Using aliases to manipulate debate online

Jim Davila at Paleojudaica notes an interesting article and makes some useful comments upon it:

 Are online aliases ever justified in academic debate? Sock puppets – online commenters that create a false identity – are disrupting academic freedom and scholarly debate, says Simon Tanner (The Guardian).

If it’s just a matter of discussing evidence and debating rational arguments, it doesn’t really matter whether one knows all the names of the debaters. … But, that said, there is rarely a compelling reason to conceal one’s identity in tempest-in-a-teapot academic debates  …  human nature being what it is, Internet anonymity leads some people to do things they would never do in their own name.

Sock puppetry goes beyond presenting arguments anonymously for an unpopular position and deliberately creates the impression that more people are making the arguments than actually are. (This amounts to a twisted appeal to the authority of numbers to give the impression of a false controversy or even a false consensus.)

The showpiece example of sock puppetry run amok is the Raphael Golb affair involving the Dead Sea Scrolls (more background here and links), which Tanner mentions, citing Robert Cargill. This case moved from mere nuisance trolling to an attempt actually to damage the reputation of a prominent academic, and it illustrates sock puppetry’s potential for real harm.

The Tanner article is very sound.

Have you encountered a sock puppet recently? The answer is probably yes even if you never knew. I met one (well several) the other day and it was quite an experience – a bit like getting mugged by a chimera. Sock puppets, referencing the cute and simple hand puppets made from a sock, are intended primarily to deceive. This is not the anonymity we all sometimes seek when online; sock puppetry is about setting up a false identity so the puppeteer can speak falsely while pretending to be another person.

Some of the craziest uses of sock puppetry are when these misleading online identities end up working in unison: simultaneously praising and defending their alter egos while attacking, stalking or even libelling and defaming people or organisations they don’t like. All the while never admitting the link or affiliation to the puppeteer.

Sock puppetry, and covert campaigns to subvert the consensus of any sort, are hideously dishonest.  But the use of it to damage the reputation of real people by means of false identities, created for the purpose, is interesting.  I would never had thought that it had that end in mind.  Yet my own experience echoes that of both these writers.

The only experience that I have ever had of sock puppetry was just such a case.  After contributing for two years to the Mithras article in Wikipedia, and researching every statement in it, one worthless individual who knew nothing about the subject turned up under at least two identities and fought a war to gain control of the article.  One identity was used to provoke trouble, hurl accusations, yell insults and generally try to start a fight; while the other  was used to make complaints to Wikipedia about any response from the victims, and to engage in “brinking”.  I subsequently learned that this is a common technique from sock-puppeters.

The troll’s determination to injure my own reputation, as the only person present who really knew about Mithras, knew no apparent limits.  After several months of harassment against every editor who objected in any way, he got hold of a corrupt administrator (also anonymous), and made a false accusation of  sock puppeting against myself.  I didn’t take it seriously, since I had never edited that article under any other name, and was the only person NOT using a false name.[1]  But then I found the administrator wouldn’t hear me, and I was actually banned for something that had never occurred, on an evidently malicious accusation, made by an anonymous troll via two sock puppets, without any input from myself, and despite my attempts to defend myself.  Such is the power of a false accusation, made, apparently, by several people!  The troll then settled down to the charmless task of repeating the libel ad nauseam, to deflect attention from his own violation of the article, and for all I know may be at it yet.  His second account now being redundant, he ceased using it.

Now Wikipedia is notoriously an unsafe environment for any normal person with any actual knowledge.  The contributors are treated as meat, and chewed up by those who have no interest in contributing.  But the general problem is anonymity.   Sock puppeting is a consequence of it, facilitated by the fact that no-one knows who they are dealing with.  Bad coin drives out good.  In Wikipedia, fewer and fewer people dare use their own names.

The troll had no claim to authority, so he resorted to violence to get his way, and sock-puppeting as his method.  He made use of the fact that his victim was posting under his own name to run his smear campaign.  But it is unlikely that he would have done so, had his own identity been involved.  But even then, he could not have achieved his end without manufacturing “support”.

Likewise the administrator would have hesitated to use Wikipedia to label someone unheard guilty of something that never happened, had his own identity been at stake.

It’s worth being aware of this tactic.  But how sad it is, that the web will have to be regulated, merely to deal with these forms of dishonesty!

  1. [1]After months of harassment under my own name, I had experimented with creating a pseudonymous account — like everyone else — so that I could resume contributing elsewhere.  I made a couple of edits using this identity to the Mithras liturgy article, where no edit war was in progress.  But in fact I didn’t like editing under a name other than my own, so I  stopped using it.  The existence of a second account was later on made the excuse for banning me, despite the fact that I never edited the Mithras article using it and never used it for sock puppetting.

4 thoughts on “Using aliases to manipulate debate online

  1. I have had the same problem with the article on the Cyrus Cylinder. I believed I was discussing the problems with at least four individuals, until a kind Wikipedian informed that this was actually one person, who had in the meantime been banned.

    An interesting variant is the accusation of sockpuppeting, which means that the accused has to prove that he has done nothing wrong.

  2. That cylinder has let you in for a load of trouble, I know. How very depressing.

    The accusation, as a form of harassment, for purposes of defamation, is a novel one. It follows the standard troll practice of changing the subject from whatever is happening to whether his victim is a good person. But well thought: yes, the victim has to prove his innocence!

  3. I’ve met the same kind of opposition with my Wikipedia articles on the Church of the East. There are a bunch of frothing Assyrian fanatics out there, who are only interested in pushing an extreme nationalist agenda. My own policy, not perhaps very heroic, is to try to enlist the help of a sympathetic editor. If that fails, I move to some other article and work on that. A few months later, I return to the contested article and remove the garbage. In most cases, it turns out that the troll has been banned in the interim, or has lost interest. Sadly, it’s rarely worth confronting these people head-on, as that’s exactly what they want. I have to say, though, that I edit Wikipedia far less frequently than I used to, as I’m no longer prepared to invest time and energy in warding off ignorant attacks.

    On Mithras, though, one solution lies readily to hand, Roger. Write and publish your own book on Mithras, then you can have the pleasure of citing yourself on Wikipedia!

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