By Edd Gent“Sock puppets” are the scourge of online discussion . Multiple accounts controlled by the same user can dominate comment forums and spread fake news. But now there’s a way to unmask the puppeteers.A study of nine websites that use comment service Disqus to let readers post responses to articles found that sock puppets can be identified based on their writing style, posting activity and relationship with other users.In the era of fake news, detecting sock puppets is important, says Srijan Kumar at the University of Maryland. “Whenever multiple accounts are used by the same party it is harmful and it skews the discussion and fake news can be propagated very confidently,” he says.Kumar and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Stanford University in California analysed commenter accounts on news websites including CNN, NPR, Breitbart and Fox News. They identified the sock puppets by finding accounts that posted from the same IP address in the same discussion at similar times. This approach isn’t always possible, so they wanted to develop a tool that automatically detects sock puppets based only on publicly accessible posting data.They found that sock puppets contribute poorer quality content, writing shorter posts that are often downvoted or reported by other users. They post on more controversial topics, spend more time replying to other users and are more abusive. Worryingly, their posts are also more likely to be read and they are often central to their communities, generating a lot of activity.
Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post