Sock Mobs

The Internet can be a nasty place – particularly online discussions and the comments sections of blogs. But is the recent increase in online hostilities really an indication of some groundswell of American rage, or are there just a few bad eggs determined to make it look that way?

There’s a relatively new phenomenon occurring online these days – an illusion of populist group hostilitiy I’ve come to call “Sock Mobs,” after the “sock puppets” people use to feign multiple identities in online conversations. It works like this:

An anonymous poster picks a fight with his presumed enemy. Whether or not that enemy responds, a number of other posters appear to chime in – agreeing to whatever the accusation might be. “This guy is a commie.” “This doctor is a quack.” “This guy wants Israel to be abolished.” “This professor is corrupting college students.” The accusation comes along with twisted supporting evidence. Every once in a while, an underinformed but real person agrees with the accusations; after all, it appears from the posts that this enemy of all things good and proper really might be a threat. All this makes it look like there’s a lot of upset people.

The accused party might respond, explain, and clarify, but the original poster always ignores the facts presented and reframes the argument to his liking – always polarizing, exaggerating, or even misquoting the defendee. Then, again, all those voices of agreement pile on. Eventually, the defendee goes away – having said pretty much all he or she can say – and the original anonymous angry poster claims victory: see? the accused can’t have an open discussion because he is guilty.

It turns out, however, that many of these “gangs” of seemingly unrelated, individual posters are just one person. In most cases, it’s a shill of a lobby, a “campus protection” organization, or an offshoot of a political party. He logs in from multiple computers, spoofs IP addresses, and sometimes even fakes responses by his target. All in an effort to make it appear that a real grassroots mob of regular folk are taking a stand against the evil communist, market critic, or God-hating evolutionist. College students are hired to troll message boards and engage in this behavior. Of course in other cases it’s just a lonely, obsessed, anti-fan.

That’s right: it’s not a smart mob at all, but a faux mob, constructed for no other purpose than net propaganda. Think “Swift Boat Veterans,” but on a smaller, more diffuse scale. It’s a tactic I’ve seen used in one form or another against Richard Dawkins, Mark Crispin Miller, Naomi Klein, and Tony Kushner, to name just a few. It’s even been tried on me a few times – and i’ve fallen for it more than once, engaging in conversations with mobs of one, who have no desire whatsoever to engage – only to discredit.

It’s nasty, but it’s a cheap, effective way of keeping someone from doing his more important work, and to create an illusion of controversy that might get colleges or other organizations to think twice about letting that person teach or speak. That is, if people really read and respect such anonymous activity from blogs. For the most part, I don’t think they do.

But it’s an interesting lesson and conundrum. And as a media theorist, I feel obliged to help figure out a way to advise others who want to avoid getting entangled in this kind of disinformation. My advice would be:

1 – Unless you’re really a politician or public figure (Obama, et al) – don’t attempt to quash conversations in which you are dissed by anonymous posters. They are simply baiting you.
2 – To avoid people spoofing your identity, only participate in a few public forums, and limit those to ones where you are confident that you can keep track of anything posted in your name, and where the registration process seems rigorous enough to prevent anyone with a Hotmail account from picking a name close to your own.
3 – Don’t engage with people who clearly don’t mean to engage with you. There’s no way to win an argument or, better, get enlightened by engaging with someone who would rather do you harm than change your mind.

For the record, from now on you won’t see me posting to conversations anywhere online except here, John Brockman’s and Warren Ellis’s Engine – sites whose owners I trust, and whose administration is secure. And anything else you do see with my name on it in some open online discussion – it isn’t me.

(special thanks to Howard Rheingold and Mark Frauenfelder for helping me come up with a name for this phenomenon)