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:



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. [1]. 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.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at July 21, 2006 10:11 AM | TrackBack

You get points for the Metallica reference, that's for sure.

As for what folks are saying about Greenwald, I think that Greenwald doesn't really have a good excuse.

There is a good circumstantial case that he's engaging in sockpuppetry, and his defense that others can access his account from his house is undermined by the style of those other identities being suspiciously similar to each others' writing style.

So, it could be:
1) Glenn engaging in sockpuppetry himself;
2) Someone else in Glenn's house engaging in sockpuppetry;
3) A completely random and innocent convergence of postings saying substantially the same thing;
4) A combination of 1 and 2

I think the odds of #3 are quite low. It could be any of 1, 2, or 4, but the end result is that Glenn doesn't look good no matter what, unless Glenn and his cohort(s) come clean. Honesty and all that counts for something.

Posted by: lawhawk at July 21, 2006 10:39 AM

As with the LATimes case this stinks of ego preening even fawning over oneself.

A really smart guy would sock puppet and dis himself (unfairly, of course) and then preen as duped defenders jump in.

That would however, take confidence.

Posted by: lonetown at July 21, 2006 10:49 AM

This is a great post, very concise. A few comments:

--It has to be emphasized that Greenwald's roommate, the main suspect other than Greenwald himself, is Brazilian and presumably a native speaker of Portuguese, not English. I've studied foreign languages for most of my life, and have taught English as a second language for two years, and no one is going to convince me that the posts were written by a Brazilian. No way.

--Another commenter (at Patterico I believe) has taken a look at the verbage used and has found some overlap in several rather obscure expressions among Greenwald's posts, and some of the alledged sock puppets.

--I'm not sure there are any serious legal ramifications to all this. No one has been harmed, and there was no material gain to be acheived from the posts. However, the damage to credibility is something else entirely. Who could take him seriously after this?

--The whole episode is too embarrassing to admit, and probably impossible to prove without depositions, which aren't going to happen. Greenwald can hide behind plausible denial and ignore our discussions. What else could he do? If he admitted to this, he would be finished.

Posted by: Gotta Know at July 21, 2006 12:22 PM

And one more: Where are Greenwald's water-bearers--Ellison, Wilson, etc--now that he needs them? Why have they suddenly gone quiet? Why are they not stumping and reminding us of Greenwald's credentials?

Posted by: Gotta Know at July 21, 2006 12:50 PM

Then again, I suppose Greenwald could have mulitple personality disorer, and his alternative personalities find it necessary to support the dominate one. Without his knowledge and on his own computer, of course.

Posted by: Sybil at July 21, 2006 01:12 PM

There's a NEW, WICKED cut (mentioning YOU by name) on this GG debacle, up at "BrainSurgeryWithSpoons
dot blogspot dot com"

Its funny AND scathingly skewering!

Ellison? Meet Wilson... :D

Posted by: Karridine at July 21, 2006 10:36 PM

I comment on many blogs, and always with a different name on each blog to eliminate the search engine tracking capability of a persons persuations.

I am a non important zit on life, but at least I don't have cheerleaders exorting me.

I wish I could be as socially aware and give breaking news. However that goes back to my prior admission of being a zit.

Hey at least I am not a lurker!

Posted by: dubiousnerd at July 21, 2006 11:03 PM

As I have said before. Glenn always uses his own name on my blog, as you say he has here Bob.

You make a very good argument. The way I see it though no matter if the truth ever comes out or not. This only makes Greenwald a martyr in the lefts eyes. It will not harm his credibility at all.

Hilzik only lost his blog because he was accountable to an MSM entity (LA Times). He didn't even loose his job and he is a professional journalist.

The left never stopped loving Hilzik and defended him as well.

The right already thinks little of Greenwald so even if you are right, I don't think it changes anything.

Posted by: The Ugly American at July 22, 2006 12:51 AM

I agree with Ugly. It's ironic, whether Greenwald has credibility or not as far as the right is concerned is really neither here nor there. It's more important to his fans, and judging from the comments on his site he has quite a few.

Personally, if I were convinced a conservative blogger were playing sock puppets in the way that Greenwald probably did, he'd be through as far as I were concerned, I would never, ever go to his site again. I would be embarrassed.

But then, I would also never spend time on a guy so hell-bent on tooting his own horn, and a pretty mediocre horn at that.

Posted by: Rick O'Shea at July 22, 2006 08:10 AM

Glenn always uses his own name on my blog

You've checked every commenter's IP?

One data point does not a trend make.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at July 22, 2006 11:46 AM

What GG is alleged to have done is not illegal, but simply dishonest. "Fraud" in the loosest sense. The only psuedo-plausible argument for illegality that I can conjure is that his sockpuppetry amounts to fraudulent testimonials for his book. Yet the "testimonials" are hardly related to his book sales, and are not clearly false (i.e., he's not falsely claiming that buying the book made him lose 30 pounds in 30 days). He's just defending his arguments anonymously, in a manner that creates the illusion of dedicated supporters. Now, if his blog were behind TimesSelect, there might be a legal claim, but he offers his opinion for free. It's only as good as his personal reputation, which he's also giving away for nothing.

Posted by: ss at July 22, 2006 01:02 PM

I've had to deal with "sockpuppetry" quite frequently as the administrator of Internet forums and blogs. If nothing else, its dishonest.

But to anyone paying attention this, "revelation" about Mr. Greenwald, comes as no surprise.

Posted by: Warren at July 22, 2006 09:28 PM

Of course GG won't lose much credibility among his lefty devotees. But he, and they, have to remember from here on out that he was exposed and humiliated, his denials testifying to the humiliation rather than exonerating him.

GG, I'm sure, despises those on the right who disagree with him; but that doesn't mean that his daily awareness now of having been exposed as having an ego so desperate for confirmation from others that he needed to invent some others to provide it. That's gotta sting. And he's gotta go on now knowing that we're out there shaking our heads and laughing, and wondering who among his adoring acolytes might secretly be doing the same.

Posted by: Levans at July 22, 2006 10:50 PM

Yes where is Ellison?

Posted by: Jane at July 23, 2006 01:00 PM