The puzzle of sockpuppetry

I have written before about the phenomenon of ‘sockpuppetry’, where people adopt another identity and use that new identity to praise and otherwise provide support to their real selves. Basically, you create your own fan club and the internet allows people to do that somewhat anonymously.

But why do they do this?

Via Jonathan Turley, I hear of a new case, this time of Matthew Broyde, a professor of law at Emory University. He is charged with adopting an alternate name of Rabbi Hershel Goldwasser, claiming to be someone who lived in Israel and a member of a rabbinical group for 20 years. “Goldwasser” drew attention to Broyde’s scholarship and promoted it.

Emory University is now investigating the claims. According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Broyde has admitted to doing this, and added that he and an unnamed friend jointly operated under the Goldwasser name. He has also admitted to using other names to praise himself.

By all accounts, Broyde was a very successful academic, and also riding high in the world of Jewish legal systems. What on earth drives such people to assume a false identity? It is true that there are some aspects of academic life that can be frustrating, especially for very ambitious people. You may feel that you have published some good work that did not receive the kind of attention you think it deserves. But that comes with the territory and the usual way to deal with it is to try and give talks and write articles about your work.

In the Haaretz interview Broyde says that he was “succumbing to the vanity of naked praise”. But how satisfying can it be to praise yourself? It seems really weird to create an alter ego to do so, a sign of deep insecurity.


  1. brucegee1962 says

    Where’s the line between sock puppetry and self-promotion?

    “An American bard at last! One of the roughs, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking, and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. We shall cease shamming and be what we really are. We shall start an athletic and defiant literature. We realize now how it is, and what was most lacking. The interior American republic shall also be declared free and independent.”

    From an “Anonymous” review of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, written by Whitman himself to boost sales.

  2. sunny says

    Didn’t the now disgraced Anil Potti do the same to rehabilitate himself after being caught fabricating research? In any case, I have no idea why otherwise successful (and intelligent?) people do such things. What I find remarkable is the notion that they think they will get away with it.

  3. says

    sunny: except we have no way of knowing what the denominator is.

    Could be thousands and thousands and thousands of people are getting away with it right now. Or two.

    We only know about the ones that do get caught.

    I suspect it’s not ubiquitous, but more widespread than the isolated incidents we find out out.

  4. Lucas Beauchamp says

    brucegee1962: The difference between sock puppetry and self-promotion is the absence of deception in the latter.

    MattG: Ethicists are always the ones you have to watch out for. For example, its always my fellow attorneys who talk about ethics all the time who are most likely to act unethically. Just like evangelical Christians getting caught with their pants down.

    And who can forget this literary classic:

    I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. The three geniuses of whom I wish to speak are Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Alfred Whitehead.

    From “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” by, yes, Gertrude Stein

  5. Matt G says

    I am acquainted with a very conservative priest. The only way I have benefitted from this relationship is that I have learned a new word: pietistic (2nd definition especially…).

  6. lpetrich says

    I must concede that I don’t have much experience with that kind of sockpuppetry. My experience with it has mostly been with people who try to evade bans from messageboards by showing up with some other identity.

    As to creating fake fans for oneself, that could be for impressing other people with how many admirers you seemingly have.

  7. says

    I have written before about the phenomenon of ‘sockpuppetry’,

    You know YNH/Tom Johnson came back, right?

    The strangest academic case to me is still Orlando Figes. (The only thing more perplexing about him is the alleged pronunciation of his name. Fie-gees – really?)

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