This post is on a topic that potentially affects us all. It might be a little long, and a bit technical, but I urge you to read it and join the discussion.
Today's post is about a special kind of fake that I call sockpuppets. A sockpuppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an online community. Simply put, it is a "secondary" (or, in some cases, tertiary) profile created by a member, that poses as a different person. The reasons for creating a sock puppet usually are:
- Adding to the credibility and legitimacy of the master profile by marking it as a past opponent, occasionally with a stellar recommendation, or just mentioning how great they are in correspondence and chat.
- Gathering personal information about other members without giving away any.
- Simply messing with people. One typical form is creating a sock puppet that is far sexier than the average, and using it to "reject" people who have previously rejected the master profile. I guess this is a form of revenge or faux self-validation.
- Cybering, possibly with potential future opponents, to learn more about them.
- (There are probably more. Some fakes' minds are more twisted than others.)
The one thing in common in all these reasons is that they are deceptive and are detrimental to any online community.
The First Incident
The first sock puppet incident on our site happened about a year ago. What made it particularly interesting was the fact that the puppet master was a respected member, with lots of real matches, past opponents, and a long list of recommendations. Still, he felt the need for a sockpuppet, and "they" gave each other glowing recommendations, and the sockpuppet was frequently gushing about how great a guy the other one was. It went so far that the real guy was talking about the sockpuppet in real life conversations. Clearly, it was a lie that went too far, spiraled out of control and took on a life of its own.
I was a bit unsure what to do about it. Granted, I could've closed both accounts, informed everyone who was deceived by the sockpuppet and be done with it. However, since the guy was actually genuine and had many matches, and as such was a "good" member, I decided not to rush it. When I confronted the puppet master, I had three requests:
- Confess to all the members he has come into contact with using the sock puppet.
- Post a public apology to our members for your conduct in his blog.
- Delete the sock puppet account.
The following lengthy messaging and finally a telephone conversation I had with him, funnily enough, followed the Five Stages of Dying:
- Denial. It wasn't me. You have no proof.
- Anger. I will sue you for "Defermasion of charactor" (sic!).
- Bargaining. Can't I just slowly "retire" the sockpuppet, maintain the illusion and make him go away?
- Depression. OK, that was maybe not so, but the rest fit so well.
- Acceptance. In the end we compromised: he could skip the public apology, but had to explain himself to everyone he deceived on this site, and delete the sockpuppet.
The Scientist Takes Over
The way I found the first sock puppet was kind of simple: someone ratted him out. Not taking the word of one over the other in such a sensitive matter, I started thinking about how sockpuppets can be detected on a site like AllFighters.
Finally I decided to use something called Pearson's correlation formula, using certain "traits". I chose a bunch of traits based on the site logs that characterized the way someone used the site. In the interest of not giving a formula for getting away with sock puppetry I will not describe the exact traits I chose, but sufficient to say that when I ran them through the correlation formula, they showed the sockpuppet and the master to be the same person. (I would like to note that even if I was to describe these traits, it would be difficult to evade detection.)
To put the formula in simple terms, it says that, two things are the same if they
- Commonly share traits that are otherwise uncommonly shared among the rest of the population.
- The traits observed on a given time period predict shared traits on another time period (extrapolation).
For example, two people sharing a unique browser is a strong correlation, but sharing a very common browser is not, because there are many others who are using it. Or, logging in from the same AOL proxy is not correlation because AOL proxies are typically shared by a whole region of people.
Long story short, the first puppet master was found with what satisfied me as mathematical accuracy. At the time, my little correlation algorithm hasn't identified any other sockpuppets, so I put it to rest.
Which Brings Us to the Present!
Fast forward one year and about 2000 members. This morning I found a message from a concerned member, asking me if "ultimatewrestler" was real or not. Imagine my unsurprise when I found that "he" wasn't. I dusted off the aging sockpuppet detector, ran it, and was a little shocked to find that things have deteriorated significantly in the past year. It found about a dozen of sockpuppets right away.
My question to you, as a community is this:
- How do you think I should deal with them?
Please, no knee-jerk reactions. Think this through. No throwing out babies with bathwater.
Your insight comes here: