If you've spent a considerable amount of time on the Internet (and you probably have), then you've probably come across a fair share of sock puppet accounts. These accounts can really put a damper on online discussions, and now a new study can give you the tools on how to spot them.
Sock puppet accounts are, as the name suggests, a fake online account controlled by a “puppeteer”. This puppeteer is a single human individual who uses multiple accounts to skew a discussion in his or her favor. They can also use multiple accounts to manipulate votes or paint proponents of a certain idea in a negative light.
The puppeteer may show up in an online discussion, especially if the topic is controversial, and deploy multiple accounts into the discussion. The puppeteer can make his multiple accounts interact with each other, as if the accounts were different people.
What's the big deal, though? So crazy people with nothing better to do are talking to themselves on the Internet. So what?
“Whenever multiple accounts are used by the same party it is harmful and it skews the discussion and fake news can be propagated very confidently,” says Srijan Kumar. Kumar is the lead author of a study on how to determine which accounts in an online discussion are sock puppet accounts.
Kumar and his team had previously detected online sock puppets by checking IP addresses. Multiple accounts that came from the same IP address were most likely to be sock puppets. These sock puppets were in the same online discussion at the same time, posting from the same IP address. It only follows that these “people” are actually a single individual.
The research team studied the activity of sock puppet accounts in nine different Disqus comment sections in different websites. It's not always easy to figure out which accounts are fake. After all, not everyone can figure out the IP address of other users. Also, some people can fake their IP addresses.
So how can we figure out which accounts on the web are sock puppets?
According to the study's findings, the way sock puppets write posts and interact with other users is telling. For one thing, sock puppets often zero in on controversial topics like moths to a flame. They post short, low-quality content that has been downvoted and reported by other users multiple times. They also reply more often to other users, and the replies are often combative and abusive.
The researchers created a machine learning tool based on these criteria. The tool was able to tell which accounts belong to a single user with a 98% accuracy.
Posting in comment sections is certainly interesting, though it's not always the most pleasant experience. Sock puppets can be annoying and can disrupt a good, rational, and civil discussion. People nowadays have more and more interactions online, and these interactions can have some impact on people's political and social behavior. Sock puppet accounts and their posts can have a more far-reaching effect than we'd like.
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