There is a Chinese term 网路水军 (wǎnglù shuǐjūn) for people paid to attack a particular target on the Internet. I've seen "spammers" as the English for this expression, but to my mind a spammer usually operates by sending email or texts in bulk or by robo-phoning. In contrast, I'm interested in finding a term for people who specialize in posting bad reviews on commerce sites or discussion boards.

Example: "My company hired ________ to smear its competition in on-line reviews, but we had to apologize after being found out."

Update: There's some interesting discussion going on in the comments and subcomments. Good people, please be gentle with each other.

I'm not necessarily looking for an outright translation of the Chinese term I mentioned; ideally, I'd like to find a pre-existing term in English. The phenomenon of fake testimonials or criticisms of a product, in Anglophone society, goes back a long way before the Internet, and I don't think water armies would be comprehensible to anyone not already familiar with the Chinese term.

I'm interested in exploring sock puppet, which I've seen used to refer to the poster of a fake review or up-voter on Stack Overflow. The OED has a year 2000 citation to a related figurative usage, which it defines as "a person whose actions are controlled by another; a minion." (The citation calls the Presidential candidate Al Gore a sock puppet, meaning that he is just a front for some more nefarious political force.) Slang often has fluid meanings, and I'm not sure sock puppet has really settled into the meaning I'm looking for.

But I'm learning a lot from the discussion.

  • 'Flamer' can have a completely unrelated sense but is also used to describe those who 'flame' others in online conversation or reviews. That's generic, though; it doesn't specifically refer to people hired to be jerks.
    – lly
    Aug 12, 2018 at 16:01
  • OP, there's a pretty thorough discussion of this at Wikipedia's article on "Internet Water Armies". It looks like there are a lot of new terms competing for space, but that article will give you an idea about how fairly formal writing discusses the activities involved.
    – lly
    Aug 12, 2018 at 17:21
  • If you're not averse to coining your own term, you could use cyber saboteur, cyber scorner or cyber smearer.
    – Wordster
    Aug 12, 2018 at 18:39
  • minion? The poor word has mostly obsolete definitions. Who know what 'paid cyber false-witness' word will make it to the OED!
    – lbf
    Aug 12, 2018 at 20:37
  • 1
    This is a tough crowd. A bunch of people have had spirited discussions to find the perfect word, and invested a lot of time rewriting and improving answers against a moving goalpost. And all but one are sitting at a net negative score. The exception is positive by one more than the negative count. It may be that none of the answers is the perfect one, but none of these suck, and some are reasonably high quality answers. The downvoting seems way out of proportion to the quality and applicability of the answers. No good deed goes unpunished. Let's lighten up and keep this fun and rewarding. :-)
    – fixer1234
    Aug 12, 2018 at 21:34

4 Answers 4


Cyber shill: Someone hired to be a flamer via comments or discussion fora. "The company hired cyber shills to denigrate the competition's products."

  • 1
    Eh... your article does seem to use it to include flamers but most other sources use internet or cyber shill to mean something closer to a shill: ie, they're the ones who promote the company with false reviews, likes, follows, etc.
    – lly
    Aug 12, 2018 at 15:58

You're right that spammers sent spam. It would be appropriate for your sentence if you meant the people were hired to send bulk amounts of automated messages.

It wouldn't be appropriate if they were personally written and thoughtful critiques, although I don't think that's normally how such firms do business. There's not really a term for that, as far as I know, but some figurative use of hitman or assassin comes to mind. Ghostwriters are also people who are hired to write in others' names.

Cursory googling suggests people mostly seem to talk in terms of 'malicious', 'false', or 'fake' reviews, rather than give a name to the Dark Web service providers themselves. Wordster's answer includes a source that mentions internet or cyber shills as a common term these days. People mostly use it to mean those who provide fake positive reviews &c. but presumably the same companies could be hired for other covert marketing services as well.

Edit: Ok, my frustrating conversation in the comments here finally led to the right (if highly informal) term for this:


Someone who controls sockpuppets

Wikipedia also describes them as sockmasters. Again, though, it's more common to speak in terms of fake reviews or use spammer or internet shill, where those terms are applicable.

