Sockpuppet

catfish by Kelly Gillit

sockpuppet troll

A sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term—a reference to the manipulation of a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who spoke to, or about himself while pretending to be another person.

The term now includes other uses of misleading online identities, such as those created to praise, defend or support a third party or organization. A significant difference between the use of a pseudonym and the creation of a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet poses as an independent third-party unaffiliated with the puppeteer.

In 2007, the CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, was discovered to have posted as ‘Rahodeb’ on the Yahoo Finance Message Board, extolling his own company and predicting a dire future for its rival, Wild Oats Markets, while concealing his relationship to both companies. In 2011, American cartoonist Scott Adams admitted using the name ‘PlannedChaos’ to pose as one of his fans on the link-sharing sites Reddit and MetaFilter.

A strawman sockpuppet is a false flag pseudonym created to make a particular point of view look foolish or unwholesome in order to generate negative sentiment against it. Strawman sockpuppets typically behave in an unintelligent, uninformed, or bigoted manner and advance ‘straw man” arguments that their puppeteers can easily refute. The intended effect is to discredit more rational arguments made in behalf of the same position. Sometimes, the demarcation line between strawman sockpuppets and trolls may be fine or indistinguishable.

The term ‘meatpuppet’ is used as a pejorative description of various online behaviors. The term was in use before the Internet, including references in Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction story ‘The Diary of the Rose’ (1976), the alternative rock band Meat Puppets, and the cyberpunk novelist William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ (1984). Wikipedia uses the term to deprecate contributions of new community members if suspected of having been recruited by an existing member to support his position. Such a recruited member is considered analogous to a sockpuppet even though he is actually a separate individual (i.e. ‘meat’) rather than a fictitious creation.

Sockpuppets may be created during an online poll to submit multiple votes in favor of the puppeteer. A related usage is creating multiple identities, each supporting the puppeteer’s views in an argument, attempting to position the puppeteer as representing majority opinion and sideline opposition voices. In the abstract theory of social networks and reputation systems, this is known as a sybil attack.

A sockpuppet-like use of deceptive fake identities is used in stealth marketing. The stealth marketer creates one or more pseudonymous accounts, each one claiming to be owned by a different enthusiastic supporter of the sponsor’s product or book or ideology. A single such sockpuppet is acting as a shill; creating large numbers of them to fake a ‘grass-roots’ upswelling of support for a cause is known as astroturfing.

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