Edited by- Aruna Nidamurthy
“Dear Mom and Dad,
I want you to know… I’m not coming back home. I’ve… gotten myself into something bigger, something dangerous. I didn’t want to do it, but he said a lot of things… he spoke of many horrible things that he would do to you if I didn’t end it.
I’m sorry I lied to you about myself. I’ve been on the Internet without you knowing. You raised me well, but…
I grew weak.
I made ‘friends’ with the wrong people.
I messed myself up.
I’m...I’m sorry. I have to end it here. He wants me to do it. Everything about this ‘game’ is depressing, from the cuts on my arm to this ‘final challenge’, which I’m about to finish.
So, here it ends. After this, you’ll know why it ended… why I chose to do this.
I will always love you, now and forever.
16 year-old V* wrote these words as he climbed the stairs which led to his block’s terrace. An anonymous person going under the name @YourDaddy told him to take a picture of himself, post it on Instagram under one of his 3 accounts and use the hashtag #iamwhale as its caption. The final instruction given by @YourDaddy was:-
“After posting the picture on Instagram, perch on d ledge of d terrace and jump off. If u fail 2 do so, I will send my brothers 2 kill ur entire family.”
V tearfully did so as his entire life flashed before him, remembering the happy moments he spent with his family and friends. He looked at the terrace for one last time before taking a deep breath and making the leap that cost him his life.
Hours after his suicide, the police conducted a thorough search of V’s room. The truth came out when the Inspector found V’s diary, which detailed the horrible things that @YourDaddy made him do. Finding a connection, the Inspector found the image of a whale carved on his arm, making it clear that it was the work of the infamous Internet phenomena, ‘Blue Whale’. Despite being briefed by the police about the ‘game’, V’s grieving parents were still in the dark about the real reason why their son ended his life.
After a few days, V’s parents found out that he had 5 virtual accounts and had been masquerading as ‘neversaydiedude’, ‘forwardtrader’, ‘chocolatefactory’, ‘bluewhalegamer’ and ‘solitaryreaper’ for the past 13 years on the Internet. Each account represented a different part of his personality.
Sock Puppetry: The Art of Deception
Sock puppetry is using false identities for deception and is centuries old, but the advent of the web has made creating sock puppets, and falling for their tricks, easier than ever before. It can be clearly seen that V was vulnerable to ‘sockpuppetry’.
We can’t physically meet most of the people we interact with on the internet. So, we create avatars who represent us in the online world, personae that are designed—on some level, conscious or subconscious—to shape others’ ideas about who we really are. Indeed, it’s natural for us to create avatars that represent what we want to be rather than what we are. And it’s only a short step from there to manipulating others’ perceptions of us to give ourselves an advantage of some sort. Likes on Facebook updates, Profile views on LinkedIn and Instagram are a few examples.
Types of Sock Puppetry
In Type 1 sock puppetry, the puppet master fabricates a phony persona who has a specific attribute or experience that the puppet master himself lacks—an attribute or experience that gives the puppet master extra authority in a conversation or extra ability to generate a reaction from others. In all cases, the point seems to be to seek either authority, attention, or profit.
This is best described by psychiatrists as a “virtual factitious disorder” or, more snappily, “Munchausen by internet.” In the syndrome, someone creates an online persona who suffers some kind of tragedy and milks the resulting outpouring of sympathy and concern. It’s almost guaranteed to cause a big stir, so it becomes irresistible to the extreme attention seeker. Any sufficiently large online community will encounter one of these sooner or later.
More common than Type 1 sock puppetry is Type 2 sockpuppetry, in which the only one thing that matters is that the fictional personality must be someone other than the puppet master. Type 2 sock puppets are often deployed as reinforcements in an online feud. They are commonly referred to as ‘trolls’.
These sock puppets are meant to seem independent of the puppet master, the false personae give the impression of a group of online people who agree with and bolster the puppet master’s position—or attack his enemies.
John Lott, a gun researcher, created a fake student who defended his writing online and gave him positive reviews on Amazon.com. (Bing Liu, a computer scientist who studied Amazon reviews, told The New York Times that approximately a third of reviews on the internet were likely fake. These are either created by sockpuppets or purchased wholesale.) Furthermore, Atari promoted their critically panned video game, ‘Alone in the Dark: Illumination’, by allegedly posting fake positive reviews on Steam under different usernames.
The Type 2 sock puppet is an easy weapon for an online skirmisher with a fragile ego. It’s also a great sales booster for a company that wants to tinker with its online reviews. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that these are the only people who deploy sock puppets. In fact, sock puppets are now being used for intelligence and for defense.
How can we be Identified in the Virtual World?
The diagram depicts a person with a small online presence and is defined as being in a safe mode.
Often usernames are created by people like V; to be known to others, which is different from their private profile.
The Red Square depicts a person who knows more about himself than others do and is a profile not shared in the virtual world. This profile is defined as Private.
The Yellow Square depicts a public profile which is shared through usernames on social networking sites and would be a larger square if a person has multiple id’s.
Sock Puppets operate in the blind spot. This is the zone where your profile is known more to others than you.
With over 6 usernames in the virtual world you can imagine that the blind spot and public profile square would increase in size and make a person vulnerable to disorders and fraud.
The victims of this form of puppetry are people who spend most of their time aimlessly surfing the internet. Studies suggest that children and young adults get trapped in this, specially the ones who are lonely, curious, isolated and detached from familial support .
We're All Caught Up in a Sock Puppet Cyberwar
Social media sites often reveal more information about you to your friends or followers than they do to the general public. This means that people who have an interest in knowing something about you, have a vested interest in trying to get you to invite them into your inner circle.
In 2012, Raymond Kelly, commissioner of the New York City Police Department, declared that officers could create false identities to hang out on social media sites in hopes of spotting crime. Police have been using similar tricks for years—impersonating underage children on the internet, for example, in hopes of catching pedophiles.
The internet has become a battlefield for virtual personalities—sockpuppets all attempting to gather information and using that information to help their causes and also to trick a large population.
Beware of Sock Puppets, Identify them at the right time and stay in a Safe Mode in the virtual world.
* The name of the person has been shortened to their initial to conceal their identity.