The Problem with Sock Puppets

I’m reposting this (originally published here before Wally Smith became known to more than a few people) because I want it handy for discussion in a day or two. To the best of my knowledge, Wally Smith is behaving these days.

People don’t much like sock puppets. How do I know? Well, check out a sampling of comments regarding the implosion of the You’re Not Helping blog.

I have no respect for people who want to loudly proclaim their beliefs, yet are unwilling to sign for them on the dotted line. I have even less respect for people who want to create an illusion of consensus through fraud to bolster those beliefs with.


The bad part of YNH is the way he handled getting caught. He had sock puppets. They became obvious. He attacked those who mentioned that he had sock puppets. His sock puppets attacked. The attacks were accusatory and mean.

I may not agree with the harsh language P Z often uses against religion in general, but you will never catch me using sockpuppets to misrepresent myself here or anywhere else. Just seeing others pull such childish stunts disturbs me. Lying is lying, and sockpuppetry is a form of lying, period.

I did a round of sockpuppetry before I knew what it was. Still feel bad about that. But it sure as flying spaghetti monster wasn’t on my own blog.

That’s a lot of vitriol with nothing to balance it. I haven’t seen a positive comment about sock puppetry in the reaction to the blog closing. Admittedly, some of that may have to do with the fact that most of the people commenting on the situation were none too happy with YNH to begin with.

That’s almost certainly not all of it, however. When it comes right down to it, we don’t like people who don’t play fair. We’ll take a hit to our own self-interest if it will let us punish a cheater. And sock puppets are cheaters.

There is an important distinction between pseudonymity and anonymity. When dealing with the anonymous online, we don’t have any idea who we’re relating to. Every social transaction is a mystery, Every time, we are forced to choose how much we risk without any history on which we can rely to make that decision. The anonymous poster hasn’t accrued a reputation, the social capital with which they can buy at least our temporary forbearance and trust.

As DrugMonkey has pointed out in prior discussions of online identity, the situation is different when dealing with a durable pseudonym. Over time, that pseudonym accretes history the same way any other name would online. It develops a reputation that follows it around. This reputation doesn’t generally attach itself to the person behind the pseudonym, but there are good, bad and indifferent reasons why that might be desirable. The pseudonymous themselves are generally approximately as mixed a bag of humanity as the rest of us, and we deal with them individually based on the reputation they built by their actions.

Those who engage in sock puppetry, however, are making a raid on reputation. They’re stealing it, either by exploiting the bandwagon fallacy to accrue unearned regard for their position or by disowning the negative effects that attacking someone else has on reputation, basically shoplifting a smackdown every now and again. YNH did both.

They wanted to have both this (mirrored since the original blog was locked):

No. You all seem to have discovered the convenience of just making things up to attack those you disagree with when you can’t do anything to attack what they’re actually saying. It would be pleasant to see some sanity from all of you and to see the wild finger ponting stop, especially since none of it to date has been true.

And this:

The continued attacks and accusations makes one wonder if it’s not all bitterness from OM about YNH getting him right.

Trolly trolly troll troll troll….

Both this:

OM was banned because he/she/it was posting as multiple sock puppets, using different names and emails but the same IP, to espouse opposing opinions in an attempt to sabotage threads. He was warned, he kept at it, and he was banned. It’s a dead issue.

And this:

As for sock puppetry: yes, I am responsible for several of the commenters (sock puppets) on this blog, namely “Patricia,” “Polly-O!,” and “Brandon”

Both this:

Remember: you do not have the right to not be offended. But if you are, you could always try sticking to reality-grounded, sensical criticism and dialogue, too.

And this:

Ophelia tries desperately hard to turn the use of the word “flustered” or “shrill” or the like into the equivalent of being a long-time victim of physical spousal abuse, overblowing it and taking it out of proportion and context as little more than a useless little cop-out from actually responding to others. It’s a fucking disgrace to women and a disgrace to those who are actually victims of sexism, not the preceived, feigned sexism victimization of a fragile little prat who lacks the guts and emotional intelligence to respond to criticism after she’s dished out a shit-load of it – often complete with the same marginally-sexist language – herself.

