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sock puppet

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

A sock puppet, in the context of online communications, is a fake identity created to promote someone or something through blogs, wikis, forums or social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

Sock puppets are often created to improve the status of some company or other entity or to promote a particular viewpoint that is expected to be helpful to that entity. Fake identities are created to circumvent site bans, increase product sales, improve or tarnish reputations, spread disinformation and stifle dissent, among other possibilities.

Sometimes people create their own sock puppets; sometimes they hire others to do so. Someone hired to create a sock puppet is referred to as a meat puppet, an Internet shill or a cyber shill. The use of a sock puppet to artificially stimulate demand for a product or service is known as sock puppet marketing.

A few documented examples of sock puppetry:

  • Conrad Black, chief executive of Hollinger International, created an account with the name “nspector” to post on Yahoo Finance chat. Black’s sock puppet blamed short sellers for his company’s lackluster performance.  
  • A marketing executive from Sony created a fictional critic called David Manning, who gave glowing reviews for films from Columbia Pictures (a subsidiary of Sony).
  • Crime fiction writer RJ Ellory created  a sock puppet called Nicodemus Jones to post reviews of his own work. The sock puppet called Ellory’s novel A Quiet Belief in Angels “a modern masterpiece” and exhorted: “Just buy it, read it, and make up your own mind. Whatever else it might do, it will touch your soul." Another Ellory-generated sock puppet, Jelly Bean, posted negative reviews of Stuart MacBride’s novel, Dark Blood: “I think this is a shame. So many good authors given so little advertising and promotion, and here we have another tiresome same-old, same-old from someone who could do so much better…"

Sock puppetry is an unethical and sometimes illegal practice. Another disincentive is the fact that, if detected, sock puppet marketing makes the person or company behind it look ridiculous and desperate. Furthermore, if the purpose is to sell a product, it may be assumed that the company is untrustworthy and the product so lacking in value that it cannot be effectively promoted honestly.  

See also: reputation management, social media influence, content marketing, gaming the system

This was last updated in October 2013

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