Digital Deception: Sockpuppeteers

Wikipedia defines a sockpuppet as an online identity used for the purposes of deception. The Urban Dictionary has some more colorful definitions:

  • “A fake personality, usually a ‘friend’ or ‘sister’ created by a drama queen/king for the sake of defending his/herself against others in an online forum.
  • “An account used by someone unfairly banned by a biased, abusive or just plain asshole moderator to defy the ban and return to the forums.”

There are many other different types of sockpuppets, some of which have equally colorful names. A strawman is a fake identity created to expose opinions in a way that makes them look ignorant. A meatpuppet publishes promotional messaging on blogs and online discussion sites. There is also the ballot stuffer who adopts multiple identities to multiply his or her votes in an online poll.

The idea of adopting false identities and using them for the distribution of information is not new. The use of pseudonyms is as old as publishing itself. In the 18th century there was a sockpuppet named Alice Addertongue who wrote scandalous gossip about prominent citizens in the Pennsylvania Gazette. Alice’s sockpuppeteer was Ben Franklin. Maybe we should consider him among the founding fathers of sockpuppetry.

In my previous Digital Deception posts I flagged a number of different types of sockpuppets. There’s astroturfers who contaminate online review sites with their self praise or competitor bashing. There’s China’s 50-centers and Russia’s Web brigades who regurgitate propaganda under assumed personas.

My vision of a sockpuppeteer is someone working on their computer in a one bedroom apartment feverishly pumping out commentary and reviews because he or she is being paid a per piece pittance by an ethically challenged marketing agent. But in fact there are sockpuppeteers in all walks of life and there are numerous examples of corporate executives, professors, journalists and lawyers who have been caught red handed.

Here are some of my favorite examples:

Raphael Haim Golb is a New York real estate attorney.  His father Norman is a University of Chicago professer. The elder Golb’s  arch-rival in the academic world of Dead Sea Scrolls scholars is NYU professor Lawrence Shiffman. The younger Golb, who was convinced that Shiffman plagiarized his father’s works created email accounts in the name of Shiffman and through those accounts issued confessions of that plagiarism.  Golb ended up with a jail sentence after a conviction for identity theft, criminal impersonation and aggravated harassment.  (Dispute Over Dead Sea Scrolls Lead to Jail Sentence)

John Mackey is the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods.  But on Yahoo message boards he was “Rehodeb.” And under that identity, he promoted both his company and himself, something that caused the SEC to raise an eyebrow.  Rehodeb once commented “I like Mackey’s haircut. I think he looks cute.” (The Hand That Controls the Sock Puppet Could Get Slapped)

Lee Siegal is an award-winning writer with a masters degree from Columbia who wrote a blog for the New Republic.  “sprezzatura” was a big fan of that blog and was not shy about posting comments that demonstrated that. Guess who the sockpuppeteer was behind the adoring sprezzatura? Once, after Siegal wrote a blog post criticizing John Stewart and earning the wrath of Stewart’s fans, sprezzatura countered “Siegel is brave, brilliant and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.” (Sock Puppet Bites Man)

And lastly there’s Orlando Figes, described by the Guardian as a prominent British historian at the University of London. Figes used the sockpuppets “orlando-birkbeck “ and “historian” to trash some of his rivals on Amazon. (Who knew academics were so viciously competitive?) And he wasn’t beyond posting a review that put in a good word or two for his own work, such as “a fascinating book…leaves the reader awed, humbled, and yet uplifted.” (Historian Orlando Figes Admits Posting Amazon Reviews That Trashed Rivals)

Peter Steiner cartoon as published in the New Yorker

Peter Steiner cartoon as published in the New Yorker

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24 Responses to Digital Deception: Sockpuppeteers

  1. Lenie says:

    All I can say is WOW – the more I learn about social media and the Internet, the more I wonder about what I’m doing there. But then I guess there are creeps everywhere – I do like it when they are exposed. Truly interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Social media is full of what you call sockpuppeteers. The worst place is Facebook where it’s difficult to get them removed presumaby because Facebook is not keen on removing a few hundred million profiles. Linkedin on the other hand remove members who don’t use their own name swiftly.


  3. jacquiegum says:

    EXACTLY why I think sock-puppets should be banned from commenting (some sites are now doing this) and most especially from being moderators on forums. It’s a an invitation to slander!!!!


