The psychology of sock puppetry

Get ready for some moral relativism, because that's exactly what's coming.

During the discussion of sock puppetry (in the most recent post about Doug Thompson and CHB), commenter Kip Watson asked about the origin of the term:

Did you just coin the term 'sock puppets' for this sort of dishonesty?

(I hadn't heard it before)

If so, nice one! Knowing the devils name is how you drive it out!

Posted by Kip Watson at July 25, 2006 08:06 PM

I replied:
No; I didn't first use the term -- not even to describe CHB (the credit for that goes to John Hawkins).

As to the online use of the term, according to Wikipedia its use goes back to the 1990s:

The term was perhaps first used on July 9, 1993 in a posting to bit.listserv.fnord-l, but was not in common usage in USENET groups until 1996.

(Links added to my comment.)

In another post about CHB "sock puppetry," I linked to Wuzzadem's very funny post ridiculing Glenn Greenwald's recent use of cyber sock puppets.

Now I'm thinking, did I make a mistake? Or are there different categories of sock puppets?

As the Wikipedia entry notes, sock puppetry is frowned on:

Sockpuppet (sometimes known also as a mule, or a glove puppet) is an additional account created by an existing member of an Internet community pretending to be a separate person. This is done so as to manufacture the illusion of support in a vote or argument or to act without social effect on one's "main" account stay away from the issue. This behaviour is often seen as dishonest by online communities and as a result these individuals are often labeled as trolls.
I'm not sure they're all trolls, as a troll is typically someone whose primary goal is engaging in disruptive behavior to gain attention. Creating a sock puppet merely to add support for one's own opinion is not trolling, and many trolls are not sock puppets at all, but well known commenters who always use the same name (usually fictitious, but sometimes real).

I have lower standards than most people, and while I post and comment under my own name, I have no problem with anonymous or pseudonymous posting or commenting. True, when push comes to shove, opinions from anonymous people are not taken as seriously as opinions from identified people, but that's just common sense, as well as collective blogospheric wisdom.

I do see a distinction between sock puppetry and genuine, fullscale fraud, and via Glenn Reynolds, I see that I am not alone. Allah ranks the various "scandals," and rates the Greenwald sock puppetry at the bottom -- below even the Hiltzik affair.

When he appeared on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Glenn Reynolds (hmmm... these days, I guess we need to be careful not to say "Glenn" without the last name, don't we?) didn't seem to think the Hiltzik sock puppetry was all that big a deal. I don't either. I think the only reason Allah ranks it above the Greenwald affair is because Hiltzik was an MSM journalist, and Greenwald is a blogger.

Because they're online where consequences are few and anyone can do pretty much anything, bloggers enjoy an inherent right to anonymity (including the right at their own risk to engage in sock puppetry) which isn't shared by mainstream journalists. They post often, and at all hours of the day and night, and it gets crazy sometimes. Bloggers always have the option of waking up in the morning, saying, "I said that?" and going back and retracting it, correcting it, modifying it. Unlike Hiltzik, there are no major consequences, and they won't lose their jobs. However, it goes without saying that absent some acceptable explanation for the behavior, bloggers face a loss of credibility for sock puppetry.

(Again, there is a difference between "honest" and "dishonest" sock puppetry; pretending to be "Karl Rove" is honest; perhaps it's not even sock puppetry.)

I don't especially like sock puppetry, but in blogging, it just goes with the turf. Many of my commenters are anonymous, and I don't mind. Some of them are pretending to be other than what they are, and sometimes I've seen obviously the same commenter return under a different name. If I learned who it was, and proclaimed that to the world, would that be a scandal? Not at all -- probably not even if I could establish it was Glenn Greenwald. However, if I could establish it was Dan Rather, that would be something else. (On the other hand, if "Glenn Greenwald" or "Dan Rather" left ridiculous comments, I'd instantly know these were honest, "friendly," sock puppets.)

My point is that mere sock puppetry in the blogosphere is not that big of a deal. This is why I am having second thoughts about calling CHB and Doug Thompson "sock puppets." (My chart may be more like it.) Not only is Capitol Hill Blue calling itself a news site, Google includes it as a news site. This is despite the fact that for years the site relied on a fictious "expert" named "George Harleigh" -- a professor of Political Science said to have worked for Nixon and Reagan, whose identity I questioned, and who, within a day of my InstaLanched post, was scrubbed from the site and admitted not to exist. (The fact that CHB tried to make this look retroactive raised many suspicions, and in comments it was pointed out that the "story" had been predated.)

