July 06, 2010

Anonymity, pseudonymity, and sockpuppetry

The recent article I wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled The New War Between Science and Religion generated a lot of interest. The editors told me that it was the most viewed, forwarded, and commented on article for some time. The article dealt with the current debate between the new/unapologetic atheists and the accommodationists, with me taking the former side.

There were also some responses on some blogs, including a critical one on a website called You're Not Helping. The site's anonymous author (I'll assume a man) said that he was an atheist and that the goal of his site was to critique fellow atheists whom he felt were harming the cause of atheism by poor arguments, tone, etc. That's fair enough. The internet is a fast-moving place and we could all use watchdogs to monitor what we say so that in our haste we do not say things that are not measured. The commenters here often point out when I am in error or go too far off the rails. The criticisms about me on YNH however, though strongly worded, seemed to me to be somewhat confused and so I did not respond, figuring that readers would figure out for themselves who was more credible.

It was with some surprise that I discovered recently that the site's author had pleaded guilty to the offense of 'sockpuppetry'. This is where one person assumes one or more aliases and then posts articles and comments on the web to support a single individual (usually the sockpuppet himself or herself) or to advance a specific agenda. The different names are used to give the impression that the opinions are widely held.

YNH's sockpuppetry came to light when he slipped up in various ways, such as by praising one sockpuppet's comments while signing with the same name, using similar verbal and punctuation tics for the different authors, etc. An alert website called The Buddha Is Not Serious (where do they get these names?) noted some of these quirks and investigated. When the evidence of YNH's sockpuppetry became too obvious to deny, the author gave a petulant apology and closed the site except to those who register, and then later shut down the site altogether.

In the course of reading about YNH's shenanigans, I discovered that rather than being a disinterested atheist trying to improve the quality of the debate, the site's author seems to have been a 'concern troll' (someone who acts like they are sympathetic to your side of an issue but are giving you advice that is really meant to undermine your position) whose main agenda seems to have been to attack a variety of new atheists. When commenters would try and defend them, the various sockpuppets would be brought in to gang up on them and intimidate them.

This started me thinking about this whole business of anonymity on the web. I am not anonymous. In fact, my name is part of the website's name, not because I am an egotistical maniac, but because when I started this blog, I did not have the imagination to think up a good name nor did I think it worthwhile making the effort to think up one for what I presumed would be a short-lived experiment. Now I am kind of stuck with the name, though I dislike it. When I visit other sites and post comments, I do so under my own name.

But I recognize that being public about my views is a luxury that not everyone can afford and other people being anonymous does not bother me in the least. I can well understand why some people would prefer (for family, social, professional, or even psychological reasons) to keep their true feelings about issues from being widely known. I would prefer that people use one pseudonym consistently (rather than no name at all or multiple names) so that others know they are dealing with a single person, but realize that doing so carries the risk that if you are a prodigious commenter or blogger that people who care enough may be able to piece together clues as to your identity.

What puzzles me is why anonymity seems to bother some people. I do not understand why people sometimes investigate to try and reveal the true identity of a pseudonymous blogger or commenter.

But while I can understand why some want to be anonymous, there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.

What I find really pathetic, though, is sockpuppetry. How insecure must one be to create alter egos whose main function is to praise and support your ideas and denigrate those of your opponents? And yet there are cases of people whom you would not think needed to do so indulging in this kind of thing.

Another thing I found is that there seems to be a fairly common practice of site owners banning certain commenters whom they find obnoxious for whatever reason. I am not sure why this is necessary. If someone says something you don't like, why not just ignore them?

Reading through all this, it struck me how calm my own blog is, even though quite a lot of controversial topics are discussed, I often take a strong position on things, and the readership is quite large. Even though people have disagreed strongly with my views and those of other commenters, and some people have posted lengthy rants that have had only marginal relationships to the posting, there really has been no nastiness of any kind, even though anonymity is allowed. I have no idea if sockpuppetry is going on here and frankly don't really care enough to investigate. The thought of banning someone has never even crossed my mind and I do not even know how to do it, frankly. The only comments that I erase are ones that are obviously spam. If I find that a discussion in the comments has started getting repetitive and is not going anywhere, I just stop participating.

I hope it continues this way.

POST SCRIPT: Clint Webb for Senate

At last, an honest political ad.


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The topic is not really anonymity. It is also not really sock puppetry. The topic for me at least with YNH was the mischaracterization/character assassination. The anonymity combined with the sock puppetry just helped to amplify the problem.

See there are things that one cannot ignore. We cannot ignore the intelligent design push. If we do schools will indeed teach the controversy and things to down the tube.

We can also not ignore if blogs engage in things that are borderline or overt attacks on some people under the facade of respectability. This to me was the problem with YNH. It actually had post that appeared quite sensible. Internal criticism is good after all. But over time it was quite clear that all it was about is finding fault in a small group of New Atheist bloggers and criticize them harshly mostly with the goal of making New Atheism overall appear aggressive or worse.

I wish we lived in a world were image doesn't matter, a world were it is OK to leave false accusations standing without a counter. But these things stick.

Atheism as a horrible image. New Atheism does even worse. But despite that I'm all for honest criticism. If something is not right, it's not right and can be called out.

But if it degrades to mud slinging, smearing, and calling people outright liars who are not that, there is a real problem.

The problem is even more real if those people blog under their actual name, and their reputation or worse is on the line.

One cannot ignore that.

