Ever been in the comments section under a YouTube video and thought: WTF are these lunatics talking about? Chances are you’ve seen, or even taken part of, a comment thread that’s been created and curated by an Internet troll.
This blog post will focus on the impact that “sockpuppet accounts” can have on online discourse between members of the public and niche audiences led by individuals with vested interests. This is going to be an introduction to the darker side of the Internet and how sockpuppet accounts are used for trolling.
In the New Scientist article, “Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post,” Edd Gent reports on what researcher Srijan Kumar, of the University of Maryland, said, “In the era of fake news, detecting sock puppets is important…Whenever multiple accounts are used by the same party it is harmful and it skews the discussion and fake news can be propagated very confidently” (Gent 2017).
The trolling that comes from various sockpuppet accounts generated by a single user, or coordinated by a group of users, will often parrot an “online community’s” (echo chamber’s) talking points; especially the ones that are designed to provoke a disagreement or an emotional reaction. Trolls do this so that they can lead an audience off topic and disrupt any meaningful conversation that might shed a light on information they’d rather others not see.
In a previous blog article, I pointed out how “computational propaganda,” that takes the form of fake “follower bots,” is used to inflate subscriber/follower numbers and give the appearance of someone or something being more popular than it actually is. This is commonly done to garner real world support for a person or cause that has little to none.
Building off of the idea of computational propaganda and follower bots is the fact that niche content creators on social media platforms, like YouTube, can create multiple accounts. The reason for doing this is to create a fake audience and daily commentary beneath their own YouTube videos in order to fool real users into interacting with, liking or sharing the video. These fake accounts are often used to voice inane support, attack any detractors/critics, ask questions or for things on behalf of an “audience/community,” and to generally give the impression that the thing they’re shilling is far more popular than it actually is.
What is a sockpuppet account?
In the TechCrunch article, “Spotting sockpuppets with science,” writer Devin Coldewey points out how sockpuppet accounts:
“tend to be active around the same time and in the same threads, but seldom start new discussions… And they have certain linguistic characteristics that set them apart from normal users: more ‘I’ and ‘you,’ and generally worse grammar. And they’re mostly focused on current affairs” (Coldewey 2017).
According to RationalWiki:
“A sockpuppet, also known as a sock, is an account on a website, wiki, or forum run by someone who already has an account. Sockpuppetry may be illegal in the United States… Originally used as a term to describe second identities, it is now used for any account created exclusively to cause
spammischief or mayhem at a site without the original user being identified (IP recognition and blocking notwithstanding)… The reasons for sockpuppetry can include:
- Rigging voting results.
- Rigging discussions by creating a sockpuppet who ‘agrees’ with your argument.
- Rigging discussions by creating a sockpuppet who makes deliberately extreme or moronic (usually strawman) arguments against your own view.
- Attempts to avoid rules, blocks or scrutiny.
- LANCB — but returning under an assumed sock.
- Wandalism” (RationalWiki: 2017).
The two reasons for sockpuppetry that are most the most obvious when dealing with the Suspicious0bservers “online community” are: “Rigging discussions by creating a sockpuppet who ‘agrees’ with an argument,” and “Rigging discussions by creating a sockpuppet who makes deliberately extreme or moronic (usually strawman) arguments.” When all else fails, sockpuppet accounts are used to insult, or threaten, in an attempt to disrupt online discussion:
Suspicious0bservers’ #1 Fan: Trevor Toler
This brief profile is based on information made publicly available by either Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) or Trevor Toler (Star Observer, Telluric Current, etc.), who are both known to be central members of the Suspicious0bservers “online community” (echo chamber). From the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine:
Trevor Toler is still listed as a contributor on Ben Davidson’s website, note that there is a designation for being a “Former Contributor” as is the case with Dr. Kongpop U-Yen:
“Trevor Toler (Star0bserver) – Trevor is in charge of the Round-Table Podcast series, where he and Billy expand the Fly-on-the-Wall style podcasts with a diverse array of guests. His primary research focus is the electric sun/electric universe, but he has investigated numerous other topics as part of his YouTube channel and contributions to Fly on the Wall episodes. Trevor also contributed to the Starwater series and Agenda 21 Counterstrike” (Davidson 2018).
