Sock puppet

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Microphones-2-.jpg This article is part of the Propaganda Portal project of Spinwatch.

A Sock puppet is an online identity assumed in order to manage perceptions. The term— referring to a simple hand puppet made from a sock—originally referred to a false identity assumed by a participant in an internet community who addressed or wrote about her/himself while pretending to be another person.[1] The term now includes other uses of misleading online identities, such as those created to praise, defend, support or criticise, attack or oppose a third party or organization,[2] or to circumvent a suspension or ban from a website or other online space.

A significant difference between the use of a pseudonym and the creation of a sockpuppet is that the sockpuppet poses as an independent or partially independent third-party unaffiliated with the puppeteer. A similar terms is used for fake groups or organisations, which are referred to as Astroturf meaning fake grass roots.

Examples of Sock puppetry

New Labour attacks Plaid Cymru 2001

In 2001 the Register reported a New Labour online sock puppet campaign against Plaid Cymru:

The Labour Party has been heavily implicated in a political dirty tricks campaign carried out over the Internet. Thousands of anti-Plaid Cymru messages posted to various political newsgroups have been traced back to the Labour Party's communications headquarters in Millbank, London. The messages, which attack Plaid Cymru (the Welsh nationalist party) councils and policies, were posted mainly on the wales.politics.assembly newsgroup and purported to be from members of the public. However, users of the newsgroup grew suspicious of "David Currie" and "Hairy Melon Jones" - a reference to Plaid Cymru assembly member Helen Mary Jones - and accused them of working for the Labour party, a charge that was denied online. However, newsgroup members traced the messages over the Internet and found they had come from Millbank. Welsh national paper Wales on Sunday, ran its own investigation into the claims and came to the same conclusion. Confronted by evidence, Labour admitted the postings had come from its machines but said it was the work of a "volunteer" working in his own time.[3]

The Register continued:

Considering that David Currie has so far managed to post 2,971 messages* on 27 different newsgroups, since the middle of November - an average of 37 messages a day - you could be forgiven for thinking that Millbank knew exactly what was going on. Hairy Melon Jones has posted far fewer with only 38 messages since July last year, but they tend to be far more provocative.
Among the postings were accusations that Plaid Cymru was racist, wanted to put controls on English immigrants, was propping up Tory administrations, was responsible for future industrial action and was full of hypocrites. Plaid Cymru representatives are furious and have filed a motion in the Welsh National Assembly asking the first minister to distance himself from the messages. The party has also called for the resignation of Adrian McMenamin, a "special adviser" to Welsh secretary Paul Murphy. McMenamin - a protege of fallen Labour spin supremo Peter Mandelson - has been heavily implicated in ongoing investigations.
McMenamin also posted heavily to the same political newsgroups under his own name. His first posting came within days of David Currie's and since then he has written 358 messages on Deja newsgroups. Since November, McMenamin and "David Currie" have frequently supported one another's views. One posting, titled "English immigrants must be controlled - Plaid Cymru", was started by one Hairy Melon Jones and of the 51 responses, 22 were from David Currie and 2 from Adrian McMenamin - all critical of Plaid Cymru. Wales on Sunday is currently investigating whether Adrian has breached any political rules by posting his political views at all. The newsgroup itself bans party representatives from entering the discussion.
The whole issue raises the spectre of a co-ordinated propaganda campaign over the Internet by New Labour from Millbank as the election draws near. The position in Wales makes Labour particularly sensitive to Plaid Cymru. Of the 60 elected assembly members, 28 are Labour, 17 Plaid Cymru, 9 Conservative and 6 Liberal Democrat. Despite a coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems, the nationalist Plaid Cymru poses a significant threat to Labour's power in Wales.[3]

Koch Industries employ PR firm to airbrush Wikipedia

An investigative article published by ThinkProgress claims that Koch Industries employed PR company New Media Strategies to edit several Wikipedia pages relating to the Koch brothers and their businesses. Think Progress reported:

