July 21, 2006
Master of Puppets
Roughly 24 hours after the Glenn Greenwald sock puppetry scandal broke, it appears folks on both sides have already firmed up their positions, floating all sorts of theories. Let me see if I can separate the wheat from the chaff.
Greenwald's detractors (for any of you new to this blog, I count myself among them) have found no less than four alternative identities for Greenwald, that can be traced back to the same two unique IP addresses in Brazil, posting comments to no less than four different center-right blogs. Greenwald, for his part, does not deny that these messages came from his home, and seeks to deflect his attention to others in his Brazilian household:
A new accusation is that I've been engaging in so-called "sock puppetry" by leaving comments in response to posts that attack me under other names., i.e., that I use multiple names to comment and the same comment was left at several blogs by the same IP address under different names.
Not frequently, I leave comments at blogs which criticize or respond to something I have written. I always, in every single instance, use my own name when doing so. I have never left a single comment at any other blog using any name other than my own, at least not since I began blogging. IP addresses signify the Internet account one uses, not any one individual. Those in the same household have the same IP address. In response to the personal attacks that have been oozing forth these last couple of weeks, others have left comments responding to them and correcting the factual inaccuracies, as have I. In each case when I did, I have used my own name.
In all fairness to Mr. Greenwald, in the two comments he left at this site on June 8th and 9th, he used his real name and email address, exactly as he claims to do in this passage.
But the problem with his explanation is that while individuals can and do share the same IP address if the cohabitate, they rarely, if ever:
- write with the same style
- visit the same web sites and blogs
People seem to forget that the blogger who broke this story, Shawn at The Sky is Red, stated nothing about IP addressing, and that was never part of the original charge. What he discovered were posts under the names of two people calling themselves "Ellison" and "Wilson" posted Ace of Spades and Protein Wisdom, respectively, that were almost identical in writing style and content. It was only after this connection was made that the story began to develop.
People began looking at their blogs, and noticed that other posts, nearly identical in writing style to Greenwald's writing on his own blog, were appearing at center-right blogs critical of Greenwald and were written in Greenwald's defense.
As I stated earlier, Mr. Greenwald did not attempt to hide his identity, using both his correct name and email address when commenting here at Confederate Yankee. But someone writing in the same style, posted in Greenwald's defense on Protein Wisdom as "Wilson" from the exact same IP address.
Similar phenomena have been noted on other sites, with a total of no less than four differently named authors posting comments with strikingly similar—if not identical—writing styles from what Greenwald admits as his house.
What would a reasonable person believe has happened here, and how serious is it, if true?
Mr. Greenwald does not in any way deny that the comments were posted from his house:
IP addresses signify the Internet account one uses, not any one individual. Those in the same household have the same IP address.
Instead he attempts to deftly shift the blame for these comments to someone else in his home. Barring repeated break-ins, supporters and detractors alike have made the assumption that Greenwald is attempting to shift the blame to a Brazilian housemate or housemates. Greenwald, in his own blog, has not sought to correct that assumption. Until he claims otherwise, I will work from the premise that is precisely what he meant for supporters and detractors alike to infer.
This brings us full circle, back to Shawn's original observation.
The writing style is the same, or so similar that it has been mimicked precisely enough that educated readers among them—at least one with a Master's in English and who has taught a writing class on the collegiate level (myself) —cannot discern any notable differences in the writing style.
Greenwald has self-isolated the "suspects" in this series of blog comments down to location he admits is his own home in Brazil.
Are reasonable people to assume that a Greenwald himself posted these comments under false identities?
Or is it likely that someone in his Brazilian home happens to know the exact center-right American political blogs that are criticizing him, and can write defenses so strikingly similar in writing style to Greenwald's as to be undifferentiated to any discernable degree?
I'll let you be the judge, but as you consider these charges, first look inward, and ask yourself these questions:
- Who are your housemates?
- How interested is your housemate in your blogging?
- Does your housemate make it a habit to know who is criticizing your blog, and how to find these sites—and the specific posts on these sites—on the Internet?
- Does your housemate make it a habit to defend you on blogs?
