Yo! Sock Puppets!

There is considerably more organization to Wikipedia than meets the eye. For instance, not all user accounts are treated equally, and specific types of users can be banned from Wikipedia access. One such type of user is known as a sock puppet or, more typically, sockpuppet.

A sockpuppet is a Wikipedia contributor who writes under multiple accounts for nefarious purposes. I discovered the concept of ‘sockpuppet’, when a Wikipedia editor decided to investigate those responding to the AFD (Articles For Deletion) page associated with my entry.

According to the editor, Samw:

I took the liberty of commenting on possible sockpuppets on this AFD and IMHO they are all real users: or someone is patiently taking months to build up sockpuppet accounts. I don’t know who Shelley Powers is but she obviously influences “lurkers” on Wikipedia. Shelley, well done!

Contrary to popular assumption, there are levels of trust attached to Wikipedia contributors. True, anyone can edit; but the value of your edit is proportional to your previous contributions. In the case of those who voted to ‘Keep’ my entry, and based on a history of previous contributions, Samw decided that the respondents were ‘real’ and therefore ‘valid’. However, he judged previous contributions to be sparse by Wikipedia standards, and therefore several of the respondents were classified as ‘lurkers’.

Is being a lurker bad? There is no qualification of such one way or another in the Wikipedia guidelines about lurkers, as there is for sockpuppets. The latter, though, is strongly discouraged and if an account is identified as a sockpuppeteer, will be labeled as such and the account blocked.

Having multiple accounts is not the same as being a sockpuppeteer, as there can be legitimate reasons for such. For instance, one of the board members of Wikipedia has two accounts: one each for contributions in two difference languages. Accepted practice (become familiar with this concept if you work in Wikipedia frequently) is to link the multiple accounts together–to demonstrate that there is no intention to deceive.

It is intent to deceive or to dabble in malicious mischief that sets a sock puppeteer apart from a legitimate user with multiple accounts. Sockpuppet accounts are either created deliberately in order to vote multiple times, or to setup “straw man sock puppets” in order to provide weak counter-arguments:

One type of sock puppet is sometimes referred to as a “straw man sock puppet.” They are created by users with one point of view, but act as though they have an opposing point of view, in order to make that point of view look bad, or to act as an online agent provocateur. They will often make poor arguments which their “opponents” can then easily refute. This can allow them to essentially make straw man arguments. Such sock puppets thus become a personification of the straw man argument which their creators argue against. They often act unintelligent or uninformed, and may behave in an overtly bigoted manner. The effect is often to obfuscate the debate and prevent a serious discussion of the arguments from each side. Suspicion of such sock puppets is often harder to verify though, as there are often people who naturally behave in such a manner with the same effects.

Returning to my AFD, the reason the editor checked to see if there were any sockpuppet accounts associated with the voting is that sockpuppeteers typically show up whenever there is an article deletion or modification being debated. Since there were several ‘votes’ associated with my page, one would assume it triggered enough interest to spur verification of the votes before consensus was declared.

What the editor found is that if the votes on my page were not from sockpuppet accounts, they also weren’t meatpuppets. What’s a meatpuppet? According to Wikipedia:

A related issue occurs when non-Wikipedians create new accounts specifically to influence a particular vote or discussion. This is especially common in deletion discussions. These newly created accounts (or anonymous edits) may be friends of a Wikipedian, or may be related in some way to the subject of an article under discussion.

These accounts are not actually sockpuppets, but they are difficult to distinguish from real sockpuppets and are treated similarly. Neither a sockpuppet nor a brand-new, single-purpose account holder is a member of the Wikipedia community. The reason behind this is, for instance, that an article about an online community should not be kept merely because all members of that community show up to vote for it. The Arbitration Committee has ruled that, for the purpose of dispute resolution, when there is uncertainty whether a party is one user with sockpuppets or several users with similar editing habits they may be treated as one user with sockpuppets.

In the case of my ‘voters’, Samw found only one person who might possibly fit the concept of ‘meatpuppet’–an account with only one vote, the one for the article under consideration for deletion.

