A sock puppet website is a website created to support an artificial personality, known in Internet slang as a sock puppet, shadow puppet, or glove puppet. While few sock puppets go to the length of making websites, preferring to remain in the shadows of bulletin boards, blog comments, and other forums, some do, and are sometimes capable of deceiving otherwise highly educated and knowledgeable individuals. A sock puppet website can be used to create the illusion that a false personality is real, advance a viral marketing campaign, as part of an astroturfing effort, or to undermine people with opposing views.
The origins of the sock puppet name are probably a reference to the ease with which a sock puppet can be made. A real sock puppet can be as simple as a sock placed over the hand, but it becomes an alternate personality controlled by the user. On the medium of the Internet, a sock puppet is a false or joke account created by a regular user, usually for malicious purposes. A user may make a sock puppet account to reply to him or herself on blogs or threads, making the topic appear to be more interesting, or to attack people with opposing views. A sock puppet account can also be used to skew votes and polls, and to generally manipulate other users of the Internet resource. Because sock puppet accounts are usually harmful, most websites frown on them.
Going beyond the creation of an additional account to create an entire sock puppet website suggests serious dedication. It can also be extremely difficult to identify a sock puppet website, especially if the creator is crafty about its construction, making it genuinely appear to be created by another person. The sock puppet website may be used to bolster a sock puppet account on an Internet forum, creating a separate artificial identity for the false account, or it may stand on its own as an independent entity. Because a sock puppet website can be very well crafted, there have been instances of serious deception, including but not limited to reprinting of content by major news sources.
In an astroturf, or false grassroots, campaign, a sock puppet website can be a crucial component of the campaign. Because astroturf campaigns often have a great deal of money behind them, the sock puppet website can be slick, well crafted, and very convincing, especially for gullible readers. The website can be used to undermine the opposition, disseminate misleading information, or to trick people into thinking that a movement has a large support base. Viral marketing campaigns also use this technique to pique curiosity, and many create multiple sock puppet websites to simulate “discussion” of the campaign, thus attracting more attention.
Although identifying a sock puppet website can be difficult, a few things may provide clues. Always investigate the “about us” and “contact” areas, which may show you who is funding the website, who is involved, and other sites that the site links to. Try searching for the names of people on the website to see if they actually exist beyond the boundaries of the sock puppet website, and try looking up the domain registry information to see if you can find out who owns it. Also look carefully at the language used and resources cited, and if the site has forums, examine them carefully to see if you can find clues which may suggest that the multitude of posters are actually sock puppets.