Friday 10 July, 2020

The flailing state

Long, angry LRB essay by Pankaj Mishra.

Sample:

The pandemic, which has killed 130,000 people in the US, including a disproportionate number of African Americans, has now shown, far more explicitly than Katrina did in 2005 or the financial crisis in 2008, that the Reagan-Thatcher model, which privatised risk and shifted the state’s responsibility onto the individual, condemns an unconscionable number of people to premature death or to a desperate struggle for existence.

An even deeper and more devastating realisation is that democracy, Anglo-America’s main ideological export and the mainstay of its moral prestige, has never been what it was cracked up to be.

Democracy does not guarantee good government, even in its original heartlands. Neither does the individual choice that citizens of democracies periodically exercise – whether in referendums or elections – confer political wisdom on the chosen. It might even delude them, as Johnson and Trump confirm, into deranged notions of omnipotence. The ideal of democracy, according to which all adults are equal and possess equal power to choose and control political and economic outcomes, is realised nowhere. The fact of economic inequality, not to mention the compromised character of political representatives, makes it unrealisable.

More disturbing still, voters have been steadily deprived, not least by a mendacious or click-baiting fourth estate, of the capacity either to identify or to seek the public interest. Modern democracy, in other words, bears little resemblance to the form of government that went under its name in ancient Greece. And in no place does democracy look more like a zombie than in India, Anglo-America’s most diligent apprentice, where a tremendously popular Hindu supremacist movement diverts attention from grotesque levels of inequality and its own criminal maladroitness by stoking murderous hatred against Muslims.


Microsoft plays catch-up with Teams

One of the funnier aspects of the pandemic is how the tech giants were caught napping with their sub-optimal video-conferencing systems, leaving the field open for Zoom to boom. Ever since then they’ve been racing to catch up.

Now it’s Microsoft’s turn to announce a major upgrade to its product — Teams.

Today we’re announcing a set of new features in Microsoft Teams that make virtual interactions more natural, more engaging, and ultimately, more human. These features offer three key benefits for people at work and in education. First, they help you feel more connected with your team and reduce meeting fatigue. Second, they make meetings more inclusive and engaging. And third, they help streamline your work and save time.

They are:

  • ’Together mode’: “uses AI segmentation technology to digitally place participants in a shared background, making it feel like you’re sitting in the same room with everyone else in the meeting or class”.

  • ‘Dynamic view’: “A set of enhancements we call dynamic view gives you more control over how you see shared content and other participants in a meeting. Using AI, meetings dynamically optimize shared content and video participants. New controls—including the ability to show shared content and specific participants side-by-side—let you personalize the view to suit your preferences and needs”. Includes “include large gallery view (rolling out in August), where you can see video of up to 49 people in a meeting simultaneously, and virtual breakout rooms, which allow meeting organizers to split meeting participants into smaller groups for things like brainstorming sessions or workgroup discussions”.

  • ‘Video filters’: “Before joining a meeting, you can use the filters to subtly adjust lighting levels and soften the focus of the camera to customize your appearance.

It remains to be seen if this really makes Teams more usable than the competition.


Here’s a way to think about Facebook

Imagine a factory that allowed anyone to bring toxic waste there, any time of day or night, and promised to store it. Imagine that in addition to storing the waste, the factory would exponentially increase the amount of toxic waste and enlist wide swaths of the population into adding their own pollution to the mix. Imagine that as part of its service, the factory would continually spew those toxins into our air, water, and soil, poisoning millions of people. Imagine then that the factory devoted some small degree of their services to cleaning up some of those toxins, well after much of the toxic waste had been distributed, and then asked to be congratulated for cleaning up 90% of the spills (according to its own unverifiable metrics). Lastly, at every opportunity, the factory would proudly proclaim that it doesn’t profit from distributing toxic waste.

From Chris Gilliard, writing in OneZero.