(How did Samw find out the list of contributions? There is a link to this from a contributor’s User page, regardless if they have created one or not. Look for the link to “User Contributions” in the left sidebar. You can also use the following links, edited to query either the IP address or User account name, and the appropriate Wikipedia language database:

IP Address:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions

&target=149.173.6.25

User account:

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Contributions

&target=Shelleyp

For more on User Contributions, consult the meta-wiki guide.)

Wikipedia guidelines state that meatpuppet accounts are not true Wikipedia contributor accounts. As such, based on this guideline, if several of you who had never contributed to Wikipedia before had suddenly voted to ‘keep’ my entry–either anonymously (where only your IP address would have shown), or via a brand new account–you would have, most likely, led to the deletion of the entry. Why? The logic behind this is fascinating.

In the case of a community vote, all the votes would have been seen as members of a community speaking with one voice. Since an individual ‘voice’ is only entitled to one vote, there should be only one community vote in the article debate. However, if there are many votes from many different accounts, the votes would have violated the concept of ‘one voice, one vote’, and therefore all would have been classified as a variation of sockpuppet accounts, and disregarded as such.

As regards my entry, since several of the contributors who voted to ‘keep’ my entry either contribute frequently, or have contributed far enough in the past to rule out potential sockpuppet distinction, all are considered viable members of the Wikipedia community and their votes can be ‘trusted’ accordingly.

Next, the editors will evaluate the integrity of the anonymous voters (using these same guidelines), as well as the adherence of this article to admission guidelines and, we can only assume if both are satisfactory, declare these votes valid also. At the end of the designated lag time for discussion (in the case of AFD, five days) the votes will be counted, and the entry kept, or deleted, based on the count.

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76 Responses to Yo! Sock Puppets!

  1. Sam, I’ve been doing a little more contributing to Wikipedia lately. Let me start by saying that as an old-time net person (since the *80′s*), I fully understand your concerns, and I’m not offended at all that you were worried about sockpuppets and ballot-stuffing.

    But, as to the core issue of editing Wikipedia, I do find it tedious. There’s some topics on which, to be immodest, I really an expert. Fighting with flamers, and maybe trying to convince a de-facto editorial committee that I am in fact right, is very unappealing. I can do that for far higher stakes than a Wikipedia article :-) (I think some of this connects back to what you were seeing on the AFD page – they’re all real people, but the demographic skews very different from people who make a lot of Wikipedia edits).

    There’s some very deep problems that are faced by all such data-mining enterprises, and the hype gets in the way of grappling with them.

  2. Shelley says:

    Sam, I encouraged people to view the AFD page in order to watch the events as they progress. I don’t and haven’t encouraged anyone to participate in the page, and from my understanding of the red lined box, I shouldn’t — doing so is considered counter to the Wikipedia procedures.

    Adding to the page adds another dilemma. You see, much of the information you mention, like date of birth, and other biographical information is either missing from the web or scattered about and difficult to piece together. I’m the only person who most likely knows much of this factual information–but I’m discouraged from providing, or modifying, this data.

    I’m also not sure if this information is of interest. I think that if I’ve ‘earned’ a Wikipedia spot despite the ‘army’ (this being center of my next post) it’s the actions that led me to be listed that would be of interest, not my birth date and place.

    Anyway, I encouraged my readership to create an entry for me and other women; I was interested in increasing exposure of women online — and I don’t mean in the ‘stereotypical’ manner. Now, though, I find the Wikipedia processes to be of interest in and of themselves, and would prefer to watch as they unfold naturally.

  3. Darryl says:

    @SamW

    I would like to thank you for your warm welcome to wikipedia. It certainly took some of the sour taste out of my first experience.

    @Shelley

    What’s with the Shel^5ley ? Is there some inside joke that I missed?

  4. Shelley says:

    Playing with Phil, Darryl.

    I also want to thank Sam for welcoming folks to Wikipedia, in addition to all the other folks for providing such thoughtful comments.

    Dave Rogers, here you go:

  5. Ethan says:

    Given this readership, let me change that to be more specific: folks should try Wikipedia by editing and improving the Shelley Powers article. The challenge would be for it to reach “feature article” status[.]

