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Sock Mobs and Sock Bots

Doug Rushkoff has come up with a clever neologism: Sock Mobs. It refer to the gang of bogus names and voices -- usually the work of a single person -- that can swarm the comment sections of blogs and other online communities. The term derives from "sock puppet," a term used to refer to a faux personage used in online debates to back up the arguments of the real person (thereby demonstrating the position to be popular). Rushkoff sees an important political element to this concept, and defines a sock mob as "a faux mob, constructed for no other purpose than net propaganda." As the worlds of blogging and online communities take on greater important in the world of politics, expect to see more of these "sock mobs" showing up.

Moreover, as politics and political figures move into the virtual worlds such as Second Life, we should also expect to see a parallel phenomenon there, taking advantage of the unique characteristics of the space.

Let's call the fake personae that are likely to show up in a virtual world trying to appear as a political mass Sock Bots.

Sock Mobs take advantage of the structure of discussion fora, where entries are shown in a chronological (and typically linear) order -- each new comment follows the last. A sock mobster can log out from one account and log in as another (using whatever spoofing mechanisms needed), over and over again. From the reader's perspective, it's a mass of voices, even if they show up one at a time. But you can't take that approach in a virtual political gathering. Rallies and speeches in virtual worlds would be more akin to a real world event, with each participant in the audience able to express him/her/itself without having to do so one-at-a-time.

In this setting, members of the "mob" need to appear at the same time. If you're a propagandist looking to boost an otherwise unpopular position, you can't count on having a real person behind each virtual figure. Instead, you're going to need to run multiple characters simultaneously. Sounds hard -- but running two and even three characters simultaneously is a regular occurrence in online game worlds such as EverQuest and World of Warcraft. Given the relative lack of fireballs and aggressive dragons in online worlds like Second Life and There, running two, three or even four virtual world figures at the same time would likely be less demanding upon a single person's agility. Get a few people to cooperate in this endeavor, and suddenly you have a dozen or so protesters (quite a large number in the typical virtual world political event).

Once, this would mean having to run two, three or four computers side-by-side; in online games, this was referred to as multi-boxing. The advent of easy-to-run "virtual machine" software, however, makes it possible to run two or more operating systems side-by-side on the same computer, at the same time, limited only by memory and processor speed. In principle, it would be possible to run multiple instances of these virtual world apps on a single computer. Imagine: a whole Second Life protest rally, run off a single laptop. Yet as startling as this may sound, it's still a clumsy first approximation of a real Sock Bot world.

As the scripting and construction tools for these virtual worlds get more powerful, we're likely to see virtual protesters run by real people augmented by mobs of in-game simulations and "bots," made with enough detail in both image and behavior to convincingly appear as a swarm of real players. They may have scripted replies to questions, and would be coded to appear and disappear in the same way that human-operated denizens of the virtual worlds do. It wouldn't be hard to figure out that they were bots if you pay enough attention, but as a mob -- especially if human-operated figures were dispersed throughout -- they'd be rather impressive.

Ultimately, just as rampant sock mob activities can devalue conversation and comments, sock bots will no doubt in time make it harder to engage in political activity in virtual worlds. If a political figure knew that her very appearance in a virtual world setting would trigger the appearance of dozens or even hundreds of marching, chanting protesters -- who look at least as "real" as the human-operated purple monkeys, giant phalluses with hands, flying unicorns and the like that inhabit the virtual environments -- said political figure would likely find little to gain by making that appearance.

At some point in the next five years or so, we'll probably read about a massive demonstration and counter-demonstration happening in a virtual world, with thousands of participants... only to later discover that the entire event was a set of scripts and bots, with no actual humans in attendance beyond the virtual puppeteers.

Welcome to politics in the 21st century.


...a massive demonstration and counter-demonstration happening in a virtual world, with thousands of participants... only to later discover that the entire event was a set of scripts and bots, with no actual humans in attendance beyond the virtual puppeteers.

Simulation or satire?!

Now if only wars could be done this way...

What you say makes complete sense and seems sort of inevitable, particularly in light of the recent dustup against Front National in SL.

It seems at once both democratizing and anti-democratic at the same time. The anti-democratic aspect is readily apparent--this is virtual "astroturf". And yet, unlike astroturf, it does not have the same barriers to entry. Bandwidth, software, hardware are very inexpensive in comparison to staffing a boiler room or a phone bank. So when a relatively large number of people have access to a tool, it is somewhat democratizing--e.g. we have a wider ability to inject noise (vs. signal) into the political debate.

It strikes me that there is a market niche for virtual bodyguarding and virtual bouncers. These would be services you hire on whose job is basically to banish sockbots or interdict them at the source. I think the vulnerability to interdiction will probably eventually lead to sockbots in a distributed mode (in many machines rather than in one big box with a lot of VMs).

And of course, if it becomes common practice (and thus common knowledge) that sockbots astroturf political issues on the web and in virtual worlds, it will be that much harder to add credibility to legitimate grass-roots activism.

It's much the same problem as when people justify stinginess when confronted with panhandlers - because some are just scammers out for a free lunch, they create repercussions for those in legitimate need.


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