This is an example of a rhetorical tactic that might help break the “learned helplessness” of populations dazzled or intimidated by tech platforms. It’s a tactic I’ve used often — most recently in a long essay — Slouching towards Dystopia that appeared in the New Statesman in late February. What gives it its power is the fact that many of the things that we accept unquestioningly when online would be instantly regarded as totally unacceptable if anyone tried to impose them in real world. Nobody, for example, would sign a contract as skewed and one-sided as the average End User Licence Agreement (EULA) that people casually click to accept on the Web. If you want to alert people to what is happening, you have to translate it first into a real-world context.


Slate Star Codex, Silicon Valley and an arcane storm in a tea cup

I’ve been an interested reader of a blog called Slate Star Codex for a while, but one day last month when I visited it I found just a headline — “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog” — followed by this:

So, I kind of deleted the blog. Sorry. Here’s my explanation.

Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex. He told me it would be a mostly positive piece about how we were an interesting gathering place for people in tech, and how we were ahead of the curve on some aspects of the coronavirus situation. It probably would have been a very nice article.

Unfortunately, he told me he had discovered my real name and would reveal it in the article, ie doxx me. “Scott Alexander” is my real first and middle name, but I’ve tried to keep my last name secret. I haven’t always done great at this, but I’ve done better than “have it get printed in the New York Times“.

I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous…

I was puzzled by this and wondered what lay behind it. But life is short and I was doing a daily Quarantine diary and had other work to do, so I left it as just another of those unsolved mysteries.

But in true New Yorker style, the New Yorker couldn’t let it go and now there’s a long essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus which takes a deep dive into the background.

Turns out it’s mostly about an arcane field of battle in the culture wars. As Miss Brodie says of chemistry in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, “For those that like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like.” It is interesting, though, and revealing about a particular cast of mind in Silicon Valley.


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Thursday 21 May, 2020

Quote of the Day

“They would like to have the people come off. I’d rather have the people stay [on the ship]. … I would rather because I like the numbers being where they are. I don’t need to have the numbers double because of one ship that was not our fault.”

  • Donald J. Trump, Acting President of the United States, March 4, while on a visit to the Centers for Disease Control, answering a question about whether passengers on the Grand Princess cruise ship should be allowed to disembark.

5G ‘protection’ in Glastonbury

Glastonbury is possibly the wackiest town in the UK. Maybe it’s something in the water supply. There’s a lovely post on the Quackometer blog about it.

The council published a report that called for an ending of 5G rollout. Several members of the working group that looked into the safety of 5G complained that the group had been taken over “by anti-5G activists and “spiritual healers”.

This is not surprising to anyone who has ever visited the town of Glastonbury. There is not a shop, pub, business or chip shop that has not been taken over by “spiritual healers” of one sort or another. You cannot walk down the High Street without being smothered in a fog of incense and patchouli. It is far easier to buy a dozen black candles and a pewter dragon than it is a pint of milk.

Science has no sanctuary in Glastonbury. Homeopaths, healers, hedge-witches and hippies all descend on the town to be at one with the Goddess.

There may be no science there, but there’s a lot of ‘technology’ — as the BBC Technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones discovered on a visit — after which he tweeted this:

Further down, there’s a delicious analysis of an electronic device to ‘neutralise radiation’. Taking it apart reveals its innards:

This sophisticated device consists of a switch, a 9-volt battery, a length of standard copper pipe with two endpieces, and an LED bulb.

Not clear how much it sells for, but my guess is £50.

I’m in the wrong business.


Farewell to Beyond the Beyond

This is the title of what is, IMHO, the best essay on blogging ever written. If that seems an extravagant claim, stay tuned. But first, some context.

Bruce Sterling is one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement in science fiction, along with William Gibson, Rudy Rucker, John Shirley, Lewis Shiner, and Pat Cadigan. In addition, he is one of the subgenre’s chief ideological promulgators. But for me he’s always been the consummate blogger. His Beyond the Beyond blog has been running on Wired since 2003, but now — after 17 glorious years — he’s just written a final post.

So, the blog is formally ending this month, May MMXX.

