Monday, October 21, 2013

On Sock Puppets


There are two types of sock puppets.  The first type you can make out of socks, by stitching on eyes and a mouth (at the closed end of the sock).  The second type is  a way for one person or institution to comment on the net while appearing to be thousands!  Thousands.

The former you slip over your hand and then use your fingers to open and close its mouth while making silly comments in a squeaky voice.  I've done that.

The latter I have never attempted.  But sock puppets of that type exist.  A new book, according to Media Matters for America, suggests that Fox News has used these puppets.  I have no idea if that is true or not, but I have certainly come across comments threads in my surfing where people with quite different names write English broken in exactly the same way (not mine!) or where not only what they say is the same but the way they say it, too.  And sometimes on my own blog I find that these varied comments all come from the same address.

Does sock puppetry matter?  That depends on what we are focusing on.  If our only concern is the topic of the debate, sock puppetry doesn't matter.  After all, it's like one person shouting the same thing over and over again, and we have all seen that phenomenon, too.

On the other hand, sock puppetry has two serious problems.  The first one is that it exaggerates the number of individuals who bother to comment about something in a particular way.  The second one is that people using sock puppets also create elaborate sub-conversations with themselves, pretending that there are many participants in those.  These can destroy the main conversation of the thread.

The first problem is probably the more severe one.  But then it's not terribly different from the astro-turf campaigns (like false grass-roots) where a political site, say, tells all its readers to go and bomb the same comments thread.  This is common on many MRA sites.  The similarity comes from the fact that both phenomena will look like spontaneous reactions by many people to an article they just happened to come across, the way other commentators probably did come across it.

This changes the game.

Is sock puppetry trolling?  What do you think?