Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Battle of the sockpuppets (part of the discussion at Media140 Brisbane)

I'm at Media140 in Brisbane today on the panel Web 2.0 or Web too far? where six of us will be discussing how the internet can be used to "distort, misinform and distribute propaganda" and how we should use the web to democratise scientific knowledge.

This is a key topic for governments as well. The internet is a fantastic mechanism for democratising communication, giving every citizen a voice. However it can also be used to create a choir of false voices to amplify a given point of view or drown out legitimate perspectives.

These voices are often referred to as sockpuppets, a term Wikipedia defines as "an online identity used for purposes of deception within an online community."

The first sockpuppets were used by individuals to pose as third parties in support of their views during a debate on an online forum or chat channel. This use, while annoying, was often detectable by other participants or administrators and often resulted in the perpetrator being named and shamed, suspended or even expelled.

With the growth of the internet as a mainstream media and with the rise of social media, sockpuppets  became important tools for people pushing particular views. By creating multiple personas, individuals were able to have a disproportionate influence over discussions on matters important to them, and sometimes matters of interest to the public.

As it has become easier to register domain names and build websites, generate hundreds - or thousands - of email addresses and program personas to provide differently worded statements supporting the same cause, sockpuppetry has grown from being the act of passionate or misguided individuals into a strategy used by groups seeking to amplify their voice beyond their active membership.

In the last few years sockpuppets has expanded into use by commercial and political interest groups. Sockpuppetry has become big business, with groups creating fake personas to emphasise points of view and influence government decisions and outcomes.

In some cases this approach has been embraced by governments, for example The Guardian recently revealed that the US military has tendered for the creation of sockpuppets to be used to spread particular messages online. Reported in the article, Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media, the article states that,
A Californian corporation has been awarded a contract with United States Central Command (Centcom), which oversees US armed operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what is described as an "online persona management service" that will allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world.
The Centcom contract stipulates that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate false identities from their workstations "without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".
These sockpuppets - or perhaps 'socksoldiers' - have been designed to go into battle against extremist and radical forces who, presumably, are using similar techniques to incite negative views and violence against the USA.

This specific approach is designed to target websites outside the US and the company involved has stated that the sockpuppets are not being designed to infiltrate Facebook, Twitter or US forums and blogs.

However there have been past claims and concerns that the US government has targeted citizens, such as in the below video regarding the possible use of sockpuppetry to deflect complaints about the Army Corp of Engineers after Hurricane Katrina.

Sockpuppetry may be illegal in certain countries, if you are impersonating a real (and usually living) person. However there may be loopholes regarding totally fake personas, 'anonymous' posts or people use pseudonyms, which could also be for legitimate purposes. I'm not a lawyer and can't comment on Australian law in this regard.

However, regardless of the legal position, it can be hard to detect well-executed sockpuppetry particularly where experienced operators are involved. It can also be difficult to prove offences and prosecute perpetrators, who may be based anywhere in the world.

While it may be very hard to detect the scope of sockpuppetry, its impact can be profound.

Imagine running an online government consultation on an issue where there's commercial interests and millions of dollars at stake. A business, or a lobby group representing them, could invest in the creation of a few hundred sockpuppets to emphasise a particular perspective or provide weak or offensive opposing arguments (known as a 'strawman sockpuppet' - used to discredit or weaken an opponent's argument by presenting an extreme or distorted view).

How about during the public (online) discussion of a policy initiative - such as a mining tax, carbon price, same-sex marriage, plain-packaging of tobacco products or limits on pokie machines. Lobby and pressure groups, political parties and corporations could all create hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of sockpuppets to represent their views. Or maybe they already are using these, and similar, tactics to create the perception of having public support.

These sockpuppets could even become well-defined personalities, expressing a particular set of views across a set of topics, interacting with both real people and other sockpuppets to coordinate and amplify particular views through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, forums and newspaper comment columns.

Due to the sophistication of modern sockpuppetry techniques, some simple sockpuppets - partial personas - could be partially or completely computer-generated and operated, providing short sloganistic comments on a defined range of topics, or amplifying the statements of more fully-formed human operated sockpuppets.

We could see a virtual arms war erupt between groups to design and construct the most influential and cost-effective sockpuppets. At the same time social media, forum and blog sites will be working to design the most effective sockpuppet countermeasures - software that can identify sockpuppets and block them (probably blocking some legitimate human voices in the process).

So to preserve the integrity of online consultations and engagements, what do governments need to do?

Firstly there's the need to educate public servants and politicians about the risk of sock puppets and how they may be used in attempts to derail legitimate policy and program discussions and consultations. People need to be educated on how to recognize basic sockpuppets and on how to implement preventative policies and barriers to screen out fake voices and personas.

Secondly government needs to consider its own countermeasures. Automated tools that can detect potential sockpuppets from their behavioral patterns, use of stock phrases and by who they follow, support and revile. These can provide flags for human moderation, after publication, of positively identified sockpuppets.

Finally, government needs to consider approaches to verify individual identities online (in its own consultation and engagement sites) which still permit anonymity and the use of pseudonyms, however present high barriers for sockpuppets to surmount. This can be done through human detection techniques, IP matching and semantic analysis, as well as by providing a facility for authenticated identities online while still protecting the privacy of participants.

For governments, still coping with moderation issues and the concept of consulting online, there needs to be significant thought and reflection put into the risk of sockpuppets - not to mention significant thinking on whether it is ever appropriate for government agencies to use their own.

Here's the panel presentation:

media140 Brisbane 2011 // Panel - Web 2.0 or Web too far? from media140 on Vimeo.


  1. Hi Craig, thanks for posting this. I'm very interested in how social media technologies can be used as part of community consultation processes. In relation to governments consulting online, are there are available guidelines that you would recommend? Thanks Alexis

  2. Thanks for this insightful post, Craig. I learnt something today about the potential risks from sockpuppets. Can you recommend anything else to read on the topic?

    BTW I can imagine @doctorow writing some great speculative fiction about this issue.


  3. Hi Darcy, you might find this article from Mumbella an interesting read:

    It starts so innoculously...

  4. This might also add further to the discussion:

  5. Australian media engaging in sock-puppetry, as PR spin -