News Lit Tips

News Lit Tip: Behind every sockpuppet is a person trying to hide

If a post is lavishly positive amid many more with legitimate criticisms, it may be from a sockpuppet (fake account).

Let’s say you’re out to buy a pair of shoes, and you’re checking reviews. 

“So many compliments. Thanks!”

“Best purchase I’ve made in my life.”

People seem to love these shoes … so, great! You’ll buy them!

Now say you’re out to form an opinion, and you’re checking comments. 

“Brilliant points you’ve made. Thanks.”

“I couldn’t agree more with everything you’ve said.”

People seem to love this writer’s ideas … so great! You’ll buy these opinions!

Whether it’s a product or an idea that people are commenting on, if the reviews are excessively for or against, you might have entered the world of sockpuppetry. 

A sockpuppet is a false online name and profile created to hide the author’s identity, usually because of personal, political or financial ties to whatever is being discussed or reviewed. Sockpuppets try to sway people’s minds for profits, for petty ego — or for much worse.  

As an example, an author used several fake names to post positive reviews on Amazon about his own book in the hope that this praise would result in more sales. Authors have also used made-up identities to give bad reviews to competitors’ books. 

Worse examples of sockpuppets are when those in power encourage violence by passing themselves off as regular citizens, as happened in Myanmar in 2018. In that situation, senior military officials used fake names to create pages on Facebook, then used other false identities to fill those pages with comments intended to fuel hate.

Sockpuppets also played a malign role in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. 

Even when it doesn’t threaten institutions, sockpuppetry is disruptive. A 2017 New Scientist article calls it “the scourge of online discussion” that “can dominate comment forums” and spread lies, especially when one user controls multiple accounts. 

Help might be on the way: Computer scientists are trying to create ways that platform moderators and administrators can spot and block sockpuppets. Until then, the best way for users to ward them off is with common sense, turning to trusted resources and credible reviewers to gather facts to decide whether to buy the shoes … or someone’s argument.