It was closed as a dupe. Delete the hoax and keep the dupe. Consider merging the answers from the hoax into it. Remember SF is for practical problems you are trying to solve. A hoax by definition isn't this. – user9517 Apr 15 '16 at 13:41
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    Oh @Iain - such wisdom thou hast. Has? doth hast? +1 – TheCleaner Apr 15 '16 at 13:45
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    @TheCleaner "Thou hast" or "thou dost have". Never "thou doth hast". ("doth" is for third person singular - I do, thou dost, he/she doth.) – Jenny D Apr 15 '16 at 14:41
  • lol thanks @JennyD – TheCleaner Apr 15 '16 at 14:50
  • @JennyD I thought you were Swedish! How camest thou by such command of Shakespearean English? – MadHatter Apr 17 '16 at 7:59
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    @MadHatter I am. I read a lot, including Shakespeare.... – Jenny D Apr 17 '16 at 8:04
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    @JennyD congratulations on a grasp of period English that probably exceeds that of 95% of those native to the sceptred isle. I knew we Brits were comparitively poorly grounded in other people's languages, but this is just embarrassing. – MadHatter Apr 17 '16 at 8:20
  • @MadHatter Well, I started out as a language major, I didn't get into IT until I was in my mid-20's. – Jenny D Apr 17 '16 at 8:25
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    @JennyD I always remember this by way of German: "Ich habe, du hast, er hat -> I have, thou hast, he hath". – Kaz Apr 17 '16 at 15:03

Edit the question so other sites that created news based on this thread can double-check the information, mark as spam, since the definition of spam on SE is self-promotion:

Exists only to promote a product or service, does not disclose the author's affiliation.

If he was looking for viral marketing attention, this is nothing but spam.

  • 3
    Marking as spam results in auto-deletion. – Sven Apr 15 '16 at 23:08

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