How to Deal with Sock Puppet and Alternate Accounts

In my last article I wrote about some of the more common user problems you’ll face as a community manager, both from the deliberate antagonism of “trolls” and from socially incompetent users inadvertently stirring up your regulars. The next few articles will deal with some of the rarer varieties of problem users, who cause problems that are much harder to deal with.

Sock_puppetWe’ll start with the easiest and most tedious; alternate accounts. Commonly known as “alts” or “multinicks”, these users are a blight on essentially every board at some point. As the name implies, these are users who register multiple accounts on your board. Their purposes aren’t always nefarious; I can recall one user who started a dozen accounts purely because he couldn’t decide on a name he liked. He was aghast at the discovery that this was against our forum rules. There are also people who’ve simply forgotten their account info, or false IP check positives from roommates and partners. Like all users who essentially want to contribute, these are easily dealt with.

One of the more common abuses of alternate accounts is the “sock puppet”. This is an account set up by a user to support their primary account, generally in debates. A sock puppet account for me in the user comments for this article might look like this

Sock Puppet #1: Gosh, what a brilliantly incisive article from Patrick.
Sock Puppet #2: I agree! And what a handsome byline picture! Vanilla should give him a company car!

Naturally this is an incredibly childish way to carry on, but even experienced journalists have been caught doing this with their own wikipedia entries. Generally these users aren’t going to bother to clear their IPs or cookies, so aren’t too hard to detect. It’s a good idea to run an IP check on any new user who have suddenly materialised to be extremely supportive of one of your regulars. A user of sockpuppets by definition has a lot wrapped up in their online identity. The embarrassment of their juvenile deception being revealed will normally prevent repeat offences.

By far the most common abuse of alts you’re likely to see is users attempting to circumvent bans or other account restrictions. It’s rare that a week goes by without someone trying this. It’s even rarer to find a user who doesn’t believe they’re a cunning genius for having thought of it. My personal policy is that anyone caught circumventing a temporary banning in this way will have their ban made permanent. A few users will respond to this by simply making a new alt, then another, ad infinitum. IP bans are obviously a limited help in this. Users with even the most limited internet savvy will know how to use proxies and spam emails to keep making accounts. While there are other methods of detecting users, going into them here would obviously be of more help to the ban dodgers than to you.

Fortunately, the real solution will come from your management of the situation. In some cases, the alternate account problem can be turned into an effective way to defuse the troll. This exchange isn’t uncommon

User: You may have banned me, but I’ll just make an alternate account and keep posting!
Mod: Right, but because of your constant abusive behaviour we’ll know it’s you and simply ban it again.
User: Well then! I’ll follow all of the rules of the forum and you’ll never know that it’s me
Mod: So you’ll just start contributing properly? Lo, I am undone.

The troll will then use their proxy alt to scrupulously follow the rules, confident that they have outsmarted you. As long as they’re smart enough to keep hiding their identity, you may as well let them. There is more than one user on Penny Arcade with a secret identity that everyone on the staff is aware of, but since said identity leaves results in them behaving in an exemplary fashion we’re all perfectly willing to let them believe we’ve been hoodwinked.

More belligerent and self righteous users will make little to no attempt to hide their identity, and will continue with the behaviour that got them banned in the first place. The solution to this comes in two parts. The first is simply the grinding tedium of banning their alts over and over again. A determined user will always find a way to keep making accounts. Keep banning them. It’s quicker for you to ban accounts than it is for them to make accounts. One particularly persistent user had been banned over 200 times before they got bored. Never underestimate the free time available to heavy internet users, but don’t be discouraged. Keep banning them. Don’t make a deal.

The second part of the solution is user and mod education. Both you and your mods should completely stop engaging the user. Don’t leave ban messages. Don’t offer a witty rejoinder. Give them as little attention as possible. If they send abusive emails, ignore them. Block IMs without a word of response. See who rusts first. Make sure that your users do they same, and if necessary punish users who refuse to disengage. When a troll sees no reaction from staff or users, their will to continue will ebb quickly. Even the most tragic troll will eventually get sick of throwing themselves at the ramparts, and will either move on or try the aforementioned tactic of blending in. If they’re successful in doing so, go ahead and let them have the victory of thinking they tricked you. Once you stop getting annoyed by the bark, you’ll see that these users have no bite at all.

Patrick Groome HeadshotGuest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.