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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Confessions of a campaign sock puppet

The behavior of some commenters is simply socking
  • Joeff Davis
  • The behavior of some commenters is simply socking
During the 2009 municipal election cycle, the comments sections of news websites were bombarded with sock puppets. Typically, these were individuals on a campaign's payroll or volunteers who masqueraded as a regular citizen who were very concerned about the future of our great democracy. They just happened to support this particular candidate and had plenty of research to cite and rumors to spread about the rival. And with municipal elections fast approaching in November, we're starting to see them yet again. We chatted via email with a former staffer involved in a campaign - we've agreed not to reveal his or her identity or the campaign - to better understand these overcaffeinated and uber-loyal political operatives.

How did your campaign get involved in this? Was it a response to another campaign's sock puppetry or a proactive tactic?

The campaign got involved with this right along with the rest of our online/new media efforts. We had a Facebook page, a website, a Twitter profile, and of course we kept up to date with any mentions of our candidate online (particularly locally). I guess you could call it a proactive tactic. "Brand management," if you will. We were trying to control and shape the narrative as best we could through fervent commenting.

Did y'all ever find that what you were saying in the comments section was indeed influencing the narrative?

Sometimes it did. Certain journalists clearly had candidate bias, and often those comments did find their way into becoming questions for other candidates. For example, someone may make a comment about underage drinking at a campaign event. Suddenly that becomes "Sources say that underage drinking occurred at a campaign event...can you comment on that?" So from the outside, no one knows where that came from other than some mysterious "source." Which was probably just an offhand comment.

How did the campaign view sock puppetry? As just as important as going out and shaking hands and kissing babies?

Oh no...no way. It was just another tool to use in the campaign toolbox of tricks. If it wasn't commenting on a blog or another website, then we had to get involved in other, more covert ways. Like having friends of friends call campaign HQs and confuse them with questions. Or showing up at an event an hour prior to get buzz and rumors circulating in a crowd before the candidate came.

What goes into a sock puppet operation?

So here's the thing: it's kind of hard to do because any website worth its salt is going to be able to view comments based on their IP addresses. You have too many comments coming from one IP address with wildly different names (yet a similar narrative) and a red flag will go up. "Oh, this is from such-and-such's campaign," some might say. So you have to get creative. You post from a mobile phone. You go down the street to a restaurant with Wi-Fi and post from there. You use Tor to post from a different IP address. (Hi, NSA!) You go on Fiverr or one of these other sites and pay someone peanuts to comment. Or if you have to post all your comments from the same location, you choose who will be for the candidate and who will be against the candidate. You fight it out in the comments section with one person being the victor. This happens a LOT more than you think, and not just on political campaigns.

The idea of two people from the same campaign duking it out in the comments is interesting. Is this like pro wrestling? Coordinated and predetermined?

Yes, it's like pro wrestling. The discourse throws off readers from the actual post or article. Happens all the time.

Were you paid per comment? Because if so, that sounds like an excellent way to make some cash.

Heh...I wish! We were just paid to be on staff, although some of us were volunteers. We went to events. We held up yard signs. We canvassed. We were just regular campaign staffers - nobody special.

What was the thinking behind sock puppetry? Take me into the mind of a sock puppet and the activities. How do you decide what to actually write?

Sock puppetry is basically heckling behind a keyboard. You could call it "cyber-bullying" depending on how malicious your intent was. But there's two things about sock puppetry that make it effective. 1) Comment sections on websites are generally horrible, especially if not moderated. So there's a lot you can get away with because no one expects you to have any common sense. Look at comments on YouTube or The Huffington Post. Those people are bonkers. 2) People have *very* short attention spans in this modern news cycle. So you can keep spinning a web of lies in comment sections across several sites and no one will really remember you. It's a grand ebb and flow.

Sock puppet activities include leaving comments on blogs and websites, on Facebook pages, and maybe even on YouTube (if they have video). For larger campaigns, that means you have to amp up your visibility, so you may call into a radio show or writer a letter to the editor. You'd be surprised how many journalists play along with the sock puppetry (*cough*AJC*cough*) because it means more pageviews. Reporters will even tip off campaign staffs 24-48 hours before they post something so they can be ready at their keyboards with a response. I'd say about 99 percent of what we knew to comment on came from a lead from a media source.

As far as what to write...that's simple. You dog out the other guy (or girl) as bad as you can without being sexist or racist or anything crazy like that. You talk about where they went to school. You talk about how much money they make. You suggest they're out of touch with the public. You make up a fake story about being a college friend or something. No one's fact checking comments, so you can pretty much say what you want. From the outside looking in, it's all inside baseball. You think the average citizen keeps information about voting records and tax data at the ready? Ha!

Were you ever concerned about getting called out or actually revealed?

Never.

How many names/identities would you create a day? How did you come up with the names?

The key is to be varied, but not TOO varied. I'd say we each had about three personas, and they would play along certain stereotypes or archetypes. You have the elitist upper-middle-class man or woman with a tin ear to anything below their socioeconomic class. You have the informed and militant college student. You have the "average citizen". You have the older, out-of-touch person with a strong NIMBY preference.

Names...now that's the fun part. Because you can be anybody! Fake celeb names were always the best, like Kim Kartrashian or Paris Jilton or George Looney. Or you can be boring and call yourself "[insert candidate's last name] supporter" or something, but that just makes you look obvious.

Did you know who was handling the rival campaign's sock puppetry? Ever want to compliment him or her on their work?

I did, most times. It's usually someone in the communications department. Sometimes they're good, and sometimes they're not. Again, it's all in a vacuum so it's hard to be too congratulatory about something no one will remember by next year.

In today's political world, where the Internet plays such a massive role, what role will sock puppets have? Are we seeing sock Twitter accounts, sock Tumblrs, etc.?

Sock puppets will be here as long as there are people with Internet-enabled devices that have access to free Wi-Fi. They're not going anywhere anytime soon, and only get worse depending on the enormity of the campaign. There's a lot of sock Twitter accounts out there that's just some nimrod with an opinion and an egg as his avatar. Sock Tumblrs...not so much. (I'd be surprised if there are any.) Now Sock Blogspot blogs? YES.

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