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Meyer

Sockpuppeting: The Ethics and Who Does it Harm?

Background

free_socks_WEBAs we have learned and discussed in our class, a sock puppet can be described as a
phony name or Internet account made up by a user in order to masquerade as someone else on any given forum, website, blog etc.  Sock puppets can make controversial comments or voice opinions for/against a cause without revealing their true identity or motives.  The puppeteer may even respond to their own posts (under false identities) praising the articles they wrote themselves or to disagree with comments that may criticizing them on other sites.

Sock puppetry can take on several different forms:

  • Creating new accounts to avoid detection
  • Using another person’s account (piggybacking)
  • Reviving old unused accounts (sleepers) and presenting them as different users
  • Persuading friends or acquaintances to create accounts for the purpose of supporting one side of a dispute (meatpuppetry)

People who are offended or hurt by sock puppets cannot do much to combat them other than ignoring them or attempting to “out” their existence, discrediting them in the hopes that other users ignore their future comments. It is important to note that not all sockpuppets are created with the sole intention to harm others or create havoc on forums, like trolls are often famous for. In the same sense not all trolls can be automatically categorized as sock puppets. For example, trolls on Facebook are usually not anonymous at all and often use their own personal accounts to trick or fool their friends. These nuances and differences in motivations are what create a wide spectrum of internet personalities, proving that not all trolls and sockpuppets are created equal. Wikihow provides some suggestions on how to identify a sock puppet and some tips on what to do about them.

Some blogs and forums and websites may choose to have a type of “comment moderation” put in place, such as a strict registration policy, so that people have to identify themselves before posting their knowledge or opinions. However, the point of sock puppeting is to seem to have a legitimate identity and this kind of comment moderation does not in any way guarantee that sock puppets won’t find their way into discussions and comment threads.

Similar to sock puppeting is the term astroturfing which is often used to generate public excitement or awareness about a subject by posting anonymous comments to blogs, wikis and other public venues. This type of posting looks like spontaneous comments from different people but is really a campaign by a single person, organization or public relations firm.  The term comes from “AstroTurf”, which is a “fake” lawn made to look like real grass. The Guardian posted an article explaining the recent uses and reasons for internet astroturfing.

Ethics and Law

An article on The Atlantic Wire claims “sock puppet reviews aren’t just unethical, they’re also unconvincing” in the discussion that was sparked by author R J Ellory posting reviews of his own books on Amazon under fake usernames.

“Here’s a tip: if you’ve decided ethics don’t matter to you anymore, at least make your sockpuppets interesting. If you’re going to create fake personas in order to aggrandize your own work and sabotage others, at least have some fun with the charade! Don’t be like Ellory or Millar, creating dull, lifeless mouthpieces who write like desperate robots. Be more like Walt Whitman, one of history’s most unrepentant self-promoters. He anonymously submitted glowing reviews of his own poetry collection Leaves of Grass to newspapers across New York, but at least his masturbatory self-reviews were fun to read.

The history of reviewing one’s own work under another name predates the internet. Walt Whitman and Anthony Burgess were both famous for having reviewed their books under pseudonyms. With the introduction of the internet, it has only become easier for people to hide their true identities in order to benefit themselves.

Canada.com covered a story about sock puppeteers that have been publically outted and one of them was  sock puppeteer, Conrad Black, chief executive of Hollinger International, who posted messages on a Yahoo Finance chat room using the name “nspector.” He used his postings to attack short sellers and blame them for his company’s stock performance. Prosecutors provided evidence of these postings in Black’s criminal trial where he was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction. The fake postings of “nspector” were raised at multiple points in the trial

In 2010, Raphael Golb was convicted on 30 of 31 counts, including identity theft, criminal impersonation, and aggravated harassment, for using multiple sockpuppet accounts to attack and impersonate historians he perceived as rivals of his father, Norman Golb. Golb defended his actions as “satirical hoaxes” protected by free-speech rights. He was disbarred and sentenced to six months in prison but remained free on appeal on $25,000 bail.

A group of writers launched the campaign No Sock Puppets Here Please which was aimed at creating a voluntary code of conduct to stop the practice calling it “fraudulent and damaging to publishing at large”. However, all this campaign seemed to accomplish was spreading the word to a not so staggering less than 500 people. I think it would be quite funny, if done in a harmless way, for a veteran sock puppeteer to jump on the bandwagon of this campaign and create several profiles claiming that “sock puppeting” should be allowed. Oh, the irony.

Internet_Argument_Technique_-5_-_Be_Your_Own_Wingman

This New York Times article jokingly claims “Sometimes, there’s nothing like a friend to stick up for you. Even an imaginary friend.” However, a single users multiple sock puppets may not always be used for bettering ones self but instead for ganging up on another user. This is one situation in which the ethics of sock puppetting can become an issue.

Humor

Although sock puppeting may seem like a tool only used to unethically forward your own agenda, this Internet concept can also be used to harmlessly create humor. Twitter is a popular scene for sock puppeteers seeking humor through anonymity. Today’s digital technology offers us all kinds of chances to hide behind our screens and pretend to be people who in the physciall world, we are clearly not.

Stuart Jeffries writes about several of his favorite satirical fake Twitter accounts in a Guardian article about sock puppets.

Dick Cheney: Won a baboon on eBay. Condition as-is, but I’m going to use the little guy for parts anyway. Never know when the ticker might blow a valve.” Or “Osama Bin Laden: Door-tag from UPS Ground says hazardous materials can’t be delivered – curse the infidels! Off to UPS depot.”

squirrel 1

To create a sock puppet on Twitter has become so easy that, for some, it becomes irresistible.  I have fallen into the pit of “evil” sock puppeteers, but I created an account much like the ones above in order to provide comedy, not false information.

The It Squirrel was created by my roommate and I in an attempt to combat boredom and share our hilarious senses of squirrel humor with the world. This account tweets the lyrics of popular songs but changes the word “girl” to “squirrel”. Simple, yet genius. At its height in 2012 it had over 1,500 followers.

Sock Puppet Theatre has latched on to the humor behind watching different personalities interact on the internet and has created an entire comedy website that is ironically named after the sock puppet tricksters of the internet and provides hilarious reenactment videos of internet interactions using sock puppets as props . They make the following statement on their FAQs page:

“The more upset you are, the more you post. The more you post, the more you click. The more you click, the more money the site makes. As long as the internet keeps getting rich by pissing you off, there will be bullies and meltdowns and flame wars.”

The practice of deception, or anonymous commenting on the Internet in the form of sock puppeting is a natural outcome of playful human behavior and just like physical sock puppeting, it can be harmless and fun, but there are still people who are negatively effected by sock puppeteers and would like the chance to ball the sock into a fist and then, anonymously, smash someones head in. These kinds of rash, over the top reactions or backlash comments only fuel the drama seeking Internet “nobodies” and often create more problems or disruption than if the issue had been ignored or dealt with calmly.

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