My weblog is a collateral victim of Covid19, which has become a great worldwide excuse to stop whatever you were doing.

You see, this is a WIRED blog — in fact, it is the first ever WIRED blog — and WIRED and other Conde’ Nast publications are facing a planetary crisis. Basically, they’ve got no revenue stream, since the business model for glossy mags is advertisements for events and consumer goods.

If there are no big events due to pandemic, and nobody’s shopping much, either, then it’s mighty hard to keep a magazine empire afloat in midair. Instead, you’ve gotta fire staffers, shut down software, hunt new business models, re-organize and remove loose ends. There is probably no looser-end in the entire WIRED domain than this weblog.

So, in this extensive and self-indulgent conclusion, I’d like to summarize what I think I’ve learned by messing with this weblog for seventeen years.

I’ve been a passionate blogger since the late-1990s. It seemed to me that blogs were the first sign that the Internet was a technology that could finally enable the realisation of Jurgen Habermas’s concept of the ‘public sphere’. It met the three criteria for such a sphere:

  • universal access — anybody could have access to the space;
  • rational discussion on any subject; and
  • disregard of rank or social status.

Initially, my blog was private. It was basically a simple website that I had created, with a very primitive layout. I regarded it as a kind of lab notebook — a place for jotting down ideas where I wouldn’t lose them. As it grew, I discovered that it became even more useful if I put a search engine on it. And then when Dave Winer came up with a blogging platform — Frontier — I switched to that and Memex 1.1 went public. It was named after Vannevar Bush’s concept of the ‘Memex’– a system for associative linking — which he first articulated in a paper in 1939 and eventually published in 1945, and which eventually led, via an indirect route, to Tim Berners-Lee’s concept of the World Wide Web. If you’re interested, the full story is told in my history of the Net.

And since then Memex 1.1 has been up and running.

I suppose one of the reasons why I like Bruce’s swansong is that his views on blogging resonate with mine — except that he articulates them much more clearly that I ever have. Over the years I’ve encountered puzzlement, suspicion, scepticism and occasionally ridicule for the dogged way I’ve persisted in an activity that many of my friends and colleagues consistently regarded as weird. My journalistic colleagues, in particular, were always bemused by Memex: but that was possibly because (at least until recently) journalists regarded anybody who wrote for no pay as clinically insane. In that, they were at one with Dr Johnson, who famously observed that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money”.

Still, there we are.

Bruce’s post is worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few gems:

…on its origins…

When I first started the “Beyond the Beyond” blog, I was a monthly WIRED columnist and a contributing editor. Wired magazine wanted to explore the newfangled medium of weblogs, and asked me to give that a try. I was doing plenty of Internet research to support my monthly Wired column, so I was nothing loath. I figured I would simply stick my research notes online. How hard could that be?

That wouldn’t cost me much more effort than the duty of writing my column — or so I imagined. Maybe readers would derive some benefit from seeing some odd, tangential stuff that couldn’t fit within a magazine’s paper limits. The stuff that was — you know — less mainstream acceptable, more sci-fi-ish, more far-out and beyond-ish — more Sterlingian.

… on its general remit …

Unlike most WIRED blogs, my blog never had any “beat” — it didn’t cover any subject matter in particular. It wasn’t even “journalism,” but more of a novelist’s “commonplace book,” sometimes almost a designer mood board.

… on its lack of a business model…

It was extremely Sterlingesque in sensibility, but it wasn’t a “Bruce Sterling” celebrity blog, because there was scarcely any Bruce Sterling material in it. I didn’t sell my books on the blog, cultivate the fan-base, plug my literary cronies; no, none of that standard authorly stuff

… on why he blogged…

I keep a lot of paper notebooks in my writerly practice. I’m not a diarist, but I’ve been known to write long screeds for an audience of one, meaning myself. That unpaid, unseen writing work has been some critically important writing for me — although I commonly destroy it. You don’t have creative power over words unless you can delete them.

