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.
The term "sockpuppet" was used as early as July 9, 1993 but did not become common in USENET groups until 1996. The first Oxford English Dictionary example of the term, defined as "a person whose actions are controlled by another; a minion," is taken from U.S. News and World Report, March 27, 2000.
Notable public examples
- Between 2000 and 2003, John Lott, author of More Guns, Less Crime, made numerous posts under the sockpuppet name "Mary Rosh." "Rosh" praised Lott's views and disputed with his critics on Usenet, posting laudatory reviews of Lott's books and panning those of his rivals. Lott admitted he had used the name "Mary Rosh" to defend himself but claimed the book reviews were written by his son and wife.
- Lee Siegel, a writer for The New Republic magazine, was suspended for defending his articles and blog comments under the user name "Sprezzatura." In one such comment, "Sprezzatura" defended Siegel's bad reviews of Jon Stewart: "Siegel is brave, brilliant and wittier than Stewart will ever be."
- In 2006, a top staffer for then-US Congressman Charlie Bass (R-NH) was caught posing as a "concerned" supporter of Bass's opponent Democrat Paul Hodes on several liberal New Hampshire blogs. Using the identities "IndieNH" or "IndyNH," the aide argued that Democrats might be wasting their time and money supporting Hodes, because Bass was "unbeatable."
- In January 2007, Peter Ragone, the press secretary of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, admitted that he had posted pro-Newsom comments to the blog SFist as "Byorn" or "John Nelson" (a friend). Ragone said "he answered Newsom's critics using others' names because being online 'was fun – it's where people are having fun."
- 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.
- On January 13, 2009, Ben Grower, a councillor from Bournemouth, England, was exposed by the Bournemouth Daily Echo for repeatedly posting comments praising himself and fellow Labour councillors on the newspaper's website using a number of sockpuppets including the screen name "Omegaman." When questioned, Grower was initially ambiguous but later admitted the truth of the allegations, saying "I have done nothing against the law. And probably next time I will just use a different pseudonym."
- In April 2010 British historian Orlando Figes was discovered to have written critical reviews of books by professional rivals on the Amazon.com website under the names "orlando-birkbeck" and "historian."
- In April 2011, the American cartoonist Scott Adams admitted using the name "PlannedChaos" to pose as one of his fans on the link-sharing sites Reddit and MetaFilter.
- In September 2011, Johann Hari, a leading columnist for the British newspaper The Independent, publicly apologized for having used a pseudonym, David Rose, with Wikipedia screen name David r of Meth productions, to add positive material to the Wikipedia article about himself and negative material to Wikipedia articles about people with whom he had had disputes.
Notable state examples
- In 2011, a Californian company, Ntrepid, was awarded a $2.76 million contract under the auspices of US Central Command for "online persona management" operations with the aim of creating "fake online personas to influence net conversations and spread US propaganda" in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.
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" (or "meat puppet") is used as a pejorative description of various online behaviors. The term was current 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). Editors of Wikipedia use 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. Wired columnist Lore Sjöberg put "meat puppet" first on a satirical list of "common terms used at Wikipedia," defining the term as "a person who disagrees with you."
Nevertheless, other online sources use the term "meatpuppet" to describe sockpuppet behaviors. For example, according to one online encyclopedia, a meat puppet "publishes comments on blogs, wikis and other public venues about some phenomenon or product in order to generate public interest and buzz"—that is, he is engaged in behavior more widely known as "astroturfing." A 2006 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education defined a meat puppet as "a peculiar inhabitant of the digital world—a fictional character that passes for a real person online."
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.
U.S. legal implications of sockpuppeting
- In 2008, 49-year-old Missouri resident Lori Drew was prosecuted and convicted in Los Angeles for creating a MySpace account on which she claimed to be a 16-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Drew's goal had been to create a relationship with Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl who had been in conflict with Drew's daughter. After "Josh" ended the relationship with Megan, Megan killed herself. Drew was convicted for misrepresenting her identity, in violation of the MySpace terms of service. The Los Angeles U.S. Attorney successfully claimed that this was covered by federal computer fraud legislation against "accessing a computer without authorization via interstate commerce." Drew appealed the verdict, arguing that her use of a false identity did not constitute unauthorized access to MySpace, based on a 1973 breach of contract dispute where a court of appeals ruled that "fraudulently induced consent is consent nonetheless." On July 3, 2009, the appeal was tentatively upheld.
- In 2010, Raphael Golb was convicted on 30 of 31 counts, including identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment, for using multiple sockpuppet accounts to attack and impersonate historians he perceived as rivals of his father, Norman Golb. Golb defended his actions as "satirical hoaxes" protected by free-speech rights. He was disbarred and sentenced to six months in prison but remained free on appeal on $25,000 bail.
- ^ "Definition of sockpuppet". WordSpy.com. http://www.wordspy.com/words/sockpuppet.asp.
- ^ Stone, Brad (July 16, 2007). "The Hand That Controls the Sock Puppet Could Get Slapped". New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/16/technology/16blog.html?ex=1342238400&en=9a3424961f9d2163&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss.
- ^ A legitimate pseudonym is sometimes termed an "alt," short for "alternate identity."
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- ^ OED, online edition, June 2011 (accessed August 18, 2011). The reference is to one Jennifer Brand, a 24-year-old student who backed President Clinton in 1996, by calling Gore ‘a sock puppet.’
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- ^ "Councillor posted messages on website praising his own work". London: Telegraph. January 13, 2009. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/4228167/Councillor-posted-messages-on-website-praising-his-own-work.html. Retrieved June 5, 2009.
- ^ "Mystery author who heaped praise on hard-working councillor is revealed... to be the councillor himself". Daily Mail (London). January 13, 2009. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1113946/Mystery-author-heaped-praise-hard-working-councillor-revealed--councillor-himself.html. Retrieved June 5, 2009.
- ^ Lesley Richardson, Press Association (January 15, 2009). "Councillor used pseudonym to praise own work". The Independent (London). http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/councillor-used-pseudonym-to-praise-own-work-1333346.html. Retrieved June 5, 2009.
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- ^ "Pat on own back: Councillor says Daily Echo should take responsibility for his online alter ego". Editors' Blog. Journalism.co.uk. http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/2009/01/13/pat-on-own-back-councillor-says-daily-echo-should-take-responsibility-for-his-online-alter-ego/. Retrieved June 5, 2009.
- ^ Richard Lea and Matthew Taylor "Historian Orlando Figes admits posting Amazon reviews that trashed rivals", The Guardian, April 23, 2010
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- ^ Johann Hari"A personal apology", The Independent (website), September 14, 2011; Richard Seymour, "The Johann Hari Debacle", The Guardian, September 16, 2011.
- ^ a b Nick Fielding and Ian Cobain, "Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media", The Guardian. March 17, 2011. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
- ^ Lewis Bazley, "Combating jihadists and free speech: How the U.S. military is using fake online profiles to spread propaganda", Daily Mail, March 18, 2011. Retrieved March 24, 2011.
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- ^ "Lori Drew is a meanie". Slate (The Washington Post Company). December 3, 2008. http://www.slate.com/id/2205952/pagenum/all/.
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- ^ "Lori Drew cleared of MySpace cyber-bullying". Sydney Morning Herald. July 3, 2009. http://www.smh.com.au/technology/lori-drew-cleared-of-myspace-cyberbullying-20090703-d6s0.html.
- ^ "Dispute Over Dead Sea Scrolls Leads to a Jail Sentence" (November 18, 2010) New York Times
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