Whether it's a mini-scandal or a big scandal, I don't know. (That depends on whether the term "Google News" is to be taken seriously, I guess.)

I soon noticed a 2003 mini-scandal involving this same site and another fictitious person -- one Terrance Wilkinson, said to have worked for the CIA and whose fake allegations managed to make their way onto CNN before he was unmasked.

Both times, CHB replied that it had been "had." I'm very skeptical about this claim, and I am particularly skeptical about the repeated disappearance and reappearance of Doug Thompson, and the way his multiple editors appear and disappear.

Most recently, I noticed that a "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield" (said to be a psychologist who treats patients for lying and prevarication) said exactly the same things about George Bush that she said about Bill Clinton.

Here's what CHB reported her saying about Clinton in 1999:

"The President exhibited all the classic symptoms of pathological prevarication," said Dr. Stephanie Crossfield, a psychologist who treats people who have trouble telling the truth. "His eye movements, gestures, and changes in voice tone all point to a consistent evasion of the truth."
And here's what she said in March of 2006, about George W. Bush:
"President Bush exhibited symptoms of pathological prevarication," says Dr. Stephanie Crossfield, a psychologist who treats people who have trouble telling the truth and who watched Bush's performances on Monday and Tuesday at my request. "His eye movements, gestures, and changes in voice tone all display traits of consistent evasion of the truth."
Let me stop right here, and point out that the last article has been pulled within the past two days. Here's what it says now:
"Article removed from our database"

"Because of sourcing problems we have removed this article from our database. We also learned that at least one passage was lifted by a researcher from another news source without attribution. Our apologies...."

Sourcing problems? Again?

This is unbelievable in the extreme. Every time I catch this guy, he simply pulls the articles!

What more can I say? Other than, here's the Google Cache. Again.

I have lost count of the number of times I have had to resort to Google caches with "Capitol Hill Blue." This is the second time with the same "article." On Sunday (July 23, 2006), language was inserted crediting the San Francisco Chronicle after I pointed out plagiarism.

In three years of blogging, I've never seen anything like this, and I hope I never do again. Considering that it comes from a long-established news site, I think it's massive, ongoing fraud, and I am sorry I called it mere "sock puppetry." Had I not asked questions, that March article would still be sitting there. So would the numerous articles quoting "George Harleigh."

Back to "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield." When "George Harleigh" was exposed here, a "Bill McTavish" (claiming to be the editor, but whose identity I also suspect is fictitious) blamed a previous "editor" named "Jack Sharp" (equally unverifiable).

Who is to be blamed now?

Bear in mind that "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield" is said (by Doug Thompson) to have been "hired" by CHB to "diagnose" President Clinton by watching a video. None of the links still go to CHB, but this archive site and Free Republic both preserve the original text, which reads as follows:

President Bill Clinton lied repeatedly during his Friday press conference, avoiding the truth when discussing the China spying scandal, his relationship with his wife and charges that he raped Juanita Broaddrick, an analysis by two experts shows.

Capitol Hill Blue hired a psychologist who treats chronic liars and a private investigator who uses voice stress analysis to catch liars. They analyzed the President's press conference live on television and again on videotape.

Their conclusion: The President lied more often than he told the truth. Even when he told the nation that he felt a "scorecard" would show he had been a good President who had told the truth more often than he had lied, he was, in fact, lying.

"The President exhibited all the classic symptoms of pathological prevarication," said Dr. Stephanie Crossfield, a psychologist who treats people who have trouble telling the truth. "His eye movements, gestures, and changes in voice tone all point to a consistent evasion of the truth."

Jonathan Rensley, a private investigator who used a voice stress analyzer to monitor the President's performance during the press conference, agrees.

"In spite of his demeanor, the President's voice patterns showed unusually high levels of stress, consistent with someone who is not telling the truth," Rensley said.

