If this is your first visit to Propaganda Critic, you might be surprised to notice the word ‘sockpuppet’ on a site devoted to propaganda analysis. What are sockpuppets, and how do they persuade us online?
What are sockpuppets?
Sometimes referred to as “trolls,” 1 sockpuppets are fake identities that malicious individuals use to deceive other people online. Just as a physical sockpuppet disguises the hand of the person who makes it speak, a digital sockpuppet conceals the real-world identity of the human being controlling the fake account. These people are sometimes referred to as “puppet masters.” Depending upon their motivation, skill, and technical resources, a single puppet master can control five, ten, or even twenty different identities at one time. As you can imagine, sockpuppets can be particularly powerful when wielded by malicious propagandists.
Fake online identities controlled by human beings with the goal of deceiving other people are not a new phenomenon. Ever since the earliest days of the Internet, individuals have adopted fake online identities for personal or political reasons. However, due to the ‘primitive’ nature of older computer networks, it was much easier for users and moderators to figure out when someone was trying to guide multiple fake identities.
Why would someone want to create a fake identity in the first place?
Sockpuppets are useful when someone wants to participate in an online community and needs to look like other members to fit in. For example, imagine that there is a group on Facebook that is only intended for people who are licensed medical doctors. Imagine that a high school student is interested in someday becoming a doctor and wants to know what the lifestyle is like behind the scenes. She could go to medical school, but that would take at least seven years after graduating from college. A quicker way to become a member of the group would be to create a fake user profile online. After creating the account with a photo of a person in a lab coat and adding M.D. to the end of their name, she could interact with others while pretending to be a practicing doctor.
Although this student is motivated by curiosity rather than evil, there are many ways her fake identity could be problematic. What would happen if our fake doctor offered medical advice to other users? Since people judge source credibility using peripheral cues such as the lab coat and the credentials in her name, someone might actually act upon the advice shared by this fake surgeon.
Sockpuppets prey on the human tendency to favor people who are the most like us. Social psychologists refer to this as in-group bias. Even though most of us strive to be impartial, it makes sense that we would place more weight on the opinions of people who we view as similar to us in some way.
In grassroots online communities, people ask their peers what type of car they should buy, discuss political candidates, or recommend restaurants, tennis shoes, and dentists. We tend to assume that people participating in these discussions are people just like us with no secret agenda. They aren’t trying to sell us a certain car so they can make money; they’re just sharing their opinion. Sockpuppets complicate this idyllic exchange of information by imitating other community members to earn our trust. If we believe that someone is a real person, we are more likely to trust their recommendations.
How are sockpuppets used?
Sockpuppets can be used to generate money and popularity for their controllers. In 2012, the mystery writer R. J. Ellory used fake Amazon accounts to give fabulous reviews to his novel A Quiet Belief in Angels. Speaking through the mouth of a fake identity named Nicodemus Jones, Ellory described his novel as a “modern masterpiece” and “magnificent book” that “will touch your soul.”2
The use of sockpuppets to promote products goes far beyond the book industry. Just as some celebrities buy followers to bolster their brand, some corporations purchase positive reviews of their products from unscrupulous marketers. In fact, one data mining expert from the University of Illinois estimates that one-third of consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.3
Of course, sockpuppets are used for more than book reviews. They are a powerful tool in the world of politics. Propagandists use sockpuppets to discredit and demoralize their political opponents, to guide the direction of political conversations online, and to create the illusion of false consensus. They can also use sockuppets to influence online polls, to introduce new memes and political hashtags, and to subvert collaborative projects such as Wikipedia.
In Russia, a group called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) uses bots and sockpuppets to sway political discussions at home and abroad. In an interview with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, a former IRA puppetmaster named Marat Burkhard detailed his experience writing pro-Russian comments on municipality websites.4 Burkhard says that organizations are run like real factories. Employees work twelve-hour shifts and must post at least 135 comments in one shift. After meeting their quota, they get paid.
According to Burkhard, he and his colleagues followed a familiar pattern when attempting to discredit critics of the Russian government. First, a “villain troll” would disagree with a pro-Russia post, challenging authority figures. Second, a “link troll” would enter into debate with the villain, linking to a supposedly relevant pro-government video or website. Finally, a “picture troll” would chime in by posting an easily shared image.5 By staging an online “discussion” between sockpuppets, these trolls give other users the impression that the original pro-Russia post was correct. After all, they did prove the villain wrong in an argument.
“Villain, picture, link,” explains Burkhard. “[I]n this way, our little threesome traverses the country, stopping at every forum, starting with Kaliningrad and ending in Vladivostok. We create the illusion of actual activity on these forums. We write something, we answer each other.”
It is important to note that Russia is not the only country where sockpuppets are active in social media. As you will see in the Case Studies section, many countries, including China, the United States, and the Philippines, have used fake accounts to accomplish differing goals.
One thing is certain: Sockpuppets are versatile and they can be used to accomplish a number of different goals ranging from selling more books to flooding political conversation.
It is important to be aware of these troublesome accounts. But this doesn’t mean that you should only interact with accounts of people that you know! When interacting with people that you haven’t met in real life, try to gauge their authenticity by looking for the characteristics seen on the Sockpuppet Checklist. You should also ask yourself the following questions:
- What is this person attempting to convince me?
- What other organizations or individuals would benefit from me believing this message?
- When I review this person’s profile pages, do they seem to be a “real” human being? Does their story add up?
Even though sockpuppets have made gathering information difficult, we can still outsmart them by understanding how they are trying to persuade us.
1 Historically, the word ‘troll’ has been used to describe Internet users who engage in hostile and adversarial behavior simply for the fun of making other people miserable. Trolls sometimes use fake accounts to cause online mischief, but sockpuppets are just one of many techniques that are used for online trolling. Not all trolls use sockpuppets, and these fake accounts are also used for purposes other than online ‘trolling.’ Unfortunately, much of the coverage in traditional media tends to gloss over these differences. Most of the time, when you hear a television reporter or newspaper journalist reference trolls, it is a safe bet that they are actually talking about sockpuppets.
2 Alison Flood (2012, September 4) “Sock puppetry and fake reviews: publish and be damned,” The Guardian.
3 David Streitfeld (2012, August 25) “The best book review money can buy,” The New York Times.
4 Dimitri Volcheck and Daisy Sindelar (2015, March 25) “One professional Russian troll tells all,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
5 Dimitri Volcheck and Daisy Sindelar (2015, March 25) “One professional Russian troll tells all,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.