It’s the writerly act of organizing and assembling inchoate thought that seems to helps me. That’s what I did with this blog; if I blogged something for “Beyond the Beyond,” then I had tightened it, I had brightened it. I had summarized it in some medium outside my own head. Posting on the blog was a form of psychic relief, a stream of consciousness that had moved from my eyes to my fingertips; by blogging, I removed things from the fog of vague interest and I oriented them toward possible creative use.

… on not having an ideal reader…

Also, the ideal “Beyond the Beyond” reader was never any fan of mine, or even a steady reader of the blog itself. I envisioned him or her as some nameless, unlikely character who darted in orthogonally, saw a link to some odd phenomenon unheard-of to him or her, and then careened off at a new angle, having made that novelty part of his life. They didn’t have to read the byline, or admire the writer’s literary skill, or pony up any money for enlightenment or entertainment. Maybe they would discover some small yet glimmering birthday-candle to set their life alight.

Blogging is akin to stand-up comedy — it’s not coherent drama, it’s a stream of wisecracks. It’s also like street art — just sort of there, stuck in the by-way, begging attention, then crumbling rapidly.

Lovely stuff. Worth celebrating.


Moral Crumple Zones

Pathbreaking academic paper by Madeleine Clare Elish which addresses the problem of how to assign culpability and responsibility when AI systems cause harm. Example: when a ‘self-driving’ car hits and hills a pedestrian, is the ‘safety driver’ (the human supervisor sitting in the car but not at the controls at the time of the accident) the agent who gets prosecuted for manslaughter? (This is a real case, btw.).

Although published ages ago (2016) this is still a pathbreaking paper. In it Elish comes up with a striking new concept.

I articulate the concept of a moral crumple zone to describe how responsibility for an action may be misattributed to a human actor who had limited control over the behavior of an automated or autonomous system.1Just as the crumple zone in a car is designed to absorb the force of impact in a crash, the human in a highly complex and automated system may become simply a component—accidentally or intentionally—that bears the brunt of the moral and legal responsibilities when the overall system malfunctions.

While the crumple zone in a car is meant to protect the human driver, the moral crumple zone protects the integrity of the technological system, at the expense of the nearest human operator. What is unique about the concept of a moral crumple zone is that it highlights how structural features of a system and the media’s portrayal of accidents may inadvertently take advantage of human operators (and their tendency to become “liability sponges”) to fill the gaps in accountability that may arise in the context of new and complex systems.

It’s interesting how the invention of a pithy phrase can help to focus attention, attention and understanding.

Writing the other day in Wired, Tom Simonite picked up on Elish’s insight:

People may find it even harder to clearly see the functions and failings of more sophisticated AI systems that continually adapt to their surroundings and experiences. “What does it mean to understand what a system does if it is dynamic and learning and we can’t count on our previous knowledge?” Elish asks. As we interact with more AI systems, perhaps our own remarkable capacity for learning will help us develop a theory of machine mind, to intuit their motivations and behavior. Or perhaps the solution lies in the machines, not us. Engineers of future AI systems might need to spend as much time testing how well they play with humans as on adding to their electronic IQs.


Robotic Process Automation

Sounds boring, right? Actually for the average web user or business, it’s way more important than machine learning. RPA refers basically to software tools for automating the “long tail” of mundane tasks that are boring, repetitive, and prone to human error. Every office — indeed everyone who uses a computer for work — has tasks like this.

Mac users have lots of these tools available. I use Textexpander, for example, to create a small three-character code which, when activated, can type a signature at the foot of an email, or the top of a letterhead or, for that matter, an entire page of stored boilerplate text. For other tasks there are tools like IFTTT, Apple’s Shortcuts and other automation tools that are built into the OS X operating system.

Windows users, however, were not so lucky, which I guess is why the WinAutomation tools provided by a British company Softmotive were so popular. And guess what? Softmotive has just been bought by Microsoft. Smart move by Redmond.