Edit: Also, for what it's worth, people do just say

Internet Water Army

in reference to the Chinese internet:

On the Internet in the People's Republic of China, an Internet Water Army or Wangluo Shuijun (simplified Chinese: 网络水军; traditional Chinese: 網絡水軍; pinyin: Wǎngluò shuǐjūn; Wade–Giles: Wang-luo shui-chün) is a group of Internet ghostwriters paid to post online comments with particular content. In this "astroturfing" (meaning "artificial grass-roots") technique for public relations and media manipulation, online Chinese companies employ people to make postings on social media in order to change public opinion. The private Wangluo shuijun operations parallel the official 50 Cent Party propagandist Internet commentators hired by the government of the People's Republic of China or the Communist Party of China.

'Guerillas' might be a better translation into English, but this is just a calque of the Chinese term anyway so there's no reason not to be direct about it.

  • Sockmaster sounds like someone I should hire to deal with my washing machine, which keeps losing single socks. :-)
    – fixer1234
    Aug 12, 2018 at 17:16
  • I agree. I prefer 'sockpuppeteer', although that sounds more like someone trying to win a move dispute at Wikipedia more than a company involved in astroturfing negative reviews. In any case, they are the terms for the people who control sockpuppets.
    – lly
    Aug 12, 2018 at 17:18
  • 1
    OK you're right. As the OP's sentence is written, sockpuppet isn't the right form of the word. You could say "My company used sockpuppets to smear its competition." or maybe "My company hired sockpuppeteers to smear its competition". They would be the paid bodies carrying out the deed.
    – fixer1234
    Aug 12, 2018 at 17:27
  • Isn't the NYT referring to a literal sock puppet, like Kermit the Frog?
    – fixer1234
    Aug 12, 2018 at 18:08

The term you are looking for is:


(They operate with their Sockpuppet identity)

Sock puppet marketing is one example of astroturfing.

A 'sockpuppet' (one word) is a false identity, a made up person which is manipulated to appear as if they have done specific things or have a particular opinion about something.

Sock puppet marketing is one example of astroturfing, the practice of artificially stimulating online conversation and positive reviews about a product, brand or service. Because sock puppets can be created quickly and do not need to be maintained, they are often used on social media sites to grow public interest or conversely, denigrate a competitor’s product, brand or service.

Further reading,

  1. Sockpuppeting
  2. Sock puppet marketing

Usage in NEW YORK TIMES: "Ethel Stein, a weaver who created countless intricate textile artworks and one particularly influential sock-puppet, died on Friday in Cortlandt, N.Y."

Your Example: "My company hired sockpuppeteer to smear its competition in on-line reviews, but we had to apologize after being found out."

On the other hand,


Cyber shill's main job is to promote employers product or service online. It, does not necessarily mean that they are hired to actively denigrate a competitor’s product, brand or service.

An Internet shill is someone who promotes something or someone online for pay without divulging that they are associated with the entity they shill for.


1) huffingtonpost.com,

A group of researchers at UCSB studied the growing practice of hiring cyber shills who are paid to manually inflate positive reviews and ratings. Such companies have existed for some time in the United States. including ShortTask.com, Microworkers.com, and MyEasyTask.com. Because of labor costs, however, most are focused on improving search engine optimization using software programs and processes.

Shill: An accomplice of a hawker, gambler, or swindler who acts as an enthusiastic customer to entice or encourage others.

Oxford dictionary gives a particular definition on the word SHILL, which explicitly highlights on the aspect of promotion. Shills are not actively working to denigrate your competitor's product/brand/services/etc.

An accomplice of a confidence trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others.


The following article appears to suggest the term faker:

The Faker

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. It doesn’t matter if your business has 300 positive, 5- star reviews and you have never had a single upset customer in all of your years running the business. Anyone who uses the internet knows one basic truth: trolls will exist anywhere, any time, and for any reason.

This is why some negative online reviews come from fakers who are leaving a negative review for an unknown reason. They could simply enjoy causing a minute level of chaos in the life of a business owner, or they may enjoy the idea of writing a ridiculous negative review to dissuade potential customers from working with a business.


  • This works, but is informal and wouldn't be used in contexts similar to OP's example sentence. It describes what they're doing but their profession's name.
    – lly
    Aug 12, 2018 at 16:31

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