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From sock puppets to astroturfing: the language of online deception

Who am I? It’s a question I often ask myself when waking up. This isn’t (to my knowledge) because I’m trapped in a high-concept thriller when my brain is wiped every night when I fall asleep. It’s more because I’m not really a morning person.

Personal identity is not just a problem for me before my first coffee of the day, it’s also a hot button topic in the online world. The recent furore about sock puppets on Twitter has brought the language of impersonation into the public consciousness. For the uninitiated, it isn’t a piece of footwear with googly eyes stuck on that’s got the Twitterverse in a flap, rather the practice of creating a false online identity that can be used to anonymously promote your own opinions or products. In a pre-Internet world, commentators might have used the words stooge, shill, or plant.

I have nothing to declare except my genius

In the recent case, the crime writer RJ Ellory was caught using a sock puppet identity to write positive reviews of his own books (the phrase “magnificent genius” was used) while adding disparaging reviews for rival authors. The literary world weighed in with much condemnation, and children’s author Philip Reeve employed an actual sock puppet to review his (actually rather brilliant) Mortal Engines:

The anonymity of the Internet has always been rather tempting to tricksters, and it has given rise to a rich vein of language. If you don’t fancy being a sock puppet, how about a meat puppet  – someone invited to join an Internet discussion with the sole purpose of influencing it in some way? Or perhaps you’re more interested in improving the ratings of your company’s products by the use of the wonderfully named astroturfing. This term, which represents the artificial equivalent of a grass roots campaign, refers to the practice of creating fake comments about your product that appear to be written by members of the public. No reviews for the latest version of your corporate app? Time to lay down the AstroTurf.

Who dares to cross my bridge?

Trolls have been a feature of online life for the last twenty years, causing flame wars with their deliberately provocative postings and giving rise to a verb form of the word as well as a noun. Trolling does not necessarily need to be done anonymously, but it is the safer option, given that users are frequently banned from online forums if they cause too much trouble. The recent media coverage of abusive troll messages on Twitter sent to Tom Daley (amongst others) shows the legal dangers of sending such postings from your own account.

Whereas trolls are generally more annoying than hurtful, other forms of online deception can lead users into far darker waters. A sock puppet is an effective vehicle for cyberbullying, for instance, or for use in grooming by paedophiles. There is also a worrying trend where people pretend to have a serious or life-threatening illness in order to receive sympathy from their online friends. The term Münchausen by Internet has been coined by psychiatrists to describe this, a deliberate reference to Münchausen’s syndrome by proxy, in which a sufferer seeks attention, by inducing or feigning illness, in another person. The ease of creating online identities allows a whole host of proxy figures to be invented, allowing sufferers to create a virtual soap opera that revolves around their supposed illness.

It seems that there are so many ways to hide your identity in the online world, that I should turn my initial question around. Who are you? And if you comment on this blog post, how do I know you’re telling the truth?