    • ramonamckean says:

      How do you catch them, though, on anything more that an infrequent basis?


      • Ken Dowell says:

        I think one of the things that happens is that some of these guys get caught when they become public figures. People who do this kind of thing will disguise their identity on the one hand but ultimately they want to call attention to themselves and sometimes that attention results in them being exposed.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. maxwell ivey says:

    Hi Ken; I wasn’t aware that this tactic had a name. I know a few people who engage in the practice on face book. They have more than one profile and will take both sides of the same feud. and i agree who knew academics could be so aggressive. It shouldn’t surprise us though as these are people who are seriously invested in following a passion. Most will never get rich from it. their satisfaction comes from being the recognized expert. thanks for continuing to expose the darker parts of the net. keep the posts coming, max

    Liked by 1 person

  5. crystalzakrison says:

    Haha that is too funny. I feel like its the laws of karma. It will come back and bite you in the ass. ! Great article.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Donna Janke says:

    I’d not heard the term sockpuppet before, although I am aware there are digital deceivers, it still amazes me when I hear the details. And knowing how easy it is to deceive online, it continues to amaze me how many people accept as truth what they read online without validating and verifying the information and the source.


  7. Visiting from BHB. Very interesting to know the creeps are exposed. Sahred it on my social media networks.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Welli says:

    This is quite a rampant practice Ken. And sadly it is difficult to pick out on these sock puppeteers on many media platforms where they use the so called alter egos to be whoever they want to, as so perfectly executed by your cartoon above.


  9. I had never heard the term too, however, the term does make sense. As much as we depend on the internet, we must also remember it can be used as a sheild to hide who someone is. That sheild is a powerfuil tool that can be used for good or bad.


  10. WOW, I have always known that this goes on,take Yelp for example. Regardless, your examples take the cake. the truth is there are people who do things like this everywhere in every walk of life. It’s nice to know that they can and are exposed. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Meatpuppet is a first for me. The lengths some people will go to is unreal. I wonder how many of those I’ve come across unknowingly, since I thought I knew what a sockpuppet was.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. ramonamckean says:

    Love it! I was aware this type of thing existed but had no idea there were names for it, and such colourful names, at that. Yup, I can just see some poor sucker (desperate person?) being paid a paltry sum by an “ethically challenged marketing agent”. Apt description. Thanks for the entertainment and the enlightenment. 🙂


  13. andleeb says:

    OH i never know that there is specific term for such people on social media. Sockpuppeteers nice then. I think Facebook is full of such people and even if someone sockpuppeteers comments on my wall then i try to know who this really is, If I come to know then fine( as some do not want to disclose identity due to some problem), other wise I will get rid as I am greatly disturbed from some sockpuppeteers around. Now I know why these are being removed from many sites like Linked in also remove people with no real name.


  14. Christina says:

    Wow, I didn’t know the extent of deceitfulness. These people can keep their socks to themselves. I hope I never encounter them.


  15. Definitely the online world is full of deceit. It is hard for me to take product reviews seriously because I think most of them are fake. There is a thin line to be walked when avoiding such foolishness. Good post, it is a good reminder to keep your guard up and stay aware.


  16. Chris says:

    Bright. Creative. Honest.


  17. Tim says:

    Another intriguing article Ken. I sit here wondering where you get all this information but that passes quickly and I am just fascinated. I think I recently got attacked by a gang of sock-puppets on my blog but fortunately was able to delete them. It is an amazing world this cyber one.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Tatia says:

    Hi Ken. Visiting from Bloggers Helping Bloggers. I found your post very insightful. I too wasn’t familiar with the the term sockpuppet, so it was fascinating learning the context behind it. As far as digital deceivers go, they just come to show that you never really sure who’re you’re talking to on the internet. With all of the capabilities of cyberspace, a little caution here and there won’t hurt.


  19. Nice post!
    In one city we used to live in Korea, a lot of expats who had been there waaaay too long and were obviously bored, took to sock puppet-ing. Creating fake profiles on Facebook and harassing new comers. Spamming posts with ridiculous questions. It was one of the biggest reasons we disliked our time in that city! It doesn’t create a warm environment that fosters community!


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