Home Advice & How-ToSafety Get Real: Spotting (and Unmasking) a Sock Puppet Account
Home Advice & How-ToSafety Get Real: Spotting (and Unmasking) a Sock Puppet Account

Get Real: Spotting (and Unmasking) a Sock Puppet Account

by Fred Decker

There are always going to be days when it feels like everyone and everything is against you.  That feeling can be especially amplified online, where it seems like any random opinion or tossed-off comment can lead to the digital equivalent of vintage movies’ mobs of villagers with pitchforks and torches. 

The reality is that a lot of that response (ironically) has no reality.  Many of the apparent users harassing people online, or spreading misinformation, are actually sock puppet accounts: fake identities created for purposes including deception, bullying and greed.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, here’s what you need to know about sock puppeting. 

Sock Puppets, Bots and Trolls

Let’s start by differentiating sock puppets from bots and trolls, two other kinds of accounts that are often problematic.  Trolls may or may not be legitimate users, but their primary purpose is to generate reactions and outrage.  According to the Oxford Dictionary’s website, the term was originally a riff on the idea of trolling for fish, but in this case the “fish” were other people’s reactions.  Undoubtedly, the comparison to the trolls of Nordic folklore helped the name stick. 

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Sock puppets are fake accounts, giving the user a measure of anonymity to hide behind.  Usually (but not always) it’s for the purpose of engaging in shady or undesirable behavior, and some trolls hide behind sock puppet accounts (but not all trolls are sock puppets, and not all sock puppets are trolls). 

Bots can behave similarly, but they’re not managed directly by a person.  Instead, they’re minimalist pseudo-accounts run by software algorithms and (sometimes) artificial intelligence, designed to flood targeted accounts with auto-generated or predefined messages.  All of these can be used to harass and bully legitimate users, but sock puppet accounts are the most varied. 

Why a Sock Puppet Account? 

There are several reasons a user might opt to create a sock puppet account.  A few of the more common reasons include the following: 

Inflating an Influencer’s, Brand’s or Celebrity’s Reach

Pundits are calling our brave new online world an “attention economy,” meaning the ability to gain and hold people’s attention is one of the most marketable attributes anyone can have.  That’s measured in a number of ways, but on social media it typically comes down to how big a following you have, and how engaged they are (how much you interact with each other). 

Using sock puppets to inflate your numbers is an obvious ploy, and it’s been done at scale: In 2019, one marketing agency settled lawsuits with both Florida and New York for packaging and selling its services as a sock puppet factory. 

Spreading Misinformation and Disinformation

One high-profile use of sock puppets is the spread of misinformation (you believe it, but it’s wrong) and disinformation (you know perfectly well it’s wrong, but you’re spreading it for your own ends).  You won’t have to think very long to come up with real-world examples from your own experience, so ’nuff said. 

Manipulating Public Discourse

This is closely related, but a distinct variation on the theme.  In this instance, anyone from self-interested lobbyists to nation-states or local authorities utilize sock puppets to trumpet their own talking points, stir up trouble, and harass or drown out dissenters. 

Notorious examples include China’s use of bots and sock puppets in its online propaganda efforts, and all of the tumult around American politics.  Law enforcement agencies use sock puppets to infiltrate, manipulate and monitor activist groups (often in ways that skirt or outright violate the law).  Court cases have established limits on this practice, but it’s likely to continue. 

Harassment and Cyberbullying

This is another big use of sock puppets.  The perpetrators can be anyone from a disgruntled high school kid to a nation-state or organized interest group, but the outcome is the same: The victim is swarmed and overwhelmed by a barrage of aggressive tweets, posts or messages from sock puppets (and/or bots). 

It’s a big deal: Cyberbullying sharply increases the risk of kids committing suicide, for example, and it’s not unknown for a concerted online campaign to cause real-world repercussions (like getting someone fired). 

Enabling Catfishing and Romance Scams

Catfishing could be considered a specialized form of sock puppetry, in which the sock puppet account attempts to strike up a relationship with you (often with the intention of pulling off a romance scam). 

That’s a whole other subject in its own right, but a savvy catfish or scammer often uses secondary sock puppet accounts to serve as bogus friends or family members who interact with the catfish’s social media accounts (and may even exchange messages with you directly).  It’s the social media equivalent of bogus product reviews and recommendations. 

For Personal Security or Safety

Sock puppets aren’t always used for nefarious purposes.  Sometimes the person behind a false account has a legitimate need for privacy: an abused spouse discreetly reaching out to a support site, for example.  Others include whistleblowers, journalists, and activists living within authoritarian regimes.  Law enforcement use of sock puppets, when done legally and ethically, fits into this category as well. 

