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Here is a fun tale from the trenches of harvesting social data.

On June 9th, @waglington tweeted a dream that @dreamb0t picked up. In fact the tweet was quite popular (gaining 23 RT’s and 250 favorites).

What happened next is interesting:

absurd one-time spike in dreams of "groceries" -- due entirely to sock puppets

absurd one-time spike in dreams of “groceries” — due entirely to sock puppets

Over the next 5 hours, over 80 relatively inconspicuous users sent identical tweets, using the exact same text as @waglington only without the comma. This set off all my alarms for trend breaks (spikes) in dream language, prompting me to look more deeply into the remarkable pool of identical dreamers. The 83 accounts do have profile images and unrelated (cars, bridges, whatever) header images, and from time to time, each picks a popular public tweet and tweets it as if it were original.

Each word above is a link to one such tweet. If you pick one of these users that mechanically tweeted this, you find that their stream is, in fact, entirely comprised of these “stolen tweets:” something attracts enough attention somewhere, and suddenly entire pools of users are triggered to repeat it. It’s clearly software-driven, and actually this is one of the least sophisticated agents I’ve found.

What Is This?

Recall that details emerged very publicly last year of programs within the NSA and GCHQ to influence online dialogues and sway public opinion. What would something like that look like?

It would look like a piece of software that used some tricks to appear to be human: say funny/interesting things from time to time (what’s “funny?” Whatever other people are responding to with “lol”, etc.). That’s chiefly what the software does: create myriad identities, and “maintain” them all, so that there is a track record of activity, maybe even some interests about which the account tends to tweet.

These identities are called sock puppets.


When a corporate interest wants to shape a dialogue, or intelligence agencies want to push a people into revolution, these pools of identities can be leveraged to respond critically to anyone with a dissenting opinion, so that a quick twitter search reveals that most people seem to think X, and people who don’t think that are taking a verbal beating. Peer pressure is as effective online as it is anywhere else.

None of this is new; researchers have identified many separate puppet armies, including state-sponsored and military, and studies have even been done on their efficacy. Once this particular pool of agents tripped my dream alarms, I figured I might as well share the news.

And hey, now that you’ve seen a group of sock puppets for yourself, you won’t have to take it personally next time someone attacks you online. Take everything with several grains of salt.