Sunday, August 23, 2020

Sockpuppets and where to find them

The Disguiser. An unrelated scene.
Internet Sockpuppets are an annoying online phenomenon. 

* A sockpuppet qualifies as a fake account, when it assumes a fake identity -- typically with a real-sounding name, a physical location that sounds real, a random photo scrapped from the Internet ideally not of a popular person, and some profile text/story to create a persona that looks real to a non-suspecting reader. 

* A sockpuppet qualifies as an anon account, when it comes with minimal identifying information -- no real name, no photo, nothing personal or identifiable information.

So what exactly is a sockpuppet?

There are several definitions. My definition goes like this:

"A sockpuppet is a fake or an anonymous profile created by someone with an existing established profile in the same platform, when the new profile aims to boost the popularity/prominence of his/her established profile (i.e., the "primary" account) or attack those presented opposing views of the existing account."

The distinction needs to be made because, sockpuppets are typically attached to the hand of the owner. They cannot stray away. That is the same for the Internet sockpuppets too. They stay close to the primary account.

Why do sockpuppets exist?

1) To manipulate the social media democracy + meritocracy

Social media and online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Wikimedia, and StackOverflow thrive by a combination of democracy and meritocracy. 

Each account usually has a single "vote". That means, you can typically "like" or "upvote" a comment/story only once. This is a democracy.

On the other hand, those who with most views/likes/shares/retweets receive larger reach and prominence in the discussions. As you receive larger reach, you are also rewarded by the platform. For example, you may get promoted to an "upper level" and receive additional capabilities such as moderating new posts (in case of platforms such as StackOverflow and Wikipedia). This is a meritocracy.

Then why doesn't this beautiful combination of democracy and meritocracy work flawlessly? This combination should work well in the physical world. But in social media, a vote typically means an account. Most platforms do not have proper means in place to ensure that a human creates only one account. In fact, several platforms allow and encourage owning multiple accounts for various purposes. I have maintained 3 bot accounts in my Twitter life so far (they are listed here), to automatically post updates from my blog and undergrad project. But of course, they are not sockpuppets. They are stand-alone bots. They are not fake, not really anon either as they have identifying information pointing to me. 

A sockpuppet, on the other hand, *will* interact with its primary in some way or another. Because that is their responsibility: making the primary appear stronger than it really is. With the "rich gets richer" scenario in social media, retweets by a large number of fake accounts (including sockpuppets) is expected to receive more legitimate retweets too. Sockpuppets, unlike typical fake or bot accounts, will organically interact with the primary account for the betterment of the primary account, through supportive comments, retweets, and likes.

2) To fight the opposing views without compromising the primary account's legacy

The sockpuppet, once created, will start traversing its primary account and respond accordingly. I have identified several sockpuppets in Twitter, from all sides of political spectrum.

Sockpuppet owners can be actually smart people. Don't underestimate them. That makes the sockpuppets smart too - but with no accountability (since they are a fake/anon). That is a dangerous combination.

Unlike the primary account, the sockpuppet will attack you vigorously, perhaps using racist, provocatory, or vulgar messages.

How to spot a sockpuppet?

In fact, it is easier to spot and confirm a sockpuppet than you expect. Sockpuppets are close to their primary. They respond positively to the views that support the primary. They will attack the opposing views with nastiest mean comments. They all follow a similar pattern, and leave obvious traces to connect with the primary. Typically, they will reply to the negative comments that haven't been replied by the primary adequately (if at all). Their replies will be uninhibited. This aims to maintain the neutral stance of the primary and to keeps the primary more professional. Sockpuppets will try to provoke you. They are a sockpuppet whereas you are in your main and perhaps the only account in the platform, which you may also be using for professional purposes and connect with your colleagues. Sockpuppets thus use your restrain as their strength.

However, sockpuppets fortunately have a big weakness unlike other fake accounts. That is, their proximity to the primary. They will first reply to the messages directed at the primary, or try to be smart and reply to the posts made by the opponents - but not directly on the same thread as the primary. Their language and timing usually will leave sufficient hints to tie the sockpuppet's identity to the primary. 

Some sockpuppets try to be too smart and alter their behavior. I once dealt with a sockpuppet (who is in real a software developer and a Twitter star) who pretended he did not know how to message via Twitter! This is a deliberate attempt to look different. Most sockpuppets will also casually talk with the primary (as in a dual acting by the same actor in a movie), to make it sound like they are different people. Sockpuppets also have a trait of deleting their old tweets to remove traces for future interactions. Because, unlike you, sockpuppets don't really have a reason to keep their tweets safe. Once they have served their purpose (for example, trolling their opponent), they can be deleted.

Every time I suspect a sockpuppet, I casually drop the name of the suspected primary, after sufficiently distracting the sockpuppet. The sockpuppet instantly panics and loses its cool and track/flow. Once, a sockpuppet stopped responding to my tweets for hours but instantly in 5 seconds replied with a nasty tweet once I mentioned the suspected primary's name as in "Hi [primary]!"Usually, if you publicly accuse the primary for being the same person as the sockpuppet, the primary will categorically reject the claim.

How do online platforms treat the sockpuppets?

Wikipedia bans sockpuppets outright. I love that. They trace the IP addresses and once they confirm the sockpuppets (ensuring that you are not merely two people from the same household), they suspend and ban the sockpuppet instantly. It ensures that Wikipedia is fair, especially when making important decisions: should we keep this new wikipedia page that is proposed for a speedy deletion, for one example. If a repeat offense is detected, Wikipedia will also ban the primary.

Twitter does the same too, but not that vigorously. Because, Twitter indeed allows multiple accounts. But if the sockpuppet is proven malicious, then Twitter bans it. Make sure to report the suspected sockpuppets to Twitter when they become disruptive. Twitter will check the pattern and suspend them if confirmed.

The first step in winning a sockpuppet is to identifying one, and then making sure the sockpuppet does not emotionally attack you to make you a weaker persona than the primary. Let's keep the social media clean and sane. Peace!

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