Another use case that may be familiar to some Spokeo users is “Open-Source Intelligence,” or OSINT, aka online sleuthing.  You probably won’t need a sock puppet if you’re just trying to reunite with family (unless there’s some bad feeling at play), but if your hobby is trying to solve notorious murders or track down criminals, it’s probably best if you yourself are hard to find. 

Spotting a Sock Puppet Account

Researchers can draw on sophisticated software routines to identify sock puppets (or even detect puppets controlled by the same person), but you don’t really need to bring that kind of firepower to bear.  Sock puppet accounts usually share a handful of common characteristics that make them easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for.  These include the following: 


A profile has to have pictures to be convincing, and it’s easier than ever for someone to fake profile pictures.  Manufacturing them in bulk is time-consuming, however, and most puppeteers don’t bother.  It’s simpler to just steal photos from someone else’s social media accounts (or even professional stock photos) and perhaps — at most — use software tools to swap in a fake face. 

You can easily search a photo using Google’s reverse image search, but often you won’t need to expend even that much effort.  Just look at the photos on the suspect account, and then at those on your profile and those of your friends.  A real person’s photos are casual and messy (and frequent), and usually include pets and lots of other friends and family.  Even a well-faked sock puppet account won’t usually go that far. 


That brings us to another point: the whole point of social media is to, well…socialize.  Real people go places, tag each other in memes, talk about their pets, and console each other in their moments of sorrow. 

Sock puppet accounts, by and large, only chime in to agree with each other or to repeat talking points. 

Friends and Followers

Similarly, accounts whose cluster of friends and followers seems oddly large or small, and accounts that appear to seldom post except to agree with or amplify other posts, are red flags that you are probably dealing with a sock puppet. 

They Respond Weirdly (or Not at All)

Another way to test potential sock puppet accounts is by messaging them directly.  A sock puppeteer managing multiple accounts (or accounts across multiple platforms) will often be too busy to notice or respond to messages, or may respond in ways that are vague or unconvincing.  A bot account may not respond at all, or may come back with the kind of weird response that sounds (duh) like it was machine-generated. 

Unmasking Sock Puppets

It’s not always possible to find out exactly who is behind a sock puppet account.  Accounts operated by sophisticated nation-state hackers are pretty good at hiding their origin, but your bitter ex, your toxic former employee or an intern at a dodgy company or political consultancy will probably have a less  robust understanding of how to cover their tracks. 

That means anyone with access to Spokeo’s people search tools (which is basically everybody) has a fighting chance at uncovering the puppeteer.  Start with whatever identifying information you can glean from the profile: a name or username, a phone number, a location, or perhaps an email address. 

All of those things can feed into each other: Typing a name into Spokeo’s name search, for example, might bring up the corresponding social media account, as well as the email address or phone number used to set up the account.  From there, you can search the email or the phone number, which in turn can lead you back to personally identifying information about the puppeteer (a skilled hacker will use a “burner” phone to set up accounts, but your ex or your competitor might not think of that). 

After a few rounds of Spokeo searches — taking the information you turn up in each search, using that for further searches, and then using the information from those search results to do more searches — you’ll figure out pretty quickly whether the account belongs to a real person (the information will all agree) or a sock puppet (it won’t).  You may not be able to trace a sock puppet account back to the puppeteer, but at least you’ll know what you’re dealing with. 

What to Do about a Sock Puppet Account

What you do with that information once you have it is a judgment call, depending on the situation you’re in, such as the following examples illustrate: 

  • If you’re being harassed or bullied, you might screenshot your search results (and your online interactions with the sock puppet) and take them to law enforcement, school officials or — if applicable — a professional body the offender belongs to. 
  • Report the account to the corresponding platform.  Whether it’s a social media giant like Facebook, a dating app like Tinder or a reviews site like Yelp or TripAdvisor, most platforms take a very dim view of sock puppet accounts that violate their terms of service. 
  • If it turns out that a company or agency is behind the sock puppeting, you can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, again providing your screenshots and search results as evidence.  The FTC or your corresponding state agency may also take an interest, if deceptive trade or advertising practices were involved. 
  • If the accounts are political in nature, it’s possible that journalists and news outlets might take an interest.

The platform where you’ve encountered the sock puppet will usually take down the account once you’ve notified them of it.  In the interim, you can cut down the “background noise” on your own account by blocking as many fake accounts as you can (or even turning off replies for the short term). 

Your Spokeo searches may even turn up a large number of accounts associated with one puppeteer (or organization), which can be taken off the platform in one stroke once they’re identified. 

That kind of search wizardry isn’t just a benefit to you, it can help make online life better for everyone.