Still More About Astroturfing, Paid Shills, and Sock Puppetry

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At TAPPED, Garance Frank Ruta writes:

Last spring I was briefly involved in an unpleasant blogstorm for making the case against double-sided online anonymity, but the sorry case of Lee Seigel revives my concerns. Let me be clear: I have nothing against people using pseudonymns to write in comment threads (except when, as in Lee’s case, they’re writers working under the expectation that they always take public responsibility for their work), or who author blogs while cloaking their identities. It’s a free country, and pseudonymous speech has a long tradition in American politics and a strong legal basis for continued protection. However, I was and remain disturbed by the way newspapers and magazines quote from bloggers and commenters whose identities they do not even make an attempt to determine. So far I have lost this battle, and badly — even The Washington Post quotes anonymous blog commenters without always confirming their identities — but I do believe journalists will eventually have to come around to my position. As I said last spring, it’s one thing to quote someone whose identity you know, but who wishes to remain anonymous — and it is quite another to quote someone whose identity is unknown even to you, the reporter.

Siegel proves, for those who need proof, why such a standard is necessary. Sock puppetry, uncool as it is, is not a rarity online. You can never know who it is you’re reading unless you ask, and if someone declines to be identified — not publicly, but to you, off the record, in private, on a not-for-publication basis — there is a high enough risk that that person is someone who is trying to use anonymity for nefarious purposes that a reporter’s suspicious instincts should be activated. I know for a fact that several active commenters on Daily Kos are either Capitol Hill press secretaries, who post comments defending their members, or campaign workers. That makes them sock puppets for their causes, even if they win praise, in some quarters, for defending their bosses.

A journalist who quoted one of them as if he were quoting some random person on the Internet, however, would be presenting readers with a seriously distorted view of whatever issue was being discussed. That’s why I believe journalists have an obligation to determine, as much as is practicable, the identities of the people they are quoting — or else not quote them at all.

Such a standard would decrease the power of sock-puppeting online, and would also put an end to the ridiculous genre of news stories and political press releases that center around the outrageous thing some pseudonymous commenter said on a blog. The GOP, in particular, has taken to this form of accusation against blogs with vigor, and any journalist who cites such comments and the controversies around them without attempting to determine the identity of the actual commenter is opening himself or herself up to being played for a patsy by a political staffer who may well have stirred up the whole controversy for electoral ends. Online, you never know who you’re quoting unless you check.

Atrios takes her to task for the part where she says: “I know for a fact that several active commenters on Daily Kos are either Capitol Hill press secretaries, who post comments defending their members, or campaign workers. That makes them sock puppets for their causes, even if they win praise, in some quarters, for defending their bosses,” asserting:

This is quite possibly true, and I have no idea and actually don’t much care, but it’s the kind of accusation which should either be made not at all or made in full. It’s rather irresponsible to just let it dangle, both tarring members of the Kos community and stoking paranoia among its members. And what does it mean to be “active commenters?” Are we just talking about people who are have active accounts and occasionally post or people who have established known identities there.

I actually don’t have a problem with press secretaries “defending their members” anonymously if those defenses are basically correcting misinformation and aren’t in the realm of “Congressman X is the best person ever.”

If Frank Ruta had “named names,” however, she might have been accused of “outing” commenters, the ethics and legality of which are far from clear (though in the exact situation she descibes it does seem like disclosure would probably be both ethical and legal if information about the sockpuppetry was lawfully obtained.) Unlike Atrios, I am troubled by the behavior, a manufacturing of artifical “grass roots.” I keep posting about this because I think the practice is widespread, and it happens outside of strictly political discussions, and people need to watch for it and expose it whenever possible. If it seems at least plausible that relatively small “PR” and “opinion shaping” expenditures can fend off larger problems, companies and industries will engage in these practices, just as we saw evidence that the government does it not so long ago.

A commenter (anonymous, no less!) at Making Light astutely noted:

I can think of all kinds of fun things to do along these lines. The obvious things are:

a. Make it unpleasant to even have some discussions. If someone brings up some topic you don’t want discussed, have your trolls do their best to start and sustain a flamewar. The goal is to make that topic more trouble than it’s worth, which keeps it from being discussed openly. The meatspace version of this is organizing protests to shut down or disrupt some discussion, conference, speech, etc. If you want to discourage discussion of the mistreatment of prisoners, make sure that anywhere that such a discussion starts, a big name-calling fest kicks up between trolls, or between trolls and normal participants.

b. If you have a target demographic you don’t want to pick up the discussion, use your trolls to make the discussion especially uninteresting or upsetting to them. The meatspace version of this is to put provovateurs into a meeting to call for violent action, in order to push the moderates to leave so they don’t get caught up in it. An online version is to support the idea you want to undermine, but from an offensive or unsavory perspective. If you want to support Affirmative Action, post messages attacking it from the perspective of an overt racist.

c. Derail discussions that depend on any kind of subtle reasoning. The meatspace version is (I think) commonly called “reframing the debate”. If you don’t want to allow a discussion about torturing prisoners, have your trolls start a fervent debate (on both sides) about whether these news stories/revelations should even have been made, whether the reporters publishing them are guilty of treason, etc. The goal is to turn aside the question of “are we really doing this and should we stop?” in favor of the question “should newspapers report this kind of thing, whether true or false?”

–Ann Bartow

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