This paragraph states that Trevor Toler’s, “primary research focus is in the electric sun/electric universe,” which pretty much says all anyone needs to know about his nonsensical beliefs and pseudoscientific research: that he’s out to prove a preconceived notion/belief that’s been debunked many times. As I reported in my previous article, “Climate Change Denial and Motivated Reasoning,” people who believe in conspiracy theories, according to Dr. David Ludden, “have a vested interest in maintaining them. First, they’ve put some effort into understating the conspiracy-theory explanation, whether by reading books, going to web sites, or watching TV programs that support their beliefs” (Dr. Ludden 2018).
The Electric Universe conspiracy theories (scientific manufactroversies) require a lot of misappropriated time to learn, but basically it’s all about how the universe “is electric” and scientists have everything wrong.
Anyway, at some point in November of 2017, Trevor Toler trolled his way into an argument of some kind with the author and UFOlogist, Michael Horn. So much is indicated by Horn’s blog post, “Suspicious But Not Inquisitive,” (this is in no way an endorsement or showing of support for Michael Horn’s ideas/content):
“NOTE: This blog formerly contained information about very negative communications from Trevor Toler, a still current contributor to one of Ben Davidson’s Suspicious0bservers channels.
I recently engaged in an email exchange with Ben because, understandably, he was upset by my revealing that information in the blog. We arrived at an agreement for my removing the mutually offending material, with the following statement from Ben:
‘The language used by a member of the suspicious0bservers community in emails with Mr. Horn was completely unacceptable. Neither myself nor Space Weather News endorses or supports the statements that were made. This individual is one of the +300,000 who watch, interact, and learn, and one of the hundreds who have one of our email accounts. The person who made the comments is also a prominent and popular member of the community, known for his antics and crude behavior (much the way Beavis and Butthead were popular, or Tom Greene), and unfortunately, this situation witnessed this character step over boundaries which have no place in academic discourse, or any mature conversation. Due to the prominence of this individual in the community, these actions cast a shadow on the community as a whole. Everything about the situation is regrettable, and on behalf of the entire community, the sincerest apologies to Mr. Horn are in order’” (Horn 2017).
In Ben Davidson’s “acknowledgment and apology,” he points out some of the well-known traits and characteristics displayed over and over again by Trevor Toler (Star Observer, Telluric Current, etc.), “The person who made the comments is also a prominent and popular member of the community, know for his antics and crude behavior.” This quote from Ben is related to the crux of the New Scientist article, “Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post,”:
“[Researchers] found that sock puppets contribute poorer quality content, writing shorter posts that are often downvoted or reported by other users. They post on more controversial topics, spend more time replying to other users and are more abusive. Worryingly, their posts are also more likely to be read and they are often central to their communities, generating a lot of activity” (Gent 2017).
The amount of time that the pro-Suspicious0bserver sockpuppet accounts have spent trolling beneath Potholer54’s video says almost as much as the similarities in their use of language that they can’t help but re-use throughout various posts across multiple social media accounts. It’d be sad if it weren’t so deceptive and abusive, alas sockpuppetry is the last refuge of a scoundrel:
As one of Suspicious0bservers most adamant supporters, Trevor Toler’s (Telluric Current’s/Star Observer’s) favorite excuse for his trolling is to claim that he “was hacked” and therefore wasn’t the one who said any of the things that… well, he said. While this excuse isn’t very creative, believable, or even substantiated by any evidence, it’s the best Trevor Toler has been able to come up with to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.
The simpler explanation is that Trevor Toler (Telluric Current, Star Observer, etc.) has multiple accounts (sockpuppets) and supports Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers) through unethical means that he can’t admit to for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, Trevor’s similar use of language across multiple sockpuppet accounts becomes more obvious the more familiar one becomes with this entire situation.
Trevor Toler’s (Telluric Current’s/Star Observer’s) claim about: never having had any “conversation with Horn” is his way of denying the fact that he trolled the author Michael Horn, which actually creates more questions than it answers and is an obvious excuse to avoid accountability; all of which is simply the par for Internet trolling.
The Science of Internet Trolling
It’s no secret that YouTube channels often have resident trolls who are either: the creators themselves using multiple sockpuppet accounts to post supportive comments, thumb up posts, and attack any detractors on their own channel, or a supporter/follower who acts as a patsy.
In this way, abusers of social media can create multiple “follower bot” accounts that serve to support their cause and create the illusion of popularity as they go about profiteering off of the ignorance and gullibility of certain members of the public. In other cases, the more obsequious followers of these “personality cults” will pretend to be multiple members of the “online community” by utilizing sockpuppetry and the abundance of time that they have on their hands.
While this blog article is not meant to accuse anyone of anything, it is meant to report on the history of deceptive tactics that individuals can employ in order to support or attack people/things they agree or disagree with.
