Forum Sockpuppets and Rigged Discussion

Bob Leggitt | Thursday, 19 April 2012 |

It’s a bizarre feeling. You’re posting on a forum, and you know what you’re saying makes sense. It’s something you’ve spoken about offline with friends and perhaps work colleagues, and you’ve always found people to be in general agreement. But after you make your measured and considered forum posts, they get attacked. They provoke an extreme, negative and sometimes aggressive reaction – not just from one member, but from a group of about six or seven - maybe more. Have you entered a parallel universe in which majority opinion runs contrary to that in the 'real world'? Well, that’s possible, but unlikely. Overwhelmingly, the most likely explanation is that the forum is rigged. 

Some forums are rigged via a policy of biased, zero-tolerance moderation. Every time a member posts something the forum doesn’t agree with, or finds unconducive to its ends, the post is deleted. Or, the post never gets to the public board in the first place because the forum pre-screens contributions. Essentially, the forum stays 'on message' by censoring not just the odd abusive post, but an entire, widely held, point of view. For example, a forum set up to make money referring members to ‘psychics’ might delete posts from members who dispute that the supernatural exists. But this policy isn’t, in my view, very effective, because the forum ends up with a very unnatural imbalance, in which only one side of what’s obviously a two-sided argument, is ever put. It reads like (and indeed is) an advert, basically.

This is sockpuppetry for the purpose of entertainment (all posts made by the same person). But the same principle can be used to distort reality and perpetuate major scams. An update on the original content shown above can be found at Total Satire, in the post The Design Consultant's Computer.

Other forums rig the discussion more effectively, via the use of multiple fake accounts, normally created and held by just a few people (or even just one person). These accounts manipulate and distort the popularity of an opinion by attributing it to many more individuals than is really the case. The spectacle of multiple, fake accounts, all belonging to the same person, is known as sockpuppetry. If it’s competently done, sockpuppetry is more persuasive a way to rig a forum than simply deleting posts, because the reader sees the conflicting views and therefore does not suspect censorship.

Because of the way some people tend to follow the herd rather than draw their own conclusions, multiple fake accounts saying the same thing can actually result in numerous genuine account holders joining that side of the argument too. The more popular a particular side of an argument appears to be, the more people will want to join it. Especially on a forum where a reward point system is in use. Everyone wants to have a high reputation. So do they side with what looks like a small minority view which could do their reputation score more damage than good, or do they side with the ‘strong majority’, and set themselves up for a welcome bout of ‘forum backslapping’?

WHO RIGS THE FORUM?


In some cases, the forum is rigged by rogue members, without the knowledge of the administration. This of course couldn’t happen with a highly competent administration. However, anyone can open a forum – there are no exams to pass, so there will inevitably some administrations who have absolutely no idea who’s posting what.

More typically, though, the forum administration will know (or at the very least strongly suspect) that there are ‘sockpuppet’ accounts in action. It may be that the fake accounts belong to random members who have nothing to do with the administration, but the administration supports their message, and therefore turns a blind eye. Alternatively, the fake accounts may have been expressly ordered by the administration, or could even be the work of the administrators themselves.

IP ADDRESSES


The way a forum might spot unsanctioned sockpuppetry would be through a common IP address, appearing across multiple accounts. However, there are plenty of ways round this for those who want to fool the administration. Even without getting into technical trickery, using proxy services or whatever, a member may be in a position to post from several different access points, which will automatically give them several different IP addresses. In fact, a sockpuppet user doesn’t even need multiple IP addresses. He or she can simply concoct a ‘story’ to make one IP address feasible for a number of accounts. Each account could belong, for instance, to ‘different members of the same family’. I actually joined a forum where I suspect someone was playing this trick. It’s hard for a forum to disprove if one person claims to be, say, a sister and two brothers, or a husband and wife, or whatever.

Ultimately, I suppose it has to come down to whether or not there’s any malicious or manipulative intent in a case like that. If the two or three ‘family’ accounts are going their separate ways and posting independently, it doesn’t really matter. If they’re acting as a unit to manipulate opinion, settle scores or whatever, there’d be a case for closer investigation and potentially banning the IP address.