Last year, Koch Industries began employing New Media Strategies (NMS), an Internet PR firm that specializes in “word-of-mouth marketing” for major corporations including Coca-Cola, Burger King, AT&T, Dodge and Ford. It appears that, ever since the NMS contract was inked with Koch, an NMS employee began editing the Wikipedia page for “Charles Koch,” “David Koch,” “Political activities of the Koch family,” and “The Science of Success” (a book written by Charles). Under the moniker of “MBMAdmirer,” NMS employees edited Wikipedia articles to distance the Koch family from the Tea Party movement, to provide baseless comparisons between Koch and conspiracy theories surrounding George Soros, and to generally delete citations to liberal news outlets. After administrators flagged the MBMAdmirer account as a “sock puppet” — one of many fake accounts used to manipulate new media sites — a subsequent sock puppet investigation found that MBMAdmirer is connected to a number of dummy accounts and ones owned by NMS employees like Jeff Taylor.
Soren Dayton, a GOP operative and executive at New Media Strategies, is reported to be the contact for Koch Industries at NMS. Reached by phone yesterday by ThinkProgress, Dayton exclaimed, “I’m not going to talk about this, thanks,” before hanging up. Lyndsey Medsker, a senior account director for NMS, spoke to ThinkProgress today. She explained that NMS also maintains the Koch Industries Twitter page, Facebook page, and has an active team working on promoting Koch Industries in the comment section of blogs and news websites.
As ThinkProgress has reported, the billionaire Koch brothers maintain contracts with over a dozen public relation firms and lobbying firms. Pushing back again recent scrutiny, the brothers have also relied on a conservative media infrastructure owned by the Koch brothers or closely linked to them by way of their donor conferences. We have documented how the Koch message machine has targeted.ThinkProgress and even placed hit-pieces against a New Yorker journalist investigated the Kochs. But now it seems the Koch brothers are at work manipulating Wikipedia to polish their image.[4]

Pentagon social media contract 2011

In 2011, a Californian company, Ntrepid, was awarded a $2.76 million contract under the auspices of US Central Command for "online persona management" operations[5] with the aim of creating "fake online personas to influence net conversations and spread US propaganda" in Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.[5][6]

According to military documents seen by the Washington Times the software will enable an operator to exercise a number of different online persons from the same workstation and without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries".[7]

US General David Petraeus stated that the aim of the US military was to be "first with the truth".[7] The software technology would not be used in the USA or by US companies such as Facebook and Twitter. Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks told The Guardian that the software "supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US."[8]

According to Centcom commander James N. Mattis the project “seeks to disrupt recruitment and training of suicide bombers; deny safe havens for our adversaries; and counter extremist ideology and propaganda."[8]

Journalist Johann Hari - September 2011

In September 2011, Johann Hari, a columnist for the British newspaper The Independent, publicly apologized for having used a pseudonym, David Rose, with Wikipedia screen name David r of Meth productions, to add positive material to the Wikipedia article about himself and negative material to Wikipedia articles about people with whom he had had disputes.[9][10]

Hari has also had to defend himself from claims of plagiarising quotes for his interviews. Hari stated “When you interview a writer ... they will sometimes make a point that sounds clear when you hear it, but turns out to be incomprehensible or confusing on the page. In those instances, I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me, so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible.”[11]

Following the controversy, Hari decided to return the Orwell Prize for Journalism that he was awarded in 2008. The Orwell prize committee believed that Hari's winning article “contained inaccuracies and conflated different parts of someone else's story (specifically, a report in Der Spiegel)."[12]

Amazon Reviews

In late 2012 it was discovered that award winning crime write RJ Ellory had been posting positive reviews of his own work whilst criticising his rivals on Amazon, all under pseudonyms. Reviewing his own novel, A Quiet Belief in Angels, Ellory wrote (under the pseudonym “Nicodemus Jones”) “All I will say is that there are paragraphs and chapters that just stopped me dead in my tracks. Some of it was chilling, some of it raced along, some of it was poetic and langorous and had to be read twice and three times to really appreciate the depth of the prose … it really is a magnificent book."[13]

Ellory was exposed by fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns. The incident led to a crackdown with Amazon deleting some reviews without warning. Writers were no longer allowed to comment on others from the same genre. However more organised attempts to influence a books rating soon followed. The Michael Jackson biography 'Untouchable' by Randall Sullivan was targeted by a group calling themselves Michael Jackson's Rapid Response Team. The groups actions led to the book having a very low rating on Amazon, resulting in poor sales.[14]

The Ellory scandal was certainly not the first time false reviews had been posted on Amazon. In 2010 the British historian Orlando Figes admitted that he had posted postive reviews of his own work under the pseudonyms "orlando-birkbeck" and "historian". Figes also attacked the books of fellow historians Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service with Polonsky and Service successfully suing Figes forcing him to pay libel damages and costs[15]

David Manning and Columbia Pictures

The fictitious film reviewer David Manning was the product of a marketing executive working for the Sony Corporation. He gave consistently glowing reviews for new releases from Sony's subsidiary, Columbia Pictures.[16]

Related Terms


The act of hiding a sponsors message in a way that gives the impression that the message comes from a disinterested, grassroots participant. In short, “astroturfing” is the setting up of what is essentially a fake grass-roots interest group.

