Sock puppet manipulation is a fact of life. Most likely, it will happen to you today.
Over the past year of “fake news”, sock puppet manipulation has received increasing attention. A sock puppet is a false online identity created to praise or defend opinions. Armies of thousands of fake social media accounts regularly create false impressions of public support on a variety of subjects. Increasingly, these armies supported by sophisticated boiler rooms. Just watch this excerpt from Homeland to get the idea of how this is done. (Episode 9 Season 6)
Sock puppetry has a long history on mass media. When radio stations started doing talk shows, politicians and other advocates would try to stack opinions to create the impression of spontaneous support for their positions. As producers, we created ways to level the playing field. Same is true for “letters to the editor”. As soon as the Internet became popular, marketers created astroturfing – the false creation of pushing what appear to be grass roots support for political, advertising, religious or public relations messages. This type of masking is now largely illegal. Many web sites actively defend against astroturfing such as fake reviews for products on sites like Amazon or TripAdvisor.
However, with social media, sock puppet manipulation has moved to a whole new level. It has gone viral. Typically, boiler rooms run hundreds or thousands of fake accounts to spread their messages, which are then amplified by tens of thousands of “bots”. And, once the botnets are enhanced with artificial intelligence, things will get worse. I can imagine a near future where social media is taken over by competing AI-Bot armies yelling at each other.
Now, perhaps some good news. Social media platforms are trying to deploy algorithms which can detect and delete fake posts based on content and meta data. This is actually something that big data can do well – search for correlations to identify sock puppets. So basically, this is the next generation of spam fighting.
Sock Puppet Manipulation would make Goebbels proud
Like spam, sock puppets and their boiler rooms are cheap. Fake identities can be operated on platforms like Twitter and Facebook for pennies. There are even web sites where you can buy them through auctions. Technology to implement sock puppetry is relatively cheap and highly scaleable. Boiler room staff can easily manage 10-20 identities. Soon, AI will take over.
Why does this sock puppet manipulation work? Perhaps Joseph Goebbels provided the answer in the 1930’s:
Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state. Truth is unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology. What you want in a media system is ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity. The rank and file are usually much more primitive than we imagine. Propaganda must therefore always be essentially simple and repetitive. In the long run basic results in influencing public opinion will be achieved only by the man who is able to reduce problems to the simplest terms and who has the courage to keep forever repeating them in this simplified form.
Believe it or not, although dead, he appears to have a Twitter account.