Sock Puppets

Published at OnIslam.net

The early days of the internet were full of suspicion. Even today, not only do parents wonder with whom their children are interacting, but adults at times question “who is at the other end?”
Stories abound of internet ‘dating’ where the other party doesn’t resemble their online persona. Over time, particularly fuelled by the growth of social media, an individual’s presence has become more personalized. You can search for a person by their name and see how they have interacted in the digital environment, reassuring yourself that they are very much as real as you. But not all is as it seems.

 
Recent months have brought to light a number of initiatives by a number of governments, in particular the Unites States, who have been developing software that will enable one individual to control and manage multiple identities across respective social media platforms.

 
The idea of multiple identities is nothing new. Many years ago I was involved in a project which addressed this area, distinguishing between the personal and the business life of an individual. This personal-private life schism reflects two different levels of engagement. It does, of course, go against much of what social media stands for, that instead of having multiple identities online, as an individual you retain one, all encompassing persona. Irrespective of the merits/demerits, this shift reflects a change in consumer behavior.

 
Social Advertising

 
As brands embrace social media, monitoring tools track, amongst other values, volume. There was a time where for every 100 followers on twitter, your real influence was on 10. Now with hundreds if not thousands of followers, keeping track of what those you are linked to say is becoming that much more complicated – there is simply too much information for meaningful person-to-person engagement which impacts influence.

 
To illustrate by example, some days ago I attended a chocolate festival in London. Whilst there I captured content, created a video clip which was then distributed across social media. I decided to track first wave retweets noticing that the link to the particular video blog entry was distributed to 60,000+ individual accounts. How many took the time to read the tweet? I do not know.

 
What I do know is that over the first four days the video was live, there have been some 500+ hits to the particular entry, which translates to less than a 1% conversion. Of these, 15% watched it via their mobile phone, 66% of viewers were from the UK & USA, with the remaining 34% from Germany. Further information such as age groups, gender and much more is also available.

 
We have already seen the impact of social media instigating democratic revolutions in the Arabic-speaking world. But have you wondered, aside from you, your friend and your friends friend, how many people are real? Of the 60,000+ mentioned previously for example, who are they? Are their accounts even active? What is the value of the information about the video gathered for me as an individual, and how does that value translate to something meaningful for my friend, and my friends friend?

 
In some respect this is an advertisers dream. Information is being collected enabling a better, more sophisticated approach to delivering relevant advertising. But what happens when that information doesn’t relate to individual people but to individuals who maintain multiple personalities, even if through those multiple personalities an income is generated through pay-per-clicks?

 
Rise of the Social Bots
Brands must learn that the consumer wants to interact with them not simply be the recipient of marketing and public relations announcements.

 

What happens further when influence is exerted by a group of identities online where it is discovered that those groups of identities are controlled by a handful of individuals, potentially silencing the genuine expressions of the everyday individual?

 
The term sock puppet has been used to define an online identity that is dishonest, delivering interaction by way of deception. This is not just a pervert grooming a child via the internet; it is much more disturbing, having a more profound impact on the integrity of internet activity.
According to a report published by research firm Gartner, by 2015, one in every ten of your friends on facebook and twitter will be non-human. Described as social bots, these will be automated tools employed by brands to engage consumers.

 
If that isn’t bad enough, the US military’s central command recently awarded a $2.7 million contract to a company based in Los Angeles named Ntrepid. The objective? To create a program that manages false online personalities that allows one serviceman to control up to ten identities.

 
Combined, both sets of tools create a mockery of the value of social media. From trying to commercialize relationships as the brands suggest, to manipulating these relationships as government initiatives suggest; both methodologies contradict the ethos of the internet – the free flow of meaningful information.

 
Some years ago i learnt of how the North Korean regime would broadcast daily pro government messages on national TV, such that in every home, everyday, a loudspeaker plays nationalist propaganda. While I am far from being a conspiracist, I find this intrusion into the personal relationship individuals have with their friends to be considerably worse, as it isn’t simply a broadcast but more direct manipulation.

 
Just as some technology solutions evolve, the human condition of survival will ensure that the impact from both brands and prying eyes will eventually also be minimized

 
Already we can see brands creating social entities online trying to interact with individuals – an experiment which has failed drastically. Consider, for example, how many people click ‘like’ on a facebook page then never return to interact with it (despite recent research which suggests the awareness raised is in of itself ‘good’).

 
Brands must learn that the consumer wants to interact with them not simply be the recipient of marketing and public relations announcements. And governments should know that when they uphold better values such as integrity, they will be better able to create influence, not by means of deception.

 
Whatever your take on technology, whatever your level of paranoia, what remains is a collection of platforms which the ever sophisticated consumer will use, adjusting their parameters of engagement to minimize impact from false identities and from brands who they feel may be intruding in their personal space. Just as some technology solutions evolve, the human condition of survival will ensure that the impact from both brands and prying eyes will eventually also be minimized.

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