At Capitol Hill Blue's insistence, Dr. Crossfield and Rensley did not make their judgement based on one viewing of the President's performance or by consulting with each other. Both watched the press conference live, then rechecked their findings by viewing a full videotape of the press conference on both Saturday and Sunday to confirm their findings.

Calling Dr. Crossfield!

Dr. Crossfield where are you?

Can anyone help? I mean, isn't there a registry of psychologists anywhere? And if it turns out (as I'm 99.99% certain it will) that Dr. Crossfield doesn't exist -- and hasn't existed -- for the past seven years she's been quoted as an expert, who will be blamed? Thompson, McTavish, Sharp, Hampton, or Riley?

I'll say this in defense of the blogosphere's sock puppets. At least they aren't quoted as expert sources in news stories like "George Harleigh" and "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield." They weren't relied on for years by people on the right as well as the left.

And at least the blogosphere's sock puppets don't disappear when they're discovered. Nor are they blamed on other sock puppets. They remain part of the blogosphere's shared collective heritage.

Frankly, I hope "Dr. Stephanie Crossfield" does exist.

(Since she's an expert on the subject of deception, I'm sure she wouldn't mind sharing her views on sock puppetry. . .)

AFTERTHOUGHT: Considering that I had to go back and add "Reynolds" to the name "Glenn" above, I'm wondering about something. Can't the "Glenn" in "Glenn Greenwald" be changed or dropped to avoid further confusion? I know the Greenwald sock puppetry isn't a big deal, but it does reveal that his identity might not be all that important to him, so maybe just as a slap on the wrist he could just lose or change the first name (or have it lost or changed).

Or am I being too harsh?

MORE: As I've said before, exposing phony news sites is not my shtick, but I just stumbled onto this because the name "George Harleigh" did not ring true. People have said that because Capitol Hill Blue is not taken seriously, "exposing" anything there is a waste of time. Well, if CHB isn't taken seriously, then why is it listed as a Google News site when many other deserving sites are not? CHB, it should be remembered, lays claim to being "better" than the blogosphere:

Howard Kurtz, media writer for The Washington Post, once described the Internet as the place where “anybody with a modem and a mouth can be a publisher.” Blogs drive Kurtz’s point home. Even his newspaper has blogs written by reporters as well as freelancers hired to produce even more blogs written from a partisan point of view.

Which is my problem with blogs. Most, especially political blogs, exist solely to advance a narrow-focus point of view, an openly partisan agenda. The blog generating the most buzz these days is DailyKos, a “community blog” operated by a couple of Democratic activists who, among other things, use their blog to attract clients to one partner’s consulting business and then provide a quid-pro-quo of endorsements by Kos to those who pony up fat consulting fees.

Kos caters to “progressives,” the current buzzword for “liberal.” Somebody apparently focus-grouped the word “liberal” and found it has a bad rep so they came up a new name that means exactly the same thing.

“Progressives” have their litany of followers, usually mom-and-pop bloggers who churn out sermons to the party faithful and decry anything that smacks of right-wing, conservative or Republican.

The right-wingers, of course, have their blogs to counter anything posted by the left and this all leads to a shrill war of words that splatter all over the Internet as verbal diarrhea.

Shrill war of words? Verbal diarrhea? This from a guy who calls Bush "an international war criminal who should be arrested, shackled and led to the World Court to stand trial for his many crimes against humanity" and "a madman, a brain-damaged dry drunk whose insanity and megalomania threaten the very existence of America" and "a clear and present danger to the peace and security of this nation"????

I might be wrong about Kos, but since Thompson is using him as the example of all that's wrong with the blogosphere, I have to say that I don't remember seeing that kind of invective there (or at Atrios for that matter). Both are about as partisanly anti-Bush as it's possible to be.

Nonetheless, Thompson goes on to complain that "he" can't integrate "us":

In my three, aborted attempts to integrate the “blogosphere” into Capitol Hill Blue I found that those who want to read blogs and respond to articles posted thereon have no desire to participate in civil non-partisan discussions. Posts quickly turned into partisan diatribes with each side bashing the other.
Integrate the blogosphere into CHB?


I think CHB is beneath the dignity of our sock puppets!

UPDATE (07/27/06): The CHB post-pulling festival continues. A commenter emailed me about my previous post about "George Harleigh"

Your link to CHB on Bush killing kittens seems to be gone. The page is there, but whatever was on the page is gone.

