Sock Puppet Theater is an interactive media artwork featuring animatronic sock puppets that speak the words of social media posts from sock puppet accounts known to have engaged in disinformation campaigns. Sock puppets are imposter social media accounts created to infiltrate groups, surveil and provoke people, and spread disinformation. The installation consists of a puppet stage that is a combination of a classic Punch and Judy puppet show and a dystopian video game or penny arcade. Viewers can scroll through a dataset of actual social media posts made by sock puppets on a touch screen interface to select posts for the puppets to perform, or they can press arcade buttons to select a post at random. The puppets perform in front of a large screen displaying images and videos from the social media posts they reenact. This first version of the project features two sock puppets to represent left and right-wing samples from a dataset of Russian Internet Research Agency sock puppet accounts. This allows us to demonstrate how the tactics between the two targeted groups remained largely the same despite the difference in messaging. Since starting the project, we have completed several major milestones and made significant progress on several others.
We have expanded the initial dataset of social media posts made by the Internet Research Agency targeting citizens of the USA. By combining various datasets assembled by different researchers and government agencies, we now have what we believe to be the most comprehensive dataset on this topic. We have also been able to reconstruct many of the social media posts that had been removed from the platforms by using the Wayback Machine and a custom-built web crawler that is able to find images and videos that had been shared on social media accounts that have not been banned. Finally, we have identified several new potential datasets that can be used in future iterations of the project and have begun the process of da¬ta collection.
|Sock Puppet||Social Media Post Text||Followers||Target|
|@TEN_GOP||Man attempts to cut off the shroud covering Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville Take the burqa off the General!||145,208||Right-wing|
|@Jenn_Abrams||American University Professor Ibram Kendi: Those Who Deny Discrimination Think Blacks Are ‘Inferior’ You’re racist if you deny you’re racist||71,018||Right-wing|
|@Pamela_Moore13||Liberals are insane. Protesters start to DIG UP body of Confederate general in Memphis.||69,982||Right-wing|
|@wokeluisa||There’s actually one good thing about the Trump presidency. It has finally exposed ‘evangelical Christians’ for what they are – misogynists, pedophile supporters and Nazi sympathizers.||55,467||Left-wing|
|@SOUTHLONESTAR||There’s nothing like getting slapped around while making a purchase. Islam is a cancer that must be removed. #BanIslam #IslamIsTheProblem||46,438||Right-wing|
|@BlackNewsOutlet||Unite the Right nazi retards in #Charlottesville organize torchlight procession just like in Hitler times. How is this even allowed?||39,846||Left-wing|
|@KaniJJackson||Cambridge Analytica bosses say they “ran all the digital campaign” for Donald Trump – including potentially illegal activities.||18,509||Left-wing|
|@Crystal1Johnson||Hillary Clinton is not the change we can believe in. This is proven every time she engages with young Black people.||4,553||Left-wing|
We have designed a modular structure for the stage using metal tubing that is strong, lightweight and can fit in luggage or a medium-sized box. Development of the stage is ongoing. To create the dystopian aesthetic, we are working with etched Plexiglas and LED lights to simulate neon signage that will display social media icons and references to disinformation.
We have begun the process of user testing and gathering feedback on our early prototype. In-person testing hasn’t yielded as many participants as we had hoped for, so we are now focusing on developing an online version of the project that features videos of the animatronic puppet. This has the advantages of being able to reach a more diverse audience (geographically, demographically, and politically) and having a built-in questionnaire so that testing can be done even when a facilitator is not available. We have purchased the domain disinformation.theater for the online version. Disinformation Theater may ultimately become the name of the project.
Our initial plan to use consumer grade robotic claws for the sock puppet resulted in puppets that lacked the range of motion and speed that a human hand has in a puppet. After testing more than a half dozen different claws, we decided to engineer our own to have complete control over the gear ratio and shape of the hands. The current hands, which are custom made and 3D printed at our university’s maker space, move very much like human hands.
During our user testing we have been getting feedback on different audiovisual components that we are considering for the puppets. So far, we are iteratively designing the sock, hair and eyes and are leaning towards voices that sound like cartoons, as they are the most similar to voices used by actual puppet theaters and animatronic shows. Realistic human voices tend to reproduce the anger and outrage of the social media posts, which may break the distancing effect that we are trying to establish. We are experimenting with techniques to find the right balance between the real and mechanical. The goal is to have a sock puppet that looks and moves in a way that feels convincingly realistic, but also reveals its own mechanical nature as a metaphor for how these campaigns utilize both humans and algorithmic tools. To accomplish this, we are experimenting with the smoothness of the servo motors, the sound of the mechanical movements, and using tiny OLED screens for the eyes, so that they can move and blink like real eyes, but could also glitch out at points in the animation.