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Jul. 03, 2014

Sock Puppets on Steroids: The Internet's Fake Personalities

by Charles Seife

Click to enlarge images
Tune in to SciFri on July 4th, 2014 to hear author Charles Seife chat about Virtual Unreality.
 
The point of social media is to create platforms where you can interact with friends, colleagues, and family online. Sites like Twitter and Facebook have become communication hubs—and also places where you are getting manipulated by fake people.
 
In 2012, Facebook announced that 83 million profiles—pushing 10 percent of the total number on the site—were phony. The real number is likely greater than that. On Twitter, if you’ve got an account with more than a few dozen followers, almost certainly you’ve been accosted—and probably followed—by robot accounts. They’re not so hard to spot once you recognize the signs.
 
When I started writing this book, I noticed that I had a new Twitter follower by the name of Lonnie Konkel. Konkel’s profile was rather spartan. It was just a photo and a quick self-description: “Wannabe travel guru. Social media geek. Award winning problem solver. Bacon specialist.” Bacon specialist? It turns out that there are plenty of those on Twitter—more than 2,100, according to Google. There’s Brooklyn Myers, who says that she’s a “Problem solver. Beer buff. Lifelong music advocate. Infuriatingly humble bacon specialist.” Or Malone Lesley, who describes himself as an “Alcohol maven. Travel guru. Pop culture aficionado. Incurable social media evangelist. Devoted bacon specialist.” Or Carmel Smith, “Music evangelist. Coffee enthusiast. Internet junkie. General bacon specialist. Twitter fan. Thinker.” Or Karl G, “Friendly communicator.  Proud food trailblazer. Thinker. Extreme alcohol practitioner. Passionate explorer. Subtly charming bacon specialist.”
 
Somebody clearly set up a computer program to create fake Twitter users. Take a bunch of nouns (bacon, alcohol, pop culture), stick them in front of person-specific nouns (guru, maven, communicator, trailblazer, fan), throw in a couple of adjectives for good measure (humble, devoted, general, wannabe), and you’ve got a profile description. Grab someone’s photo, generate a phony name, and voilà: you’ve got a fake person. This single program alone has generated tens of thousands of phony Twitterers. (According to Google, “bacon guru” has some 6,500 hits on the Twitter website; “bacon evangelist” has some 5,800; “bacon maven,” 6,000; “bacon enthusiast,” 2,700; and “bacon trailblazer,” 5,300.) Some of these fake people tweet links to YouTube videos or other websites that they want to promote. Some sit idle. Only their creator truly knows what purpose they serve.
 
And that’s just one upon thousands of thousands of schemes to create fake Twitter users. There are plenty of sites out there where you can purchase Twitter followers—the going rate right now is about a penny a follower (with discounts for bulk purchase). Since a person’s importance on Twitter is largely measured by the size of his audience, swelling the ranks with phony accounts can make you look a lot more important than you are. It’s not an uncommon practice.
 
Sometimes fake Twitterers can be used for political ends. In mid-2011, as Republican candidates were jockeying for position before the official opening of primary season, it looked as though Newt Gingrich was building a surprisingly strong following on the internet. He made it a point of his campaign to use social media to build excitement around him. In fact, earlier that year, Gingrich became the first major presidential hopeful to announce his candidacy via Twitter. With 1.3 million followers, it seemed that he had quite a lot of backing—and he didn’t let his opponents forget it. “I have six times as many Twitter followers as all the other candidates combined,” he bragged to the Marietta Daily Journal. But in August, an anonymous former Gingrich staffer told Gawker that the vast majority of those followers were fake. “Newt employs a variety of agencies whose sole purpose is to procure Twitter followers for people who are shallow/insecure/unpopular enough to pay for them,” the staffer told the website. “As you might guess, Newt is decidedly one of the people to which these agencies cater.” Within a few days, the web analytic firm PeekYou looked at Newt’s followers and determined that, of those 1.3 million followers, a mere 8 percent were real human beings. “Newt Gingrich’s [8 percent] was the lowest we had ever seen,” the CEO of PeekYou said in a press release. “At first, we actually thought it might have been a bug on our side, but a quick manual look at the data showed our analysis was true.”
 
Though Gingrich’s campaign denied the charges, it’s hard to imagine that he—or at least his social media team—was unaware that the vast majority of his followers were not real. They’re easy to spot. Of course, the incentive for the Gingrich team would be not to delete the phony accounts. Those fake followers boosted his seeming importance, making him look like a more serious candidate than, say, Mitt Romney, who had roughly 100,000 followers at the time. Those fake followers sure helped raise Gingrich’s credibility—at least until they were outed.
 
Similar games plague Facebook as well as the other social media sites. For example, certain companies purchase fake Facebook fans—or even Facebook “likes,” which are a rough measure of popularity. In mid-2012, Facebook publicly admitted that it had a problem with automated accounts “liking” various people’s brands for pay. “To be clear, we do not and have never permitted the purchase or sale of Facebook Likes as we only want people connecting to the Pages and brands with whom they have chosen to connect,” an official Facebook statement read.
 
Whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, a dating site, or elsewhere, there are machine personalities—fake, computer-controlled quasi humans—that are attempting to influence your behavior. And they’re succeeding. They can be a subtle influence, like making you think that Newt Gingrich is a more serious contender than he actually is, or that a product is well liked when it’s loathed, but they can also have a bigger effect on your life by attempting to humiliate you or extract money from you.
 
They’re like sockpuppets on steroids: they’re not as articulate as real human beings, but they can be produced in enormous volume on short notice, and they can be imbued with personalities that are good enough to fool a few unwary victims. And high volume, coupled with quick turnaround and exceedingly low costs, is precisely what makes scams so effective in the digital age.
 

From Virtual Unreality: Just Because The Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?, by Charles Seife. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Charles Seife, 2014.


About the Author
Charles Seife is the author of Proofiness, Decoding the Universe, Alpha & OmegaSun in a Bottle, and Zero, which won the PEN/ Martha Albrand Award for first nonfiction book and was named a New York Times Notable Book. A professor of journalism at New York University, he has written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, Science, New Scientist, Scientific American, Wired, Slate, ProPublica, The Economist, and many other publications. He lives in New York City.
 
Author photo by Sigrid Estrada
 
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About Charles Seife

A professor of journalism at New York University, Charles Seife has written for multiple publications and is the author of several books, including Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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