So, some tips to spot astroturfing/fake users

Discussion in 'Managing Your Online Community' started by CM30, Feb 6, 2013.

  1. CM30

    CM30 Regular Member

    Jul 1, 2012
    Likes Received:
    Well, after seeing quite a few stories where large companies have been caught using fake users to defend themselves or where certain site owners have used a whole multitude of fake users to make their sites look active, I thought it was time someone gave some tips on how to spot this sort of thing. So here are a few tips I have for how to detect whether a site is using fake members or not.

    The Warning signs:

    1. Use of stock photos or stolen photos as avatars or 'profile pictures'

    Here's an obvious one to start. If you ever find out someone's 'personal' photo can be found online in a few hundred or thousand different places (and under a different name), for the love of God be suspicious of them. Companies trying to astroturf often make this mistake:

    As do bloggers trying to pass themselves off as others (either for attention or because of M√ľnchausen by Internet. Again, if you need proof of this, some of these cases should probably be familiar to you:

    So yes, if you ever get suspicious that someone online might not be who they say they are, check and see if their picture matches a few hundred or thousand others online and is available to get from a stock photo website. You can test this by looking it up at a search engine like TinEye (often used to find image plagiarism and stuff):

    2. Complete lack of personal information across the site

    Now don't me wrong, a lot of people don't give away a lot of information about themselves and most people don't own websites, but I'd say you should still be pretty suspicious if you come across a website/forum/community and find that no one on the site even has a personal Twitter or Facebook page.

    Heck, look at their profile pictures. Should be pretty suspicious if everyone either has a stock photo or a non-identifying generic image, right?

    So look it up. See if anyone's entered absolutely anything that can identify them even anonymously (like a social network profile, a Youtube channel, a website) and be extremely wary if it turns out most of the people on the site you're on haven't.

    3. Activity only on one particular website

    Another obvious tell-tale sign, although it obviously doesn't help identify astroturfing because of the whole point of the exercise. Basically, look up the usernames, avatars and personal information of suspicious users online, and if nothing comes back you should be a bit wary that they might be fake posters or sockpuppets of the site owners.

    Why is this seen as a clue? Well look at it this way; if you're on someone's site, they hold all the information about IP addresses and the like. But if they post elsewhere using these multiple identities, all it can take is one bored webmaster to check the logs and their multiple account scheme falls right apart. Not to mention that it's a significant amount more effort than most people willing to use fake members would ever go to.

    4. The same posts and activity across tons of websites

    The flipside to the above point, this is a pretty good way to identify astroturfing or people faking their identity for personal gain, since they have a tendency to write the same thing across a million and one different sites or to come back a few months later and say the same thing under a different name.

    So take their suspicious comment, enter part of it in Google and see what comes back. If it turns out they're going around to every site in the niche saying the same thing complete with the same wording, you've practically busted them for either astroturfing or being a spambot. And if they're saying the same story under different names on different sites a few months apart, you might well have found someone trying to benefit off of others kindness online (like those people faking to have terminal cancer or the like who end up banned from a whole ton of different communities).

    5. The information they provide isn't backed up by any evidence

    Finally, you've got this sign. It's not usually associated with admins using fake members, or with astroturfing specifically (although as I'll mention below, there are exceptions), but it's a very good way to figure out whether someone is lying through their teeth.

    And the way you can find this out is simple, look up some of the information they provided and try and find real world evidence it actually happened or is true.

    That accident they were in? Look it up on the news and see whether any articles come back verifying their story. Someone supposedly died? Look for an obituary somewhere; they're usually available if you know where to look. That PhD they supposedly had in a relevant field? There are a few databases which list any and all dissertations accepted by legitimate institutions.

    If you need a good example of how someone tried to fake various things and wasn't banking on this, see the sorry story of a game called 'Death's Apprentice'. Terrible game which was roundly mocked on most news sites, the authors tried to defend it anonymously by saying all the 'interesting content' was later in the game and that was some well received title that was being remade. Or something, they never did make the 'situation' quite clear.

    So I verified it. I looked for absolutely any evidence of the game having being released, and what did I find? Nothing. No videos, no pictures, no information on any wikis or websites dedicated to similar types of games, no forum posts, nothing on Twitter or Facebook, no sprites or maps, nothing. It all made it extremely obvious that the game was neither real nor as revolutionary as the authors had said it was, since you can't release something amazing over ten years ago then have it turn out that no one's even discussed it in those ten years.

    So do your research. Look up any and all information you think sounds dodgy or suspicious, and be even more wary of it if it turns out there's no evidence in support of the claims. Do that and I can guarantee you that you'll pretty much never fall for a hoax or lies ever again.

    Well, those are my tips for how to spot fake users, astroturfers, sockpuppets and other such individuals on forums you own or are a member of. Does anyone else here have any such advice of their own?
    cpvr and Brandon like this.

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