    Not to get all “Dave Rogers” over here, but what benefits are conferred by reaching “featured article” status? This comes off as more of the same “hot 100 lists” issues that have been beaten into the ground ad infinitum, and misses the point of why a resource like Wikipedia exists.

    Or did you folks get bought out by Blogebrity when I wasn’t paying attention…?

    I realize that you’re trying to get people excited about editing Wikipedia entries, but that particular angle fell flat with me.

    What is Wikipedia’s identity? At root, Wikipedia exists to serve what purpose? My assumption was that it is intended to be a free, comprehensive, accurate, and neutral source of information. Not a popularity contest, and certainly not a venue for highlighting one’s grammatical chops.

    (What’s the emoticon for “getting all Dave Rogers over here”?)

  6. Will you encourage your readers to contribute to your biography on Wikipedia?

    Now I’m going to have Jim Morrison in my head singing “Come on baby write my bio” all day.

  7. Shelley says:

    Hey Phil! Come on baby, and write my bio! You have your choice of being truthful or being my friend ;-)

    Now was a wink.

    Dave R, I actually found a smirk emoticon:

    :-,

    It looks like it could stand in for a sneer.

  8. Shelley says:

    To stop being so frivolous, Ethan, I think your question is spot on. I can understand highlighting articles daily for improvement. Makes sense. But to classify articles as ‘good’ articles and ‘featured’ articles is confusing at the least. Are these, then, treated differently? Is editing turned off, so that they don’t get mucked up?

  9. Sam Wong says:

    Seth & Shelley: Wikipedia is an experiment precisely because the traditional concepts of authorship and authority are dispensed with. Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger rails against the lack of respect for “experts” in Wikipedia: http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/12/30/142458/25

    Some have responded (see http://www.corante.com/many/archives/2005/01/03/k5_article_on_wikipedia_antielitism.php). There are many proposals for a stable, reviewed version of Wikipedia and as Wikpedia evolves, some of those proposals may be implemented. But given the long-tail nature of Wikipedia, any review process can only vet a small percentage of the articles. IMHO, authority must be embodied within the text itself: it has to be self-consistent, it has to cite references, etc. Research into authority without known authorship is just beginning (e.g. Bellomi F., Bonato R. (2004). Lexical Authorities in an Encyclopedic Corpus: a Case Study with Wikipedia. Paper presented at the International Colloquium on ‘Word structure and lexical systems: models and applications’, December 16 – 18, 2004, University of Pavia, Pavia, Italy.) And this is a pretty lousy paper to make my point anyways.

    So Shelley, any info you provide on “Shelley Powers” should ideally reference published sources. Just because you’re the expert on yourself doesn’t mean I should trust your contributions to Wikipedia; I don’t know that “shelleyp” is in fact “Shelley Powers”. Furthermore if all the references you cite are glowing biographies from your publisher, people should be doubly suspicious.

    Seth, I’m sorry you find Wikipedia tedious but the same principle applies. Yes you may be an expert but if your writing doesn’t stand on it’s own merits, your expertise isn’t of much value in this context. The trick is to embody your expertise in the writing itself and not rely on outside authority. I freely admit I avoid controversial topics because of the politics but for the few I’ve edited, NPOV does work. Scan any Wikipedia article on controversial topics (abortion, Israel, etc) and it’s not a bad attempt at NPOV.

    As for making the bio a “featured article”, sorry if the name isn’t clear. “Featured articles” aren’t popular articles; they are meant to highlight the best of Wikipedia writing, not of the best subject matter. Shelley I understand your desire not to perturb the Wikipedia process but I think it’s too late for that! And yes, featured articles do degrade after the period of intense review. The current debate is on the Christmas article: it was featured last Christmas and has degraded considerably since such that people don’t think it should be featured again this Christmas without rework.

    Is this situation perfect? Clearly not. I hope Wikipedia will evolve into something a little more stable and authoritative but until then, we work with what we’ve got. If anyone has better proposals for Wikipedia governance, by all means join the fray instead of merely commenting from the outside.

  10. Shelley says:

    “If anyone has better proposals for Wikipedia governance, by all means join the fray instead of merely commenting from the outside.”

