Professionalism/Sockpuppetry

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Sockpuppetry is the creation of deceptive online accounts that appear to be independent from a cause, company or organization that they support or oppose. It differs from using a pseudonym in that a sockpuppet intentionally masks intentions while a pseudonym is typically used for privacy purposes. It also differs from standard Internet trolling in that there are motives for a sockpuppet's actions beyond the desire to create discord online. Sockpuppetry occurs at an individual, company and governmental level. It is important to be aware of this practice because of the power it has in guiding online discussions and misrepresenting public opinion. This issue is made more serious given our increasing reliance on the Internet as a source of information.

Cases[edit]

Amazon Reviews[edit]

Amazon.com offers customer reviews of all of its merchandise. These reviews are valuable resources to consumers differentiating between products and ought to provide honest critiques of items. However, several scandals have emerged in the writing community that ought to make consumers question the motives behind these reviews.

R.J. Ellory is a British fiction novelist who has received numerous accolades, such as the Barry Award for Best British Crime Fiction, the US Indie Excellence Award for Best Mystery and the Quebec Booksellers’ Prize for his novels.[1] Despite this professional success, Ellory sought greater commercial and monetary success. He created Amazon accounts under the names “Nicodemus Jones” and “jellybeans” and wrote reviews of work within his field. Using these sockpuppet accounts, he commented on his own works, writing, “It really is a magnificent book. Ignore all dissentors (sic) and naysayers, this book is not trying to be anything other than a great story, brilliantly told.” [2] He also posted critical reviews on his competitor's books, writing comments such as, “The humor just isn’t that humorous. The tension just isn’t that tense.”[2] In 2012 a fellow writer investigated these comments and publicly outed Ellory who confessed that “the recent reviews-both positive and negative-that have been posted on my amazon accounts are my responsibility and my responsibility alone.” [3][4]

Ellory’s public denouncement came shortly after historical writer Orlando Figes had admitted to posting complimentary Amazon reviews of his own books.[4] Fellow British crime writer Stephen Leather has also confessed to using sockpuppetry to generate excitement for his books.[5] As sockpuppetry has grown in practice, businesses have emerged for creating positive Amazon reviews. John Locke, a writer who has sold over 1 million e-books, has admitted to using a business called GettingBookReviews.com to get glowing Amazon reviews.[6] In an effort to counter this trend, Amazon removed reviews written by authors of books in the same genre as their own.[7] However, Amazon is unable to keep pace with the millions of reviews that are posted, leading to systematically biased reviews.

Wikipedia[edit]

Wikipedia has a very strict policy against sockpuppetry, and prohibits individuals from having multiple accounts for deceptive purposes. [8] The community opens sockpuppetry investigations and uses the CheckUser tool to verify accusations. [8]. Ultimately, identified sockpuppets are blocked from Wikipedia. [8]

In August 2012, a Wikipedia page for an internet security company, CyberSafe, was recommended for deletion because a Wikipedian named Doctree did not believe the company warranted its own Wikipedia article.[9] Doctree looked at the CyberSafe article and first noticed that many of the citations were not directly relevant to CyberSafe.[9] The editing log showed that many different users had edited the page but barely communicated with each other, as if it was one person with multiple accounts.[9] Doctree then noticed that many user accounts were arguing against the page's deletion in a similar manner, again leading him to believe that the arguments were actually from one person.[9] He reported the user accounts for sockpuppetry and an investigation ensued. Wikipedia uncovered a network of 300 sockpuppet accounts that had edited hundreds of pages.[9] This remains the largest discovered sockpuppet network in Wikipedia history. Wikipedia banned the user accounts and deleted the edited pages.[9]

Reporters discovered that the user accounts were associated with a company known as Wiki-PR. Companies had hired Wiki-PR to create and manage their Wikipedia pages for a fee. [9] The Wikimedia foundation retained Cooley LLP to investigate allegations against the company after which it sent a cease and desist letter to Wiki-PR. The letter stated "Employees, contractors, owners, and anyone who derives financial benefit from editing the English Wikipedia on behalf of Wiki-PR.com or its founders are banned from editing the English Wikipedia." [10] The Wiki-PR CEO Jordan French, denies that the company's actions violated Wikipedia's terms of use. [11] However, since the cease and desist letter, the company has moved towards consulting companies on how to edit Wikipedia efficiently and handle slander.[11]

Wikipedia has had other sockpuppetry scandals besides the Wiki-PR example. Perpetrators have included authors, journalists, and political figures.[12] Wikipedia has taken each instance very seriously and a quote by the Wikimedia foundation's CEO, Sue Gardner, helps explain why. She states, "Our readers know Wikipedia’s not perfect, but they also know that it has their best interests at heart, and is never trying to sell them a product or propagandize them in any way."[13] The Wikipedia community not only edits articles but also checks each other to ensure reliability. Sockpuppetry undermines this effort by introducing bias that cannot be accounted for by the community. As a result, the purpose of Wikipedia has been tainted, and users have been deceived into reading propaganda rather than the unbiased facts they expect.