In other words, the blogger(s) called YNH were trying to accrue reputation for being on the side of honesty, openness and accountability, while the puppets claimed by YNH were accruing the benefits of dishonesty and baseless speculation in trashing the reputations of others. They were accounting with two sets of books. They’re cheaters.

And so, when YNH wants to claim victim status for someone apparently getting too close to their identity(ies), or when someone wants to suggest that YNH is being bullied by getting all this negative attention, remind them. This is punishing cheaters, which is what we do.

The Problem with Sock Puppets

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Sock Puppets

  1. 3

    There were several main objections to the Wally Smith sockpuppet menagerie that I recall:
    * abuse of the privilege of a pseudonym to essentially libel people who do use their real world identities, by way of sustained character assassination (gee, I wonder where I’ve seen tactics like that conducted recently);
    * rampant mendacious strawmanning of opponent’s arguments combined with the ultimate bait-and-switch of having supposedly “neutral” onlookers agree with the tactic as a basic redefinition of the meaning of “honesty” and/or “good faith” argumentation;
    * accusations of “tribalism” and “tribal thinking” when criticising their targets – something which the YNH authors (sic) would of course never be guilty of!

    It’s also rather telling that as part of their “things that aren’t helping” campaign of naming and shaming people, they would apply blog tags like “contradictory standards” or “dishonesty” to their postings. Because the dishonest practice of pretending to be four, eight, or more different participants in a debate to give the appearance of heavier weight to your side, or of engaging in behaviour that you chew out others for, could never be examples of “contradictory standards” or “dishonesty” – because the convenient definition is never meant to apply to one’s self (or selves, in Wally’s case).

  2. 4

    As the sniffer out of Wally Smith in his last (that we know of) and post-promise-to-stop incarnation, allow me to confirm that he hasn’t come back that I know of. If he has, he’s doing a better job of not standing out from the crowd. Mind you, there’s a much bigger crowd to join now, so who the hell knows.

  3. 5

    I once considered using a sock puppet, but I wanted to argue against the position I was advocating under my own name. This was mainly because I had a good answer to the argument and couldn’t find a way to work it into the discussion. In the event I didn’t, but I think this is an honourable way of using a sock puppet. In fact, now I come to think about it, this was pretty much standard operating procedure in intellectual circles in the Renaissance; think of Galileo’s Dialogues, for example.

  4. 6

    This was mainly because I had a good answer to the argument and couldn’t find a way to work it into the discussion. In the event I didn’t, but I think this is an honourable way of using a sock puppet.

    Keith, I disagree that that would be an honorable use of a sock puppet. It’s still cheating in the manner that Stephanie’s talking about, regardless of “good” intentions. If you wanted to be able to make the counter-argument so badly (a desire I completely understand), there is at least one way to do it that’s fair and honorable. When debating, it is perfectly reasonable to anticipate your opponent’s potential arguments, and present them as possibilities, and then present your counter-arguments. Something like:

    You’ve made argument X,Y, and Z in support of position Alpha. You’ve thought of something that an opponent might say against that, but believe you have the answer, so you say “Now, it is possible that some might try to respond with A, B, and C in an attempt to refute my argument. However, the answer to that is simple . . . ” and give the counter-argument that you so want to give.

    Sure, it may be awkward at times, but it at least has the virtue of lacking unnecessary deception. It can show opponents that you are or have tried seeing the issue from their perspective, helping them see you as open-minded and whatnot, which might make it easier to keep them in the conversation — you know, until you metaphorically route them and gain their unconditional surrender 😀

    (Ok, so I don’t *really* approach debates with such an adversarial attitude, but I still thought the image was fun)

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