    There is a law, Godwin’s Law that states:

    As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

    I would like to add one, let’s call it Burningbird’s Law. It states:

    The longer a debate about X, the higher the probability that a member supporting X will effectively terminate the debate by suggesting the other join X and work for change internally rather than comment from the outside.

    I know it well — webloggers excel at it.

    Sam, your comment suggests that I am seeking to improve Wikipedia. I don’t want to speak for anyone else here, but that’s not the purpose of this writing, or my comments.

    From what people have said in my two posts is they don’t understand how Wikipedia works. I’m trying to understand how Wikipedia works.

  11. memer says:

    “As further evidence of the perverse beauty of Wikipedia, I’ve discovered that advocating the deletion of your own article causes editors to champion its inclusion. See Richard Bozulich and my own deletion debate, which was touch-and-go until I voted “Weak Delete” against myself, inadvertently rallying enough support to remain in the encylopedia.”

    Rogers, you kill me. Alllways with the angles. Sheer genius.

  12. dave rogers says:

    To paraphrase somebody, “I’d never join any fray that would have me as a member.”

    Or, I’m a-frayed not!

    And frankly, I’m up to my ass in frays as it is. You’ll just have to fray on without me. I will, however, throw stones and carry torches and pitchforks as is my wont as a peasant.

    But I do want to note the very calm, civil and somewhat reasoned measure of discourse offered by the wikipedians, and I salute them on that. Better men than I, and all that.

    Now, hand me that cobble, will you?

  13. Sam Wong says:

    “How Wikipedia works”: There’s no magic. It’s simply a whiteboard for people interested in writing encyclopedia type articles to collaborate. Everything else is normal human interactions with all the problems and benefits that brings.

    I didn’t mean to cut off debate; I was just trying to recruit more writers. :-) It seems to me bloggers are natural Wikipedia contributors if you can get past the authorship/authority issues.

    Are there any other specific questions I can help with to help everyone here better understand Wikipedia? (Disclaimer: I only speak for myself, not Wikipedia: Then again, there are very few official positions at Wikipedia.)

  14. Sam, from my perspective, Wikipedia is not much of an experiment. Or rather, that’s rhetoric which gets in the way. Wikipedia is traveling well-worn paths of communes and collectives, and it’s just getting hyped to the sky because a rich guy is pushing it (which isn’t unprecedented either).

    As an expert, it’s not that I want people to bow down before my mighty power of knowledge. But, these days, I’m not enamoured of arguing with the equivalent of the average Usenetter, of perhaps having them retaliate against me, and then having it all presented as a brave new world of emergent information production.

    Don’t get me wrong, the goals are laudable. And your devotion is admirable. But knowledge is a very deep problem. And one of the things which bothers me about Wikipedia is that it seems to be developing very blinkered social mechanisms for not thinking about the problem (hardly unknown, but in some ways a more interesting twist than what’s done on the stated goal of the project itself!)

    Shelley: Wikipedia is a classic commune/collective bankrolled by a wealthy sugar-daddy. Despite any blather of being a classless society, lines of influence radiate from the sugar-daddy and assistants. You work your way up by serving on the commune’s various committees (policy drafting), doing grunt-work (edits), and developing personal connections with the higher-ups (this is not a “cabal”, just typical group dynamics). Ignore anything about how this is Dialectical Materialism, or Proletarian Hegemony. That’s all there is to it.

  15. Sam Wong says:

    Dave Rogers, thanks for the salute! I’m not much of an apologist for anything, let alone Wikipedia. Shelley named me by name so I felt obligated to join the fray here. You said “somewhat reasoned measure of discourse”. Is there any specific I can clarify to make it a “reasoned measure of discourse”?

  16. Shelley says:

    Dave R: “But I do want to note the very calm, civil and somewhat reasoned measure of discourse offered by the wikipedians, and I salute them on that. ”

    Agree.

  17. Sam Wong says:

    Seth, I believe Wikipedia is financially self-sufficient now though clearly it was initially bankrolled. See the current budget: http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/Budget/2005

    Thanks for lauding my “devotion” but I want to make it clear I view Wikipedia as an experiment. It is not clear to me at all that it will succeed in the long run. So I’m not devoted to it as much as fascinated by the processes surrounding it.