50 Cent Party[edit]

50 Cent Party is the unofficial name given to Chinese Internet commentators who are hired by the Chinese government or by the Communist Party to help guide public opinion online.[14] These Internet commentators are trained and certified by China's Ministry of Culture.[14] The commentators work for both local and national levels of the government. Even large Chinese websites, such as Baidu, are required to have their own team of trained commentators.[14] And, although their presence is largest on Chinese sites, 50 Cent Party members occasionally comment on foreign sites, such as the Huffington Post.[15] It is estimated that there are as many as 300,000 paid commentators in China; however, an anonymous 50 Cent Party member believes that 10-20% of the comments he reads online are from commentators, indicating that the number could be much higher.[16][17]

According to a leaked notice, the overall directives of this party are to guide public opinion by (1) directing criticism towards America, (2) playing down the existence of Taiwan, (3) illustrating how democracy is ill-suited for capitalism via examples from Western countries, (4) accusing America and its allies of forcing others to adopt Western values, (5) underscoring positive developments and the government’s ability to maintain social stability and (6) drawing upon past instances of bloodshed to encourage patriotic support.[18][19]

These commentators receive instructions about what news items should be commented on and how the public opinion should be guided on these topics via daily emails.[17] One typical tactic of Internet commentators involves posting an inflammatory comment to distract netizens from criticizing the government and divert their attention to a singular comment. The commentator will then make multiple accounts in order to condemn their original post and draw even more attention.[17]

Although their unofficial name originates from rumors that commentators are paid fifty Renminbi for every post that steers a discussion away from anti-party sentiments or sensitive content, the increasingly cynical Chinese netizens now apply this pejorative term to anyone who expresses pro-Communist party thoughts online.[20][21] Chinese netizens mock the 50 Cent Party in cartoons and blog posts creating works such as satirical training manuals and spoof recruitment advertisements.[15][22][23] During the Weng’an riot, Chinese bloggers managed to bypass 50 Cent Party censors using software that converted the text from the modern left-to-right format to the traditional top-to-bottom format.[21]

From these acts it is clear that the Chinese public opinion on the 50 Cent Party is closely aligned with their opinion of China’s other Internet censorship practices. In fact, the Grass Mud Horse (a mythical creature that is widely seen as the "mascot of netizens in China fighting for free expression" and whose name, cǎonímǎ, is a play on cǎo ní mǎ, which translates to "f*** your mother") has been placed on the fifty-cent bill in an Internet meme as a continued effort to "undermine the values and ideology that reproduce compliance with the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian regime."[24]

Legal Consequences[edit]

Currently there are no formal laws in the United States regarding sockpuppetry. However, there have been instances where sockpuppetry has led to legal ramifications. In 2007, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the CEO of Whole Foods Market, John Mackey, for logging onto a Yahoo message board with a sockpuppet account and praising his company in order to raise its stock.[25] In a similar case, Hollinger International's CEO, Conrad Black, attempted to persuade the chief of investor relations to use a sockpuppet in a chat room to blame short sellers for the company's poor stock performance. [25] This instance was used as evidence in Black's criminal fraud trial in which he was found guilty of mail fraud and obstruction of justice.[25]

In a 2014 trial that may dictate future sanctions on sockpuppetry, a Virginia court ruled that Yelp must turn over the identities of 7 alleged Yelp sockpuppets [26]. The plaintiff, a carpet cleaning company owner, claimed Yelp users were leaving negative comments about his business[26]. Revealing the identities of these reviewers provides concrete consequences for sockpuppets, and may set a precedent for harsher sanctions on the practice.

Some legal experts contend that sockpuppetry would be illegal according to UK law. The Forgery and Counterfeiting Act of 1981 states that "a person is guilty of forgery if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall use it to induce somebody to accept it as genuine, and by reason of so accepting it to do or not to do some act to his own or any other person's prejudice." This would only apply if a website or social network was shown to be biased as a result of sockpuppetry. [27]

Conclusion[edit]

These examples show that sockpuppetry threatens the use of the Internet as a place for free expression and an open exchange of ideas. With an estimated 50% of the world using the Internet, over 3.5 billion people are perhaps exposed to this purposeful opinion bias manipulation on a small scale everyday.[28] Today the internet can be viewed as a public resource, and in the same way the nation works to protect water supplies, there must be steps taken to protect the Internet. Sockpuppetry degrades this resource, and although internet users could work to question the bias of every opinion presented on the Web, the reactions of the Chinese netizens and respected organizations, such as Wikipedia, reveal that the future of the Internet may lie in the enforcement of and agreement to ethical standards by all netizens.