- Wold he use multiple aliases to do so, and to what end?
- Can your housemate imitate your writing style precisely?
I applied these questions to my own housemate (my spouse).
I know that while she knows that I care about blogs and blogging, she could personally care less. She is more computer savvy than most, but she is still part of supermajority of people who would have no idea how to track who was writing posts linking to and criticizing my blog entries.
Even if she did want to defend me, she would have no thought of the subterfuge of making up various aliases to do so. Nor would she be able to get into my head, take my knowledge of a particular subject, and replicate how I would respond with such precision.
Simply put, there is no plausible way, under any circumstances, that I could this alternative scenario as being viable.
Occam's Razor is quite sharp, and in this particular case, the direction it cuts seems abundantly clear.
There are only a finite number of people in Glenn Greenwald's home, and I strongly doubt any of the others in his home can mimic him so precisely.
As to whether or not sock puppetry is serious, Some of Greenwald's supporters would like to suggest it is not:
IS SOCKPUPPETRY A PRIORI A BAD THING OR IS IT SOMETIMES A SIMPLE MATTER OF SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT?
Everyone seems to be willing to accept a priori that what is called "sockpuppetry" is a tactic that is deserving of condemnation, strong or mild.
Therefore his critics attack Glenn and his defenders offer various "explanations" for this charge of "sockpuppetry" and all the while it subtly gets established that the sockpuppetry charge is something which requires a defense.
I submit that sockpuppetry is neither good nor bad. It's morally neutral and becomes good or bad depending on the particular facts concerning each case of "sockpuppetry."
The obvious answer, of course, is that sock-puppetry is a form of fraud.
Our criminal American justice system, and every other than I have even a passing familiarity with, seems to think fraud is a Very Bad Thing, as there are many laws criminalizing it, in its various forms, in every jurisdiction, criminal and civil, on multiple levels.
Wikipedia has a fairly informative entry on fraud worth noting:
In the broadest sense, a fraud is a deception made for personal gain, although it has a more specific legal meaning, the exact details varying between jurisdictions. Many hoaxes are fraudulent, although those not made for personal gain are not best described in this way. Not all frauds are hoaxes - electoral fraud, for example. Fraud permeates many areas of life, including art, archaeology and science. In the broad legal sense a fraud is any crime or civil wrong for gain that utilises some deception practiced on the victim as its principal method.
In criminal law, fraud is the crime or offense of deliberately deceiving another in order to damage them — usually, to obtain property or services from him or her unjustly. . Fraud can be accomplished through the aid of forged objects. In the criminal law of common law jurisdictions it may be called "theft by deception," "larceny by trick," "larceny by fraud and deception" or something similar.
In academia and science, fraud can refer to academic fraud - the falsifying of research findings which is a form of scientific misconduct - and in common use intellectual fraud signifies falsification of a position taken or implied by an author or speaker, within a book, controversy or debate, or an idea deceptively presented to hide known logical weaknesses. Journalistic fraud implies a similar notion, the falsification of journalistic findings.
There is also a rather interesting definition of wire fraud at Wikipedia. It could prove to be quite interesting if sock-puppeting is viewed as a criminally fraudulent act. It is a federal crime instead of a state crime, and carries with in an enhanced penalty.
I'll let the legal eagles figure out the exact charges that might be applicable to these kind of situations and which country or countries would have jurisdiction, but I hold it self-evident that blatant dishonesty occurred by someone in Greenwald's home and that it was conducted to further the interests of Glenn Greenwald.
The only question that seems to remain is who in Greenwald's house is guilty of this fraud of sock puppetry, and how seriously this fraud should be taken. Is it a matter for the legal system, or should we be content with "policing our own" as it were, laying out the case and letting people determine the penalty to Greenwald's credibility in light of the circumstantial evidence against him?
I find it highly improbable that anyone else in Glenn Greenwald's house could have posted these "sock puppet" comments other than Glenn Greenwald. The damage to his credibility appears a self-inflicted wound, and I am content that the mortal wound to his credibility is enough.
Others that are more directly impacted by this subterfuge may feel otherwise.