An example of astroturfing was reported in the Financial Times in June 2013:

Housed in one of the dozens of anonymous glass and steel office buildings ringing Brussels’ leafy Meeus Square, the European Privacy Association does not stand out.
When the EU set up its voluntary lobbying registry two years ago, the group appeared to wear its modesty on its sleeve, classifying itself as an independent think-tank with no ties to corporate interests. Its declared aim was simply to enhance the debate in Brussels about how to protect personal data that ends up on the internet.
But after a little-noticed official complaint at the EU register in May, the group was forced to come clean: the bulk of its financing came from US technology companies including Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Yahoo. It quietly changed its status in the register from think-tank to “in-house lobbying group”.[17]


'One whose sole reason for participating in a discussion or forum is to support, or express agreement with, a friend.'[18]

False Flag

False Flag (or black flag) describes covert military or paramilitary operations designed to deceive in such a way that the operations appear as though they are being carried out by other entities, groups or nations than those who actually planned and executed them. Operations carried during peace-time by civilian organizations, as well as covert government agencies, may by extension be called false flag operations if they seek to hide the real organization behind an operation. Hughes uses the term to refer to those acts carried out by "military or security force personnel, which are then blamed on terrorists."[19]

An example of a false flag incident occurred in March 2002 when Macedonian security forces killed seven men of Pakistani origin claiming they were Islamic militants. In 2004 Macedonian officials admitted that the seven men were in fact illegal immigrants shot in cold blood. The BBC reported:

At the time, the interior ministry said they had been killed after trying to ambush police in the capital, Skopje.
But a police spokeswoman said they had in fact been shot in a "staged murder".
The Macedonians were apparently trying to show the outside world that they were serious about participating in the US-led war on terror, officials say.
"It was a monstrous fabrication to get the attention of the international community," Interior Ministry spokeswoman Mirjana Kontevska told a news conference.
When the incident was reported more than two years ago, it was claimed that a new front had opened up in the war on terror.[20]



  1. Definition of sockpuppet, accessed 15 August 2012
  2. Brad Stone The Hand That Controls the Sock Puppet Could Get Slapped New York Times July 16, 2007, accessed 15 August 2012.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kieren McCarthy New Labour's Internet dirty tricks campaign exposed: Party employee peddles anonymous propaganda on political newsgroups The Register, 30th January 2001 14:10 GMT
  4. Lee Fang, Koch Industries Employ PR Firm to Airbrush Wikipedia, Gets Banned for unethical 'Sock Puppets', ThinkProgress, March 9, 2011.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Nick Fielding and Ian Cobain, "Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media", The Guardian. March 17, 2011.
  6. Lewis Bazley, "Combating jihadists and free speech: How the U.S. military is using fake online profiles to spread propaganda", Daily Mail, March 18, 2011.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Alex Spillius, Pentagon buys social networking 'spy software', The Telegraph, March 17, 2011.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Amy Lee, U.S. Military Launches Spy Operation Using Fake Online Identities, Huffington Post, March 17, 2011.
  9. Johann Hari 'A personal apology' The Independent (website), September 14, 2011;
  10. Richard Seymour The Johann Hari Debacle, The Guardian, September 16, 2011.
  11. Johann Hari, 'My journalism is at the centre of a storm. This is what I have learned', The Independent, 29 June 2011.
  12. Josh Halliday, Orwell prize accuses Johann Hari of plagiarism, The Guardian, September 27, 2011.
  13. Alison Flood, RJ Ellory's secret Amazon reviews anger rivals, The Guardian, September 3, 2012.
  14. John Dugdale, Why Amazon can't win when it comes to book reviews, The Guardian, January 25, 2013.
  15. 'Orlando Figes to pay fake Amazon review damages', BBC, July 16, 2010.
  16. John Horn. "The Reviewer Who Wasn't There.", Newsweek web exclusive. June 2, 2001.
  17. James Fontanella-Khan, Brussels: Astroturfing takes root, Financial Times (subscription site), June 26, 2013.
  19. Hughes, Geraint (2011): The Military's Role in Counterterrorism: Examples and Implications for Liberal Democracies, Letort Paper, Strategic Studies Institute, May. p.105
  20. Macedonia faked 'militant' raid, BBC, April 30 2004.