PAID TO POST ON FORUMS


One of the things a lot of forum members don’t realise is that there exists such a thing as the ‘professional’ forum poster. Someone who, sometimes via an online agency, is hired by the forum to make a specified number of posts – most often with a preset message, which is strongly in the interests of the forum. I use the inverted commas around the word ‘professional’, because this is pretty obviously not a highly paid engagement out of which someone would expect to build a career. But it is a transaction, and it is, technically, a professional engagement. If an agency is used, the forum pays a fee to the agency, and a cut of that fee is then passed on to the hired poster. If the professional poster has approached the administration directly offering his or her services, or if the forum administrator has perhaps placed an ad for a ‘freelance writer’, an agency will not be involved.

‘Professional’ posters may be a lot more difficult to spot than the average power-crazed loon who’s hell-bent on achieving forum domination. If the poster is supplied by an agency, they’ll probably have to be pretty effective for the agency to be using them, and they’ll almost certainly be quite subtle. The posters I’ve suspected of being ‘professionals’ have really only triggered my suspicions through the timing of their posts, and the fact that they’re impeccably behaved, always ‘on message’, and so on. There’s also an increased likelihood of seeing ‘professional’ posters on a new forum which has not yet got the presence in search engines or the draw of activity to attract sufficient numbers of real members.

IS SOCKPUPPETRY A ‘CRIME’?


I suppose it’s inevitable that I’m going to say sockpuppetry isn’t a ‘crime’ per se. My Total Satire site contains spoof forum posts (such as this Surveillance-based Q&A), but runs on a WordPress blog rather than on forum software. The idea behind it was to satirise social networking and forum behaviours with the goal of illustrating some of the points I make in these more serious articles – more graphically and humorously. A different approach for different tastes. Of course, I've never tried to pretend that the numerous spoof accounts I’ve faked up are real, and I don’t consider myself to be misleading anyone. I don’t see any problem at all with using sockpuppetry for entertainment and satirical purposes, or even to get a real forum moving in the absence of memberships. However, rigging what people believe to be genuine discussions, to deliberately mislead and control opinion, is a different matter entirely. In these instances, the perpetrator is misleading people for self-serving purposes – to gain power, influence, or money. That’s wrong.

SOCKPUPPETRY AWAY FROM FORUMS


One of the areas in which sockpuppetry is at its most dangerous, is on scam sites. These are not forums per se, but they often do have a similar dynamic. Frequently, these sites will use both ‘zero-tolerance moderation’ and sockpuppetry to create persuasive threads of comments which appear to back up glowing claims about products, services or ‘business propositions’ which are quite straightforwardly a complete waste of money. There's an example in my "I make £437 Every Day" Scam post on Tumblr.

The idea is that the scammer sets up a web page, which purports to be part of a wider website. A website which has just happened to ‘review’ a given product, service or proposition. The rest of the site is referenced around the web page, with tabs and links to landing pages on other subjects. However, there is no ‘rest’ of the site, and the links and tabs either don’t work at all, or send the user straight to the same ‘sign-up’ form. It may seem that the scammer is at high risk of being found out with a screen full of fake or dead links. But actually, a lot of people never look beyond the first page they encounter on a website anyway, and if the fake links relate to subjects completely alien to the topic they’ve Google-searched, the chances of them trying to follow those links are so low as to be negligible.

From there, the scammer just writes a rave review about the product, service or proposition, and flips into sockpuppet mode, following the ‘review’ with masses of positive comments from fake customers. The comment system is real, and anyone can enter a comment. However, the real comments are routinely binned, and only the fake ones, entered by the administrator/scammer under a variety of identities, are ever published. Keeping the comment entry form active helps maintain the illusion that the ‘feedback’ is from real people. The reader thinks: “Well how can this be fake? I could enter a comment.” What they don’t consider, is that instead of posting itself straight to the page, their comment would go into a moderation queue, and then straight to the trash before ever seeing daylight.

Sometimes, the positive ‘reaction’ is supplemented by a fake survey result. Totally meaningless because the survey never existed, but in conjunction with all the other convincers, it can convey a feeling that the product/service/proposition has widespread popular support.

The initial effect can be convincing. Visiting via a search engine, the impression you get at first glance is that you’re reading a random, independent review on a big, general review site, and that there’s been a universally positive reaction to the product/service/proposition in question from reviewer and public alike. The reality, of course, is that you’re on a site which has only one or two pages, and was entirely written by a scammer.

Internet sockpuppetry really can transform one person’s warped or criminal hankerings into ‘public consensus’. These rigged discussions will never be stopped, but at least by recognising that they're a common part of Internet life, you make yourself much less susceptible to their influence.

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