    As for communicating with the average usenetter that’s your choice not to and I hope Wikipedia will one day have mechanisms to shield you from that. Perhaps you can simply add comments and references in the talk page and someone else can engage in the discourse with the average usenetter on your behalf.

    I don’t participate much in the social hierarchy of Wikipedia. Someone once described Wikipedia as the wild west: you hear stories of shootouts and Indian wars but most people are quietly herding cattle and plowing fields in the background.

    Your description of its social structure may well be accurate. But like I said, Wikipedia is a whiteboard for collaboration. Everything else is normal human interactions with all the problems and benefits that brings.

    If you read what Jimmy Wales and most other Wikipedians say about the Wikipedia processes, it’s typically described as a “community”. It’s unfortunately the Wikipedia commentators that are hyping Wikipedia as “emergent behaviour” and provoking negative responses from folks like yourself.

  18. dave rogers says:

    You said “somewhat reasoned discourse”. Is there any specific I can clarify to make it a “reasoned discourse”?

    That was a cobble, Sam, a cobble.

    ;^)

  19. Sam Wong says:

    Dave, sorry but what’s a “cobble”? The Wikipedia entry doesn’t help! :-) Specifically when you say, “hand me that cobble” is that an allusion to throwing stones? I’m not sure what stone you’re throwing! Clearly I’m not a blogger and don’t understand your terminologies.

  20. Jim Lane says:

    Dave Rogers asks why there’s a need for Wikipedia. One answer is that, whether or not people need it, they want it. The site didn’t get into Alexa’s top 100 because of all the monklike Wikipedians showing up to make edits that only they care about. The hundreds of millions of visits per month are mostly people reading the articles.

    Should all those people just use search engines instead? Well, it depends on what they’re after. Wikipedia, although online and freely editable, is still an encyclopedia. An encyclopedia article should provide a comprehensive look at its subject but in summary fashion. For some questions you might have, that’s the place to look for an answer.

    Here’s an example. Suppose you read that a well-known Republican announced that she’d run against Hillary Clinton for the Senate next year, but yesterday pulled out of that race and switched to running for state Attorney General. You’re curious about this person and you want to know the basics about her. Should you use Wikipedia or a search engine?

    Well, I just Googled “Jeanine Pirro”. The first hit is her campaign website (still touting her for the Senate). The second is the official website for her current job as District Attorney of Westchester County. Both of these, of course, will tell you only positive things about her. The third hit is a New York magazine article from 1999. The fourth hit is her Wikipedia article. It gives you her basic biographical information (including prior political career), her views on some key issues, criticisms of her (including those based on her husband’s criminal conviction), and the information about her withdrawal from the Senate race. For a general overview of who Pirro is, you’d do better to read the Wikipedia article than to start going through the 300,000+ Google hits yourself.

    On the other hand, suppose you have a narrow question, like where Pirro stands on the issue of stem cell research. The Wikipedia article doesn’t get into that level of detail. You’d do better to Google “Pirro” and “stem cell” to get a quick answer. (She supports it.)

    Wikipedia will never replace search engines. It provides an additional resource, though. It’s often a good place to begin an inquiry when you want a general introduction to a subject.

  21. dave rogers says:

    Sam, yes a cobble is a stone, once used to pave streets. It’s about the right size for throwing, though maybe a little too large for any kind of range.

    Jim, people obviously want porn too, I’m not sure what “wanting” contributes to a social value. Your example is perhaps a useful one, but I’d probably search Google News before I searched Google main, and then consider how to proceed from there.

    Again, my objection to Wikipedia is more to the hyperbole that seems to surround it, its supposed “virtues” as an “open” project. Presumably this “openness” overturns existing hierarchies, but as we have seen, wikipedia itself is in the process, and some ways along too, in establishing its own hiearchies. So whatever virtue is attendant to its relative “openness” is itself a relative thing, and as you and Sam have noted, comes with its own problem set, chiefly being solved along hierarchical lines.

    I would also note that the “openness” of wikipedia has not made it immune to the shortcomings of society at large, and perhaps due to the unique nature of the self-selected “wikipedians” (“geeks” in the non-pejorative sense, with enough time and interest to invest it in it), may actually magnify some of those shortcomings, while it may ameliorate others. I would point to Shelley Powers’ mention of the gender disparity in entries regarding “tech” people as an example of a shortcoming that is magnified.