References[edit]

  1. Biography. (2014). R.J. Ellory. Retrieved from http://www.rjellory.com/about/biography/
  2. a b Brooke, C. (2012, September 2). The author caught out praising his own books on Amazon... and writing disparaging reviews of his rivals’ works. Mail Online. Retrieved May 6, 2014, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2197294/The-author-caught-praising-books-Amazon--writing-disparaging-reviews-rivals-works.html
  3. Duns, J. (n.d.). Jeremy Duns on R J Ellory (with tweets. Storify. Retrieved May 6, 2014, from https://storify.com/stevemosby/jeremy-duns-on-r-j-ellory
  4. a b Hough, A. (2012, September 2). RJ Ellory: detected, crime writer who faked his own glowing reviews. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9515593/RJ-Ellory-detected-crime-writer-who-faked-his-own-glowing-reviews.html
  5. Owen, L. H. (2012, September 6). The “sock puppet” scandal: How to stop fake book reviews online. Gigaom. Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2012/09/06/sock-puppets-scandals-and-how-to-fix-online-book-reviews/
  6. Streitfeld, D. (2012, August 25). The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/book-reviewers-for-hire-meet-a-demand-for-online-raves.html
  7. Dugdale, J. (2013, January 25). Why Amazon can’t win when it comes to book reviews. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jan/25/why-amazon-just-cant-win
  8. a b c Wikipedia:Sockpuppetry. (2006, April 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:00, May 5, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Sockpuppetry&oldid=47591539
  9. a b c d e f g Owens, S., 2013. The battle to destroy Wikipedia's biggest sockpuppet army. The Daily Dot http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/wikipedia-sockpuppet-investigation-largest-network-history-wiki-pr/
  10. Roth, M., 2013. Wikimedia Foundation sends cease and desist letter to WikiPR. Wikimedia blog https://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/11/19/wikimedia-foundation-sends-cease-and-desist-letter-to-wikipr/
  11. a b Bort, J., 2014. PR Company Says It Was Demonized By The World's Biggest Internet Encyclopedia. Business Insider http://www.businessinsider.com/wiki-pr-ceo-says-wikipedia-ban-was-unfair-2014-1#!IYKUl
  12. Associated Press, 2014. Wikipedia controversy: re-editing history. Channel 4 News hhttp://www.channel4.com/news/wikipedia-hillsborough-hari-shapps-umunna-ryan
  13. Gardner, S., 2013. Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner’s response to paid advocacy editing and sockpuppetry. Wikimedia blog hhttp://blog.wikimedia.org/2013/10/21/sue-gardner-response-paid-advocacy-editing/
  14. a b c Bandurski, David (July 2008). "China's Guerrilla War for the Web". Far Eastern Economic Review. Archived from the original on 22 January 2009.
  15. a b Haley, U. (2010, October 4). China’s Fifty Cent Party for Internet Propaganda. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/usha-haley/chinas-fifty-cent-party-f_1_b_749989.html
  16. Fareed, M. (2008, September 21). China joins a turf war. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/media/2008/sep/22/chinathemedia.marketingandpr
  17. a b c Ai, W. (2012, October 17). China’s Paid Trolls: Meet the 50-Cent Party. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/10/china%E2%80%99s-paid-trolls-meet-50-cent-party
  18. Elsner, K. (2013, November 27). China Uses an Army of Sockpuppets to Control Public Opinion - and the US Will Too. Guardian Liberty Voice. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://guardianlv.com/2013/11/china-uses-an-army-of-sockpuppets-to-control-public-opinion-and-the-us-will-too/
  19. Xiao, Q. (2011, June 24). Leaked Propaganda Directives and Banned “Future” - China Digital Times (CDT). China Digital Times (CDT). Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2011/06/future-banned-on-sina-weibo-search/
  20. China employs army of piece-rate “netizens” for online thought control - Tibetan Review. (2009, January 3). Tibetan Review. Retrieved from http://www.tibetanreview.net/news.php?cat=2&&id=1846
  21. a b Vembu, V. (2009, January 2). Big Brother 2.0 is here. dna. Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-big-brother-20-is-here-1218190
  22. The Fifty Cents Party Training Manual - China Digital Times (CDT). (2010, February 17). Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/02/the-fifty-cents-party-training-manual/
  23. Xiao, Q. (Trans.). (2010, August 4). An Inside Look at a 50 Cent Party Meeting - China Digital Times (CDT). China Digital Times (CDT). Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2010/08/an-inside-look-at-a-50-cent-party-meeting/
  24. Xiao, Q. The Grass-Mud Horse Lexicon - China Digital Space. China Digital Times (CDT). Retrieved May 5, 2014, from http://chinadigitaltimes.net/space/Introduction_to_the_Grass-Mud_Horse_Lexicon
  25. a b c Stone, B., Richtel M., 2007. The Hand That Controls the Sock Puppet Could Get Slapped. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/16/technology/16blog.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1
  26. a b Howell, K., & Swarts, P. (2014, January 8). YELP critics must be identified, court rules in online landscape altering decision. From http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jan/8/court-rules-yelp-website-must-identify-seven-negat/?page=all
  27. Fielding, N., Cobain I, 2011. Revealed: US spy operation that manipulates social media. The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/mar/17/us-spy-operation-social-networks
  28. International Telecommunications Union