Quarantine diary — Day 61

Link


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Smoke signals and COVID-19

In a terrific blog post Jacob Falkovich cites a famous psychology experiment:

Most people sitting alone in a room will quickly get out if it starts filling up with smoke. But if two other people in the room seem unperturbed, almost everyone will stay put. That is the result of a famous experiment from the 1960s and its replications — people will sit and nervously look around at their peers for 20 minutes even as the thick smoke starts obscuring their vision.

He then goes on to show how this human frailty might explain why the general public (as distinct from epidemiologists) was so slow to appreciate the risk from the virus.

The coronavirus was identified on January 7th and spread outside China by January 13th. American media ran some stories about how you should worry about the seasonal flu instead. The markets didn’t budge. Rationalist Twitter started tweeting excitedly about R0 and supply chains.

Over the next two weeks Chinese COVID cases kept climbing at 60%/day reaching 17,000 by February 2nd. Cases were confirmed in Europe and the US. The WHO declared a global emergency. The former FDA commissioner explained why a law technicality made it illegal for US hospitals to test people for coronavirus, implying that we have no actual idea how many Americans have contracted the disease. Everyone mostly ignored him including all major media publications, and equity markets hit an all time high. By this point several Rationalists in Silicon Valley and elsewhere started seriously prepping for a pandemic and canceling large gatherings.

On February 13th, Vox published a story mocking people in Silicon Valley for worrying about COVID-19. The article contained multiple factual mistakes about the virus and the opinions of public health experts.

On the 17th, Eliezer asked how markets should react to an obvious looming pandemic. Most people agreed that the markets should freak out and aren’t. Most people decided to trust the markets over their own judgment. As an avowed efficient marketeer who hasn’t made an active stock trade in a decade, I stared at that Tweet for a long time. I stared at it some more. Then I went ahead and sold 10% of the stocks I owned and started buying respirators and beans.

By the 21st, the pandemic and its concomitant fears hit everywhere from Iran to Italy while in the US thousands of people were asked to self-quarantine. Most elected officials in the US seemed utterly unaware that anything was happening. CNN ran a front page story about the real enemies being racism and the seasonal flu.

This week the spell began to lift at last. The stock market tumbled 7%. WaPo squeezed out one more story about racism before confirming that the virus is spreading among Americans with no links to Wuhan and that’s scary. Trump decided to throw his vice president under the coronavirus bus, finally admitting that it’s a thing that the government is aware of.

And Rationalist Twitter asked: what the fuck is wrong with everyone who is not on Rationalist Twitter?

Great post. It’s also about public understanding (or lack thereof) and journalistic (in)capacity.

Computational propaganda continues to increase — and evolve

A new report from the Computational Propaganda group at the Oxford Internet Institute shows that states are increasingly using weaponising social media for information supression, disinformation and political manipulation. The researchers found “evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns which have taken place in 70 countries, up from 48 countries in 2018 and 28 countries in 2017. In each country, there is at least one political party or government agency using social media to shape public attitudes domestically.”

Other findings:

  • social media has been exploited by authoritarian regimes in 26 countries to suppress basic human rights, discredit political opponents and drown out dissenting opinions.

  • A handful of sophisticated state actors use computational propaganda for foreign influence operations. Facebook and Twitter attributed foreign influence operations to seven countries (China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) who have used these platforms to influence global audiences.

  • China has become a major player in the global disinformation order. Until the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, most evidence of Chinese computational propaganda occurred on domestic platforms such as Weibo, WeChat, and QQ. But China’s new-found interest in aggressively using Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should raise concerns for democracies.

  • Facebook remains the platform of choice for social media manipulation. In 56 countries, the researchers found evidence of formally organized computational propaganda campaigns on Facebook. Interestingly, the exploitation of Facebook’s targeted advertising machineseems to be on the decline. In the case studies the researchers studied, advertising was not central to the spread of disinformation. Instead the campaigns created memes, videos or other kinds of content tailored to exploit platforms’ algorithms and their amplifying effects — effectively getting virality for free.

There’s a good NYT report summarising the researchers’ findings.

Conspiracy theories, the Internet and democracy

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:

Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.

On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.