    Is there any demographic data on “wikipedians?” I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that >80% of the active editors are white males between the ages of 20 and 35, and that women and minorities are underrepresented as editors or active contributors.

    I’m not going to say this is the “fault” of the wikipedians, just that it is going to lend a particular skew to the information set reflected in the encyclopedia, as Shelley has discovered.

    I’m just tired of all the hype surrounding every online effort. Humility would be refreshing, and monks generally embraced that as a virtue. Perhaps with greater humility, we might be more conscious of our shortcomings and less eager to promote our uncertain virtues, while trying, from the beginning, to address those shortcomings of which we should already be painfully aware.

    But that’s just me, and I could be wrong.

  22. Phil says:

    Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger rails against the lack of respect for “experts” in Wikipedia. Some have responded

    Ooh! Me me me! Not my first blog post – that would be this, by a week – but the first post on my work blog, from March this year, was a response to Larry Sanger (or rather a response to a comment on a response to Larry Sanger), on just this topic. Quote:

    Does Wikipedia have a big (potentially insuperable) deficit? If so, what is it?

    My conclusions stirred up a veritable millpond of controversy. I even mailed Sanger, as well as Clay Shirky and a couple of other people; I got one reply, telling me I’d got my terminology wrong.

    And they wonder why people like this blog.

  23. Sam Wong says:

    Dave, various people have tried to get Wikipedia demographics but I haven’t seen reliable stats given the anonymous nature of the place. From the photos at various meetups and conferences, yes I would agree with your assessment of the demographics (though I don’t fit 2 of your criteria!)

    Yes, there’s systemic biases in Wikipedia. There are those who are are aware of that and are trying to correct it: Wikiproject countering systemic bias

  24. dave rogers says:

    Commendable, Sam, but I’m not sure it’s adequate.

    1. Does it not seem likely that, for at least the foreseeable future (next decade?), wikipedians will continue to be self-selected from the dominant demographic group already over-represented?

    2. Looking at the discussion page, where I hoped to see something like the previous point being discussed, made my eyeballs roll up into my head. “Countering US bias against Canadian bloggers!” Where’s the “global perspective” (and I don’t mean that in a geographic sense) on “systemic bias?” (Besides, everybody knows that Canadians, due to an accident of geography, feel entitled to look down on US bloggers, and do so with regularity and great relish. – I’m kidding. Mostly.) Really, I don’t see anything in the discussion page that seems to me to represent a productive examination of the problem of systemic bias. They are focusing on specific issues which may or may not be examples of “systemic” bias, but don’t really address how to work around the problem of systemic bias. The guidelines or suggestions on the main page consist, it seems to me, of mostly suggesting that people try to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, which can be a useful exercise, but I don’t think it’s going to make up for significant demographic deficiencies and the systemic biases that derive from that.

    3. How do you measure? How do you tell if you’re improving? Where’s the discussion of metrics? Some things are hard to measure, but others perhaps less so. It’s a volunteer effort and I’m sure nobody wants to volunteer to be a bean-counter, but I don’t know how you can have any confidence regarding progress or lack thereof unless someone is trying to measure it.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to rain on your parade, and I’m afraid my persistently negative point of view will wear on the kind indulgence of our host and her other guests, so I think I’ll refrain from further discussion unless I can offer something a little more upbeat!

  25. Darryl says:

    Congrats(?) Shelley:

    The result of the debate was speedy keep due to clear and overwhelming consensus. –Michael Snow 22:32, 22 December 2005 (UTC)

    You’ve been wikipedia-ized.

  26. Shelley says:

    So much good commentary here. I want to respond myself to some points brought up here, but I want to do so in a new post.

    Dave, you know all viewpoints are welcome in comments in this space. Please feel free to ‘get all Dave Rogers’ here. Just remember to use your emoticon :-,

    Darryl! That was quick! Now, I guess the seed is planted, and we’ll see if it grows up to be a weed or a wonder.

    Speaking of which, I wonder if someone will mention that time I was a masseuse in Salt Lake City…