Thu 24 Mar, 2011
Tags: alt detection, discussions, persona management, sockpuppets
Sockpuppetry can be regarded as a sort of performance art, if done well. A ‘sockpuppet’ is, in this context, an alternate and–from the perspective of other users on a forum–separate identity used for the purpose of portraying traffic in a forum of a particular desired type. The desired image for the term is, of course, of someone arguing with a sock puppet on his own hand.
Anyone familiar with the art of ventriloquism will immediately see the similarities between the use of an alt and ventriloquism–in order to lend the act credence, there has to be some form of separate identity for the alternate persona, some sort of misdirection to distract from the person running the show, and generally some form of conflict for there to be discussion over.
In the case of internet fora–which is generally where this particular art ends up being practiced, given that a “new identity” is often as easy to acquire as a new email address–the chief difficulties come from the first two items, as the third will generally be solved by a sufficiently foresightful selection of the first.
The reasons for alting are myriad–they can be used for astroturfing, for trolling, as strawman opponents, or what have you–but they are all, in a way, examples of a performance. Many fora will have far more lurkers–casual readers, people who just do not wish to participate, people who, for whatever reason, cannot post–than they will have participating posters; alts are often used for the purpose of gaining the support of these, rather than those that actually post.
Building an alternate persona is much like building a character for any story. Choose a name, map out a general description–their likes, their dislikes, hobbies, job, appearance, friends–and then put them into a situation to react appropriately. The goal here is consistency: the puppeteer wants to maintain a consistent persona when controlling this alt, so that others will react to it as though it were a genuine person.
This consistency is perhaps the hardest part–most of the other challenges of running an alt on a forum are merely technical and can be handled, e.g., by a few different browsers configured to run through different proxies, with due diligence and care taken to avoid making mistakes that can link the accounts together–but ensuring that one ‘personality’ doesn’t leak over to the others is much more difficult.
In many cases, alts will be fairly simplistic in nature, especially if they’re to be used for astroturfing–that is, giving the impression of broader based support for a given position or subject than actually exists. A simple “me too” sort of persona is all that’s really required; the goal in these cases isn’t so much to persuade anyone of the merits of a topic, but to give others the impression that there is significant support and that ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ is neither a risky nor revolutionary idea–essentially, using the psychology of conformity and peer pressure to turn simulated support into the genuine article.
Slightly more complex alts can be used to form strawman opposition. A little more development is needed than that of the astroturfer alt–it’s helpful to have the strawman actually say something discernable rather than form the background noise–but characterization can be minimal; after all, the point is to show how the “opposition” is illegitimate, and having said “opposition” be shallow, vapid, and otherwise ineffective fulfills the point of the alt.
Trolling alts run the full gamut from basic noisemakers all the way up through lovingly crafted personae that develop over months or even years of use. These can be some of the most complex alts, existing in every way but the real, with significant time and resources paid to their manufacture and use. The motivations for a troll handler may differ, but the usual purpose is to create noise, a distraction, to gain attention, to harass others–but consistency in the character, in the persona of the alt, is absolutely necessary.
Another form of alt is the comittee-generated character. This kind shares some facets with the trolling alts, in that there are significant resources put into its development over a significant time and that they are generally intended for long-term use, but it differs in a couple of important ways. Firstly, the intent is almost always non-hostile; unlike the troll, the committee-generated alt has no inherent antagonistic purpose. Secondly, this particular alt is run by more than one handler as the situation requires. These alts may be used as strawmen, or they may serve (in, say, alternate reality games or the like) as a ‘consistent presence’ for an organization–a sort of virtual secretary, for instance, or as a consistent representative.
The art of the alt comes from the time and care that is put into generating the character to be played, and in the care taken to ensure that the character’s persona remains consistent and separate from the persona of the handler. Great skill is required to keep this persona separate from any other presence that the handler has, lest their deception be detected, as detection will generally cause significant backlash against the handler–most people do not like to be deceived.