Sure enough, the commenter is right. It's gone. So once again, here's the Google cache. And the relevant text:
Dr. Justin Frank, a prominent George Washington University psychiatrist and author of the book, Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President, says Bush has a cruel, sadistic streak that goes back to his childhood when a young George gleefully bragged about dissecting cats, cutting them open while they were still alive.

The boy who tortured cats, Dr. Frank says, grew up into an alcohol-abusing bully who strikes out at anyone who opposes him.
All one has to do, Dr. Frank says, is confront the President and the bully emerges.

"To actually directly confront him in a clear way, to bring him out, so you would really see the bully, and you would also see the fear," he says.

AND AN AFTERTHOUGHT: It occurs to me that this is getting extremely redundant. The news stories keep getting pulled, "experts" keep disappearing, and various "editors" are blamed in a game of musical chairs.

I'm not in charge of the Internet, so beyond this, there's little I can do. CHB will doubtless carry on as long as there's someone there to keep it going.

The First Amendment right to free speech carries no requirement or guarantee of honesty.

posted by Eric on 07.26.06 at 07:00 AM


As one of your pseudo anonymous posters, I have to agree.

My name here is fiction, but YOU know who I am, and the reasons for my need for privacy. Therefore, not a sock puppet. If I started using BOTH my real identity and this one on this site, then I'd expect that you would publicly disclose it (while simultaneously calling the insane asylum to have me picked up) because otherwise I'd be forcing you to be complicit with the fraud. I wouldn't expect you to do that.

Sock puppets have one important criteria:
They have to be clueless about how IP addresses work OR they have to be able to spoof IPs. How else could they think they were fooling anyone?

I guess the stupid ones don't realize that IP addresses are posted along with their comments.

Grand Stand   ·  July 26, 2006 12:57 PM

The problem with sock puppets is not that people are posting annonymously. Instead of presenting arguments consistently under the same name, the puppeteers invent an alternate personna to support their own arguments, most likely because they feel that their arguments are too weak otherwise to succeed on the merits.

I think of it as a form of voter fraud, with a person registering more than one vote in the online election of ideas.

It is a fundamentally dishonest activity.

Bugz   ·  July 26, 2006 4:50 PM

she doesn't google...
But if this doctor treats patients, she has to have an office...and should google. And if she is academic, she should publish, and we should be able to google her papers.
Of course, maybe she is working for the USGovernment, and using a pseudonym because she is not allowed to give political opinions...

boinkie   ·  July 26, 2006 8:55 PM

The strength of a term like 'sock puppetry' for various sorts of dishonesty including falsification of sources, is (apart from the fact that it's funny) that it allows you to forcefully call out improper behaviour ("Sockpuppet!"). The weakness is that, like all modern jargon, it is imprecise and will be misused...

For example falsifying journalistic sources is reprehensible and grossly unethical, but using multiple log-in names on a forum or similar is no more than bad manners. Expect to see agents running interference for the first conflating the two...

Personally I think people who post with their own names are taking a risk with all the personal data gathering that goes on -- a very creepy practice which should be illegal in most cases. To pick a pseudonym and use it consistently is just as valid as posting with your 'RL' name.

Kip Watson   ·  July 26, 2006 10:08 PM

Hate to tell you, but the horse you are flogging is dead, dead, dead!

RayButler   ·  July 27, 2006 3:04 PM

Oi, Raybutler--such an annoying ass. Dead horses don't usually show up as sources in Google News.

Free speech or no, the First Amendment obviously puts no limitation on the concentrated efforts of bloggers and news consumers to get a fraudulent publication delinked and removed as a news source by aggragators like Google. The form to file complaints about a news source at Google is here.

Eric, I think you personally could make a most compelling case to have CHB pulled. I would also suggest that mass complaints would alert Google to the fact that there really is a problem with CHB. Additionally, the fact that CHB is nonpartisan in its fraudulence (even Kos doesn't trust it!) makes it less likely Google will dismiss the complaints as merely part of a right-wing hack job.

ss   ·  July 27, 2006 5:02 PM

More specifically, the Google form is here.

ss   ·  July 27, 2006 5:04 PM

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