The recent article I wrote in The Chronicle Of Higher Education titled The New War Between Science and Religion generated a lot of interest. The editors told me that it was the most viewed, forwarded, and commented on article for some time. The article dealt with the current debate between the new/unapologetic atheists and the accommodationists, with me taking the former side.
There were also some responses on some blogs, including a critical one on a website called You’re Not Helping. The site’s anonymous author (I’ll assume a man) said that he was an atheist and that the goal of his site was to critique fellow atheists whom he felt were harming the cause of atheism by poor arguments, tone, etc. That’s fair enough. The internet is a fast-moving place and we could all use watchdogs to monitor what we say so that in our haste we do not say things that are not measured. The commenters here often point out when I am in error or go too far off the rails. The criticisms about me on YNH however, though strongly worded, seemed to me to be somewhat confused and so I did not respond, figuring that readers would figure out for themselves who was more credible.
It was with some surprise that I discovered recently that the site’s author had pleaded guilty to the offense of ‘sockpuppetry‘. This is where one person assumes one or more aliases and then posts articles and comments on the web to support a single individual (usually the sockpuppet himself or herself) or to advance a specific agenda. The different names are used to give the impression that the opinions are widely held.
YNH’s sockpuppetry came to light when he slipped up in various ways, such as by praising one sockpuppet’s comments while signing with the same name, using similar verbal and punctuation tics for the different authors, etc. An alert website called The Buddha Is Not Serious (where do they get these names?) noted some of these quirks and investigated. When the evidence of YNH’s sockpuppetry became too obvious to deny, the author gave a petulant apology and closed the site except to those who register, and then later shut down the site altogether.
In the course of reading about YNH’s shenanigans, I discovered that rather than being a disinterested atheist trying to improve the quality of the debate, the site’s author seems to have been a ‘concern troll‘ (someone who acts like they are sympathetic to your side of an issue but are giving you advice that is really meant to undermine your position) whose main agenda seems to have been to attack a variety of new atheists. When commenters would try and defend them, the various sockpuppets would be brought in to gang up on them and intimidate them.
This started me thinking about this whole business of anonymity on the web. I am not anonymous. In fact, my name is part of the website’s name, not because I am an egotistical maniac, but because when I started this blog, I did not have the imagination to think up a good name nor did I think it worthwhile making the effort to think up one for what I presumed would be a short-lived experiment. Now I am kind of stuck with the name, though I dislike it. When I visit other sites and post comments, I do so under my own name.
But I recognize that being public about my views is a luxury that not everyone can afford and other people being anonymous does not bother me in the least. I can well understand why some people would prefer (for family, social, professional, or even psychological reasons) to keep their true feelings about issues from being widely known. I would prefer that people use one pseudonym consistently (rather than no name at all or multiple names) so that others know they are dealing with a single person, but realize that doing so carries the risk that if you are a prodigious commenter or blogger that people who care enough may be able to piece together clues as to your identity.
What puzzles me is why anonymity seems to bother some people. I do not understand why people sometimes investigate to try and reveal the true identity of a pseudonymous blogger or commenter.
But while I can understand why some want to be anonymous, there are some things an anonymous person should not do, such as make personal attacks on people or spread rumors about them or bring their personal lives into the equation. Such actions are bad in general but doing so behind a shield of anonymity is cowardly and inexcusable.
What I find really pathetic, though, is sockpuppetry. How insecure must one be to create alter egos whose main function is to praise and support your ideas and denigrate those of your opponents? And yet there are cases of people whom you would not think needed to do so indulging in this kind of thing.
Another thing I found is that there seems to be a fairly common practice of site owners banning certain commenters whom they find obnoxious for whatever reason. I am not sure why this is necessary. If someone says something you don’t like, why not just ignore them?
Reading through all this, it struck me how calm my own blog is, even though quite a lot of controversial topics are discussed, I often take a strong position on things, and the readership is quite large. Even though people have disagreed strongly with my views and those of other commenters, and some people have posted lengthy rants that have had only marginal relationships to the posting, there really has been no nastiness of any kind, even though anonymity is allowed. I have no idea if sockpuppetry is going on here and frankly don’t really care enough to investigate. The thought of banning someone has never even crossed my mind and I do not even know how to do it, frankly. The only comments that I erase are ones that are obviously spam. If I find that a discussion in the comments has started getting repetitive and is not going anywhere, I just stop participating.
I hope it continues this way.
POST SCRIPT: Clint Webb for Senate
At last, an honest political ad.