3.4 Sock Puppets and Bots on Social Media

Adding to the complication of algorithms and programming that filter search results are new technologies that purposefully reproduce the false information users encounter. Here we will look at two: sock puppets and bots.

A sock puppet is a “fictitious online identity created for the purposes of deception” (Kats, 2020, para. 3). They appear as multiple fake accounts controlled by a person or group. Sock puppets repost information from one central account to multiple accounts to spread false information quickly (Kats, 2020). They fabricate the popularity of a post by sending out multiple messages across their various accounts, so that users see what they otherwise would not. They often emerge in times of political disagreement, such as elections. They are active on Facebook and Twitter and are becoming more common on Instagram and Wikipedia (Kats, 2020).

During the 2016 US Presidential race between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, sock puppet networks introduced radical ideas to social media communities. For example, they compared Hilary Clinton to Adolf Hitler by referring to her as “Hitlery.” Other networks created a sentiment of pro Trump messages, while constantly referring to Clinton as a crook (Nott, 2019).

Social bots are fully automated social media accounts that spread information quickly and sometimes create posts or content (Kats, 2020). They are used to influence public opinion on all social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Reddit (Stecula, 2021). Bots create lots of posts extremely quickly from many accounts, driving up popularity on specific stories or trends. They may even promote other posts through liking and sharing (Menczer & Hills, 2020). When this occurs, it may look like many people agree with a post or share the same idea (Bajwa, 2021). Due to the lack of identity information associated with the accounts and the large numbers of posts, they are very difficult to spot (Nott, 2019; Hao, 2020; Stecula, 2021). Experts have suggested that up to 15% of all Twitter accounts might be bot accounts (Menczer & Hills, 2020).

Bots played a pivotal role in the spread of false information throughout the pandemic. A 2020 study estimated that around 50% of the Twitter accounts posting about COVID-19 in the early months of the pandemic were bots attempting to spread disinformation. This is a concerning trend. Historically, throughout other contentious events, such as elections or natural disasters only 10-20% of those posting were identified as bot accounts. Researchers think that the high number of bot accounts spreading disinformation about COVID-19 is linked to the fact that it is an international crisis–everyone in the world experiencing the same thing at the same time. This is a playing field for those who seek to manipulate others (Morgan & Shaffer, 2017).



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Disinformation: Dealing with the Disaster Copyright © 2023 by Saskatchewan Polytechnic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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