There is nothing noble or endearing about being abusive on the Internet, but these trolls can rationalize all kinds of abhorrent behavior; so, we shouldn’t be surprised at all to hear any number of excuses. What we can do is be aware of the obvious tactics that Internet trolls use and identify the repeat offenders in an attempt to dissuade them from carrying on with their repetitive, sadistic behavior:
Video by AsapSCIENCE via YouTube: “The Science of Internet Trolls”
@ 0:14 While many people do enjoy chatting and debating issues online, approximately 5.6% of individuals self identify as trolls, or say they enjoy trolling online. So scientists studied a group of 1,200 internet users to understand these internet trolls in particular and found a myriad of something called ‘dark traits.’ Specifically, online trolls were found to display high levels of psychopathy, narcissism and most specifically sadism; that is, people who enjoy the pain of others.
@ 0:45 Now, most people tend to avoid inflicting pain on others, and if we do, we experience guilt or remorse. But for sadists, cruelty can be exciting and pleasurable. These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or bad people, but they get an emotional reward when causing or observing the suffering of others.
@ 1:40 But Internet trolls show very high levels of sadism and have fun distressing others by being argumentative and disruptive. Studies have also documented a link between these individuals and anti-social behavior. So are these individuals different in real life?
@ 1:55 Not likely – the studies suggest that those traits carry over into their regular day-to-day and reflect one’s actual personality. But since the internet offers anonymity, antisocial individuals can connect with similar others while distancing themselves from their acts in terms of personal responsibility.
@ 2:12 The unfortunate part is that trolls not only comment more but receive more replies than the average user, suggesting that they are quite successful at luring others in. On top of this, negative feedback only stimulates a harsher response from the trolls, and their behavior becomes worse over time with more feedback.
@ 2:29 So, the next time you’re being trolled, just remember, they WANT to disrupt you – and they feed off of your unhappiness. Ignore them, and you’re likely to diminish their effort.
The most important takeaway is that internet trolls not only have more time to respond to comments, but actually take a sadistic pleasure – as they receive an emotional reward – in arguing with, and abusing, others over the Internet. It’s best to heed the old adage of: don’t feed the trolls, as it’s time to let the bastards starve.
Be sure to check back tomorrow for a new blog article! In the meantime, here’s a selection of screenshots of some of the arguments being used by the sockpuppet supporters of YouTuber Ben Davidson (Suspiciuos0bservers) in the comments section beneath the science journalist Peter Hadfield’s (Potholer54’s) video, “Discussion with Suspicious Observers;” plus a throwback comment from a couple of months ago:
AsapSCIENCE. “The Science of Internet Trolls.” YouTube: January 16, 2016. Website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Zxy_dScjsM
Davidson, Ben. “About This Site – Contributors.” Suspicious0bservers.org: April 09, 2018. Website: http://www.suspicious0bservers.org/channels/
Gent, Edd. “Sock puppet accounts unmasked by the way they write and post.” New Scientist: April 06, 2017. Website: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2127107-sock-puppet-accounts-unmasked-by-the-way-they-write-and-post/
Horn, Michael. “Suspicious But Not inquisitive.” TheyFlyBlog.com: November 29, 2017. Website: https://theyflyblog.com/2017/11/29/suspicious-and-vulgar-but-not-inquisitive/
Ludden, David. “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Psychology Today: January 06, 2018. Website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-apes/201801/why-do-people-believe-in-conspiracy-theories
Morgan, Gareth. “Unmask Wikipedia sock puppets by the way they write.” New Scientist: November 13, 2013. Website: https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22029434-500-unmask-wikipedia-sock-puppets-by-the-way-they-write/
Reality Challenged. “Climate Change Denial and Motivated Reasoning: Science Journalist Peter Hadfield (Potholer54) vs. YouTuber Ben Davidson (Suspicious0bservers).” RealityChallenged.blog: April 06, 2018. Website: https://realitychallenged.blog/2018/04/06/climate-change-denial-and-motivated-reasoning-science-journalist-peter-hadfield-potholer54-vs-youtuber-ben-davidson-suspicious0bservers/
Reality Challenged. “The War Against Fake News and Pseudoscience on YouTube: Computational Propaganda Creates the Illusion of Popularity and Support.” RealityChallenged.blog: March 27, 2018. Website: https://realitychallenged.blog/2018/03/27/the-war-against-fake-news-and-pseudoscience-on-youtube-computational-propaganda-creates-the-illusion-of-popularity-and-support/