< The Problem of Sock Puppets


Friday, April 22, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Earlier this month, a user on the website MetaFilter started a thread critiquing an Op-Ed written by Scott Adams, the cartoonist famous for creating Dilbert. As other site regulars piled on, one newly registered user mounted a strident defense of Adams. The new user, whose name was PlannedChaos, conceded that while he also, quote, “hated Adams for his success,” he'd be remiss if he didn't remind everyone that Scott Adams was a “multi-millionaire,” that Scott Adams possessed a “certified genius IQ” and that Scott Adams’ detractors were angry haters. MetaFilter’s moderators are able to see the identities of users who access their site, and so they knew that PlannedChaos was, in fact, Scott Adams. One of those moderators, Josh Millard, asked Adams to either leave the site or reveal his identity. Millard says that even if he hadn't known it was Adams, the tone of his comments might have given him away.

JOSH MILLARD: It was certainly conspicuous. But yeah, it had that stink of this is a very strong investment this random drive-by person has.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. In fact, it was so obvious that after this PlannedChaos posted his defense of Adams, someone else wrote, “Welcome to MetaFilter, Scott Adams.” [LAUGHS]

JOSH MILLARD: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with being anonymous online. You know, lots of people have legitimate reasons for wanting to not associate their public identity with some of the things they do or say. But the problem that arises is we generally expect people to be honest about when they're a stakeholder in what they're discussing. And you can even do that anonymously, still. You can say, hi, I work in this field, here are some of my observations, as long as you’re at least forthright about where you’re coming from, if not what your actual name is. But when the topic is you, there’s not really a way to do that fairly. I mean, you can't transparently go around pretending to be a disinterested third party just so you can high-five yourself by proxy. You know, it’s pretty unquestionably deceptive and people don't like being lied to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And is it obvious why people do it, so that they can manipulate people in that way?

JOSH MILLARD: I think people don't think it through. You know, when it first occurs to someone that they can do this, they're probably going to be thinking about this partly because they're feeling defensive already, and if they haven't considered the consequences, they may just see it as a consequence-free to sort of get some personal justice. Of course, if the consequences actually do exist, it becomes something that blows up in their face usually.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] And that’s not really what they were hoping for.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Scott Adams interviewed himself on his website recently. He had his MetaFilter alias, PlannedChaos, interview him on precisely these questions, and he justified his behavior by saying, quote, “Some time ago, I learned the hard way that posting messages with my own identity turns any discussion into an orgy of name-calling. When I'm personally involved, people speculate that I'm being defensive, or back pedaling, or being a douche nozzle, or trying [BROOKE LAUGHS] to weasel my way out of something.” He also went to say that there’s no sheriff on the Internet. It’s like the Wild West. And so for the past 10 years, he’s handled things in the masked vigilante style whenever a rumor needs managing.

JOSH MILLARD: As far as there being no sheriff on the Internet, I think that’s a very reductive view of the Internet. The Internet is a heterogeneous place. You know, it depends on where you are. And I feel like what happened here is Scott Adams decided to go to a place that he decided he knew what the rules were, and then it turned out that wasn't it, 'cause he hadn't paid attention to the community norms he was interacting with.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, a lot of the sock-puppeting examples that make the news tend to involve people who already have power or visibility. For instance, John Mackey, the CEO of hole Foods, got a lot of flak for sock-puppeting, and various authors have either been caught writing their own self-laudatory reviews, like the art critic Lee Siegel, or arguing against their critics under assumed names. A couple of months ago, Sarah Palin created a second Facebook account with a fake persona who praised the other Sarah Palin on Facebook. Doesn't it seem strange that people who already have their own soapboxes resort to this?

JOSH MILLARD: I think it absolutely is strange, and I think that’s why these stories tend to get attention. I mean, obviously the sock-puppetry is a jerk move. If you’re a famous person it’s a jerk move, if you’re a random nobody. And if you’re the owner of a local grocery store and you talk yourself up online, it might make the city newspaper. But if you’re the CEO of Whole Foods, more people know what Whole Foods is, more people are going to react to it being weird. I think the other part of it is there’s this emotional issue involved where when people see someone who already has those significant resources to work with, it seems a lot more petty when they're doing it, 'cause like why would you choose to do this? You know, you have already the ability to defend yourself. You know, you have a much louder megaphone, a much bigger platform than almost everybody you’re reacting to already. It seems so out of scale. It seems like stealing candy from a baby.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Well, then let's talk about an instance revealed last month where the stakes are considerably higher, a story that the U.S. military was developing software to manipulate social media, using fake online personas. These sock puppets would allow the U.S. military to create a false consensus, crowd out unwanted opinions. This is straight-ahead propaganda.

JOSH MILLARD: It’s - again, it’s one of those things that’s the same sort of reasoning where if you think, hey, well, no one will notice, we'll get away with this, then, hey, all you look at is the upsides. But, yeah, as soon as it becomes clear that that’s been happening, you sacrifice a bunch of credibility. And when that’s happening at the level of a national military, that’s obviously [LAUGHS] a lot more problematic than one person’s reputation taking a hit, because at that point it’s sort of representative of the United States, and every United States citizen has a reason to think, wow, this is a serious ethical [LAUGHS] misstep being done in my name, essentially.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe it would help if the United States interviewed itself online -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: - the way that Scott Adams did.


JOSH MILLARD: I would pay to see that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh, thank you very much.

JOSH MILLARD: Thanks again for having me.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Josh Millard is a moderator at MetaFilter.com.

BOB GARFIELD: And now a letter from a listener. Garth Barfield, of suburban Washington, DC, writes: “I love the show but I have one complaint. Why isn't there more Bob Garfield? His voice is somehow both dulcet and virile. His questions are sharper than a razor fashioned out of light sabers. His eyes are like blazing infernos of scalding righteous truth, his breath like a zephyr of apple blossoms -


BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media.

BOB GARFIELD: - his cannonball deltoids like cannonballs.



BOB GARFIELD: His smile –



BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] A good letter.