YNH went over the line in a sequence of blog posts basically constructing a case that Ophelia Benson supposedly outright lied by omission. My objection to YNH at the time was not sock puppetry, nor anonymity. IT was simply that I could not justify just letting the characterization stand, it seemed intentionally tendentious, and comments by Ophelia that contradicted the story were intentionlly ommitted.

So rather than remove anonymity and expose sock puppets, I just wanted to provide to YNH the acocuntability to honest arguing that we all should be held to. In the process the sock puppets were finally fully revealed.

To me that is a side effect. But the problem remains, anonymous bloggers can do damage to a real person blogger that cannot be ignored, and that is, for me, where the real problem lies.

Posted by Hitch on July 6, 2010 05:35 PM

I thought the CHE piece was great, and coincidentally I went back to it just yesterday for background to a post on something you quoted from the NAS.

I don't object to anonymity per se, but I do object to it when it enables the kind of thing YNH got up to. He wouldn't have done all that if he hadn't been anonymous. (Of course a lot of it he couldn't have done if he'd been anonymous, because it was sock puppetry.)

Posted by Ophelia Benson on July 7, 2010 12:39 PM


In case you are interested, another blog that I read had an almost identically titled post a few months ago. It comes from the philosophy academia side, and I think it is worth reading:

This piece was prompted by a bad experience with a troll which crossed into harassment territory. The miscreant claimed to be a student of his (although no name was ever given), which made the whole interaction weirder. Actually, if the troll really was a student than it was probably for the best that he remained anonymous.

It do think that this brings up interesting questions. Clearly somehow the option of anonymity suppresses some people's social filters. However, it should be preserved because there are many reasons that you might want to put a wall between your professional and private spheres in the public sphere. This is an important thing to remember - that much of private lives actually take place in the public sphere. It is only through mutually accepted social rules that we are able to extend our spheres this way. Anonymity is an important part of this.

It may take some time for the rules of public discourse that occurs on the internet to catch up with where it is in real life. I hope we can do it without destroying the anonymous and pseudonymous (and pseudoanonymous!) features that exist now.


PS - You are right that the comments on your blog are quite calm compared to many out there. This is really the main reason I feel comfortable writing in from time to time (and I do hope I have not brought too much negativity in the past!). I think that the fact that as the author you set a good tone by never treating other commenters with disrespect.

Posted by Jared A on July 7, 2010 02:57 PM


Thanks for the comment.

You are right that the main issue with YNH was not anonymity but I used it as a take-off point to muse about some things I had been thinking about.

Posted by Mano on July 7, 2010 03:37 PM


Thanks for dropping by. I have not been reading as widely in the atheist blog world as I should and so did not stumble across your excellent Butterflies and Wheels site until quite recently. You seem to be at the center of several controversies simultaneously, which must be pretty exhausting though you seem to relish the exchanges!

I am surprised that Mooney and Kirshenbaum have banned you from commenting at their site. I don't get it.

Posted by Mano on July 7, 2010 03:46 PM

Jared A,

Thanks for the link. It was quite a bit more sophisticated discussion than mine, though we think along the same lines.

I have wondered where the private/public boundary is shifting to. The recent flap over Washington Post's David Weigel's comments on a "private" journalist listserv is illustrative of the problem.

The willingness of people to share so much personal information on sites like Facebook never ceases to amaze me.

I consider all social networking sites and listservs to be public but clearly others do not. This new semi-private sphere is where the new norms will have to be established.

Posted by Mano on July 7, 2010 03:54 PM

Thank you for this Mano, I would love to read more of your posts soon.

Posted by Mark Smith on July 9, 2010 10:20 PM

Hi Mano,

Excellent blog post, I myself never try and hide who I am and I know many marketers who would never dream of being anonymous as creating a relationship with your readers is all part of the process.

Posted by Kent Small Business Marketing on August 2, 2010 05:53 PM

Its' getting harder and harder to stay anonymous these days, even if you own a website, I just discovered Whois (Ok, probably late, but still great to know about), it's better than insurance when trying to protect yourself from anonymous trolls or other monsters.

Posted by Whois Insurance on August 12, 2010 12:04 PM

I personally do not have an issue with what anyone believes or thinks when it come to religion. I cannot control other people's thoughts but i can control mine.

Posted by on August 25, 2010 10:53 AM

Sorry for not using my real name, but after all, that is the subject of your blog.
Autonomy is what a lot of people want these days. Because of the internet and all of the data that is gathered and stored about everyone and everything it makes people like me cautious and scared to share anything real. That is why everyone hides behind avatars, email addresses, usernames, and profiles. When in reality those things don't change things they just make it more difficult for the databases to attach the data to a real persons actual name and personal info.

Thanks for the great post, I enjoyed reading it very much. I will check back to see if you have any comments on what I said.

Posted by Insurance on October 7, 2010 02:09 PM

Actually, if you clicked on the link about the comments policy, you will see that I do not require a real name. A pseudonym will do. I just don't want that box to be an advertisement.

Posted by Mano on October 7, 2010 02:14 PM

It is amazing how many people don't realize that anything they post online can be available to anyone. Even sites that are thought to be secure, are vulnerable. As for how someone comments on blogs and ignoring them - I agree that ignoring may be a reasonable approach. However, small business owners must be careful that they moderate any blog comments about their business. Too many times shady competitors will post negative or incorrect information that can damage business. Making sure that none of these comments get posted is a form of marketing - by protecting the business that a business owner has worked very hard to build up. Anonymous comments that are negative should raise questions to small business owners. Not allowing comments that disagree with a point of view is another situation completely. Just because someone constructively disagrees, doesn't mean that this is negative or will result in lost business.

Posted by Kelly on October 12, 2010 01:27 PM