More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…

Read on

Context, not content, is what’s needed now. And collaboration, not competition.

From a striking CJR post by Todd Gitlin:

After months of recalculation, of reappraisals agonizing and not, of euphemisms and of mea culpas loud and soft, the Times does not know with whom it is dealing. It is as if the mafia were being approached as a quaint bunch of oddballs. It’s as if oversight were the most plausible reason why the famous Rob Goldstone email addressed to Donald J. Trump, Jr., subject-lined “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” failed to “set off alarm bells” among the likes of Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Trump Jr. in Trump Tower—and not the far more plausible explanation that Russian cronies were nothing new at making approaches to Trumpworld. Trump’s buildings were homes away from home for all manner of criminals and Russian investors, as were his foreign ventures.

This is what journalists called “context.” Call it background, call it whatever you want. But if you ignore it, you are reporting a baseball game as if people in uniforms are running around a diamond and chasing a ball for no apparent reason at all.

Yep. This essay goes nicely with Dan Gilmor’s plea for journalists to get their acts together on reporting Trump. There’s a strange way in which the competitiveness of journalists is preventing them from collaborating to fight Trump’s campaign to sideline the First Amendment.

That means breaking with customs, and some traditions — changing the journalism, and some of the ways you practice it, to cope with the onslaught of willful misinformation aimed at undermining public belief in basic reality. You can start by looking at the public’s information needs from the public’s point of view, not just your own.

The collaboration needs to be broad, and deep, across organizations and platforms. It can be immediate — such as an agreement among White House reporters to resist the marginalizing, or banning outright, of journalists who displease the president. If a legitimate reporter is banned from an event, or verbally dismissed in a briefing or press conference, other journalists should either boycott the event or, at the very least, ask and re-ask his or her question until it’s answered. In the briefing room, show some spine, and do it together.

The trouble is: most journalists are not by instinct collaborative — which is why they find networked journalism difficult. And their employers are rarely helpful in this regard. That’s also why collaborative ventures — like the one that reported and analysed the Panama Papers — represent such a welcome change.

How network effects amplify lies

This morning’s Observer column:

In the 1930s, a maverick young journalist named Claud Cockburn resigned from the Times and, with £40 borrowed from an Oxford friend, bought a mimeograph machine (a low-cost duplicating machine that worked by forcing ink though a stencil on to paper). With it he set up the Week, a weekly newsletter available by subscription in which Cockburn printed news and gossip that came to him from his diverse group of contacts in both the British and German establishments.

From the beginning the Week printed stuff that the mainstream newspapers wouldn’t touch because of fears of running foul of the Official Secrets Act, the libel laws or the political establishment. Cockburn, having few assets and a rackety lifestyle, proceeded as if none of this applied to him. But people in the know – the third secretaries of foreign embassies, for example, or City bankers – quickly recognised the value of the Week (for the same reasons as they now read Private Eye). Nevertheless the circulation of Cockburn’s scandal sheet remained confined to this small elite circle – and its finances were correspondingly dodgy.

And then one day everything changed…

Read on

Unmasking sock puppets

So called ‘sock puppets’ are multiple social media accounts which are actually controlled by a single person. They’re a pain and the pain is getting worse — as we discovered in 2016 — because they can have a distorting impact on online discourse.

But now comes some good news. New Scientist reports that researchers have developed some tools that can detect these pests with reasonable accuracy.

[Srijan] Kumar and his colleagues at the University of Maryland and Stanford University in California analysed commenter accounts on news websites including CNN, NPR, Breitbart and Fox News. They identified the sock puppets by finding accounts that posted from the same IP address in the same discussion at similar times. This approach isn’t always possible, so they wanted to develop a tool that automatically detects sock puppets based only on publicly accessible posting data.

They 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.

Based on their findings, the researchers created a machine learning tool that can detect if two accounts belong to the same person 91 per cent of the time. Another tool can distinguish between a regular account and a sock puppet with 68 per cent accuracy. The research will be presented this week at the World Wide Web Conference in Perth, Australia.