In the 1950s, a ventriloquist, named Shari Lewis, put a sock on her hand and became famous. Lewis created the persona of a 6-year-old sheep, named “Lamb Chop,” that spoke the punch-line to her jokes. A sockpuppet helped her rise to fame with a very popular 1990’s children’s program. Fame and fortune from a sock!
Social media today has thousands of sockpuppets. No, Lamb Chop hasn’t taken over. A sockpuppet is a phony online identity using “real” accounts for the purpose of deception. Originally, this term referred to people who responded to their own blog posts, or authors who applauded their own books, while criticizing their competition.
Nowadays, sockpuppets are used for a wide range of objectives. They are used to shower praise on a person or organization or to antagonize them; they are used to manipulate public opinion, to circumvent restrictions and suspensions, or get others banned from web sites. For instance, Utah Senator Mitt Romney acknowledged operating a secret Twitter account, “Pierre Delecto,” in order to defend himself against criticism — his sockpuppet.
The impact of sockpuppets would be marginal, except for the fact that nation-states create armies of sockpuppet bots to divide people and dispense misinformation. A single operative may monitor hundreds of sockpuppets, and an organization may use hundreds or thousands of operatives. The bot may simply “re-tweet,” “like,” or “re-post” a divisive headline or comment.
While a human Twitter user may post a few times a day, a bot may tweet hundreds of times per day, all day, on a specific topic. One study by USC analyzed election-related tweets sent in September and October 2016 and found that 1 in 5 were sent by an automated sockpuppet.
Some social media platforms have developed software to identify and block bots, so puppeteers have developed something called Cyborgs. These Cyborg accounts mix human subtleties with the 24/7 work ethic of a bot. These are much harder to identify.
Awareness of threats is a step in the right direction. Michelle Menninger, a student in the University of Arizona’s Cyber Operations program recently made this comment to me:
“Technology opens up an entire world to my kids that could easily destroy their innocence. Being in the Cyber program gives me the opportunity to speak openly with them about the dangers of technology and allows me to be in control of it, instead of letting technology control us.”
Nation-state actors use technology to attack the U.S. and spread misinformation in order to destabilize our republic. An article on Wired calls the Russian campaign of disinformation “Active Measures” (https://www.wired.com/story/a-guide-to-russias-high-tech-tool-box-for-subverting-us-democracy/). Their objective is to get Americans to argue about an issue – any issue, as long as it’s divisive.
These sockpuppets may appear as someone trusted in your community to draw you into the fray and make you think there is an actual human behind an idea or a movement. They spread lies or half-lies, innuendos, and fake news. They are looking to degrade civil discussion of a given topic and inflame opposing views. For these actors, a divided America is much less of a threat than a united one.
We are all susceptible to these propaganda campaigns on social media. With all the re-posting and re-tweeting, sometimes it is hard to find the origin of a comment. However, awareness that a sockpuppet army, whose intent is to manipulate public opinion, is out there may provide some protection from taking the bait.
So, the next time you are on social media responding to a post that got your blood boiling, keep in mind that you may be arguing with “Lamb Chop.”
Article co-written by Dan Gavin and Tom Jewkes; The Cyber Guys from CyberEye