The issue of journalists using Internet sock puppets has rekindled lately with the suspension of Lee Siegel, a senior editor with the New Republic. Siegel used a sock puppet identity named “sprezzatura” to say things like this about himself:
Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.
In addition to being suspended, Siegel lost his blog — but wasn’t fired. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same punishment that the L.A. Times meted out to Michael Hiltzik after I caught him using sock puppets on this blog, his L.A. Times blog, and other places around the Internet.
To my knowledge, the New York Times editorial board never commented on Hiltzik’s sock puppetry. But today the editors call Siegel’s punishment “the right call,” saying:
Sock puppetry may be rampant online, but journalists writing for their employer’s Web site have a greater responsibility to be honest than run-of-the-mill posters. Mr. Siegel should not have posted about himself in a way that implied he and the poster were different people, and he should not have denied it. Intentionally deceiving readers is wrong no matter what technology is used to convey the misinformation.
This is a somewhat sterner message than the one sent by the paper’s news article on the suspension. (Oddly, Siegel’s story doesn’t seem to have been covered by the L.A. Times. I wonder why that is?) In its news story, the New York Times minimizes and then minimizes again. It fails to give any of the sock puppet’s silly quotes about Siegel, like:
You’re a fraud, and a liar. And a wincingly pretentious writer. You couldn’t tie Siegel’s shoelaces.
But while there is no room for quotes from the sock puppet, the article has paragraphs to tell us about Sir Walter Scott and Walt Whitman, who apparently both reviewed their own work!
But here’s the thing: when they did, did they sound as silly as Siegel? After all, when Walt Whitman wrote “Song of Myself” (ironic title, eh?) he penned lines like:
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
And the Times quotes one of his self-penned reviews of his own work as saying things like: “An American bard at last!”
Whereas Whitman-as-Siegel would sound more like this:
I’m a huge fan of Walt Whitman, who is, I assure you, not me — but who totally rocks. He writes like a poet is supposed to write. Not like that vapid, pretentious Longfellow. That guy couldn’t even tie Whitman’s shoelaces!
Jack Shafer thinks Siegel is being suspended for embarrassing his magazine:
Unless there’s more to the story, Siegel isn’t getting spanked for misleading the magazine’s readers or the New Republic brass but for having publicly embarrassed the magazine with his egomaniacal posts. Had the New Republic uncovered his ruse without the public finding out, do you think we’d be witnessing this orgy of punishment and soul-searching?
I think Shafer has a point — and I don’t think sock-puppetry is all that terrible a sin, as I said during the Hiltzik affair. But Shafer misses the point entirely on why sock-puppetry is a sin at all:
Siegel’s role in pseudonymously posting flattering material about himself and criticism of others appears shocking. But practically every Web site with a comments area implicitly sanctions the practice of sniping at foes from a camouflaged position. Few sites, Slate included, make any effort to make users post under their real names. Anonymity appears to be one of the inalienable—if not operational—rights of Internet “citizenship.” It’s my conjecture that posters adopt pseudonymous names precisely so they can express stuff they don’t have to accept responsibility for. It’s the Web.
So, if Siegel is a cretin for concealing his role in the authorship of Web comments, then so are millions of other posters. If Siegel is a cretin for arranging pseudonymous posts that benefit him, then so are hundreds of thousands of other posters.
I’m not saying Siegel is a cretin, although he acted like a buffoon. But his (minor) sin was not pseudonymity, but rather using his pseudonym to praise himself.
Shafer has no evidence that hundreds of thousands of people do that. That’s a ridiculous thing to say.
My educated guess, based on my own experience with anonymous commenters, is that such behavior is very rare on the Web. It’s much more likely that someone will lob insults that he would never dare deliver in person — but praising oneself by name is an act reserved for a silly few.
Speaking of that silly few, what about Rick Ellensburg?
Ellensburg, aka Glenn Greenwald, taught Internet sock-puppeteers an important lesson: if there is no smoking gun, then deny, deny, deny. That’s what Greenwald did, quite implausibly, when Ace of Spades and I showed that it is overwhelmingly likely that he praised himself repeatedly using sock puppets. His rabid fans seemed hardly to notice. And any mention of his sock puppetry has disappeared from his Wikipedia entry. It says this:
Starting in May/June 2006, while busy on his book promotion tour, Greenwald had several guest bloggers posting to his site. “Anonymous Liberal,” Barbara O’Brien and “Hume’s Ghost” each have their own blogs in addition to their posts to Greenwald’s Unclaimed Territory. Some confusion has resulted from this as each of these bloggers has their own focus and viewpoint. Consequently their views have been mistaken for his by some readers.
But has nothing like this:
Starting as early as July 2006, several commenters posted comments praising Greenwald from his IP address. These commenters have names like Ellison, Rick Ellensburg, and Thomas Ellers. The commenters posting from his IP address are similar to Greenwald in personality, writing style, and verbal tics; English competency and usage; and obsessive interest in and knowledge of Greenwald’s posts, Greenwald’s updates, commenters, and enemies. Some confusion has resulted from this, as each of these commenters sounds exactly like Glenn Freaking Greenwald. Consequently, their views have been mistaken for his by some readers.
That’s what denial gets you.
So if you’re one of those “hundreds of thousands” of sock puppets out there, keep that in mind. If you’re caught, deny, and then deny again. Because if you admit it, Jack Shafer might sort of defend you, but the editors of the New York Times might not.