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)