More On Sock Puppets and "Tom Johnson," Part I

By Chris Mooney | July 8, 2010 4:03 pm

Well, yesterday was quite a day. I’m now ready, I think, to start to go over the facts, and try to set it all straight. (Deep breath.) There are two separate issues to address, so this is just the first post:

Sock Puppets. We had sock puppets on the “Intersection,” and we weren’t aware of it until recently, thanks to the revelations of The Buddha is Not Serious. We had not been in the habit of checking IP addresses or trying to root out these kinds of things. Indeed, at times I would just let our filters run and not even look at what most commenters were saying, especially when threads ran over 100 comments long and I was busy with other things.

I see now that there were people abusing the privilege of posting comments on our blog. We’ve banned the offending IPs that have been discovered and we’re also considering further actions to rein in some kinds of comments that don’t contribute anything or engage in baseless attacks, etc.

To those legitimate commenters who were annoyed by bad behavior—and had reason to be!–I’m sorry we didn’t catch on to what was really happening before now. And I want to emphasize: That apology goes out to ANY commenters who may have encountered a sock puppet on our site. Since we weren’t checking  (and will not go back through every single thread), it’s not at all impossible that there were other sock puppets–and this might well have occurred on either side of contentious issues.

So we’re looking into ways of doing more, starting now. And because of that, commenting here may become a bit more challenging than before, at least temporarily. We’ll just have to see what happens as I continue to go over things with Sheril and we determine what to do about this problem–and how to find a way to strike a new and better balance between ease of commenting and restrictions on abuse. (For now, rest assured that if your comment is substantive, thoughtful, not an attack, etcetera, then it will appear fairly promptly, although not instantly of course.)

Obviously, our catching and banning sock puppets here wouldn’t have stopped bad behavior elsewhere on the Internet. But would it have stopped “Tom Johnson“?

A high level of vigilance about this sort of thing almost a year ago might have, but we didn’t even think to consider such measures. Moreover, if we had been catching and banning sock puppets, he might have taken more care when posting.

In any event, it now seems clear that “Tom Johnson”–who also goes by “bilbo,” “milton c,” etc, and most recently “William”–was the real person behind all this. Accordingly, “Tom” will be the subject of the next, lengthier post…

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Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. The Name of the Link « Evolving Thoughts | July 13, 2010
  1. Hitch

    “it’s not at all impossible that there were other sock puppets–and this might well have occurred on either side of contentious issues.”

    I think this hypothetical is unnecessary without evidence. I’m not sure why it’s there except to deflect and perhaps have unindighted people potentially implicated.

    If there are other sock puppets, simply call them out. Don’t create a hypothetical that “might swing both ways” without evidence. That would be proper arguing.

  2. Nemesis

    I’ll admit, I have changed handles, but not for the purpose of “sockpuppeting”. I have just done it to avoid building a reputation. I apologize.

  3. Not a bad start, minus an echo of Hitch @1. Not much else to do as far as the sockpuppets go in the future.

    Also, if my memory is correct, “William” said that there was another distinct “bilbo,” so next time a “bilbo” posts, be sure to check that over with her/him.

  4. I encourage Mr Mooney to go through those old contentious threads, identify the noisiest voices on my side of the issue, and check IPs for sock puppetry. Then this suggestion that both sides could bear responsibility for this behavior will have a little more weight. We’ve already had a few accusations that “Paul” is a sock puppet for “PZ Myers”, so rather than allow that false claim to stand, the blog hosts could clear it up very quickly.

    Naturally, if you discover that the discussion was not equally reprehensible on both sides, Mooney could retract his suggestion.

  5. Kirth Gersen

    “We had sock puppets on the Intersection.”

    In point of fact, some threads were nothing BUT puppets — four, five, or more of them, all talking to themselves in a frenzy of schizophrenic excess — with the occasional non-sock visitor reduced to staring around, gapingly, at the bizarre display.

  6. Jon

    I think Chris going through some old threads and seeing how much sock puppeting is going on is a good idea.

    And I’m going to apologize to PZ Myers. I thought “Paul” sounded a lot like him, but it’s not really relevant to this discussion. My apologies to PZ, and Chris as well.

  7. Demanding that they go through old threads and find all evidence for sock puppetry is excessive. This one case is special because it was called out. But this blog has a lot of posts that get over a hundred comments, often very contentious ones full of people behaving badly. It’s quite a lot of effort to go through and find all cases where somebody was being deceptive, simply because of the statement that “there might be others on either side of any contentions debate”, a statement that strikes me as so obvious to anybody who’s been on the Internet as to require no defence.

    Let them explain what happened here in this one case that got highlighted, and then move on rather, than getting mired in constant recrimination.

  8. Mooney said it. There is no evidence for it, unless he’s got some hidden away somewhere.

    That statement is not at all obvious. Most websites are not plagued with sockpuppets babbling at one another, especially not to the degree that was going on here. What happened here was not routine, not common, and was genuinely aberrant, pathological behavior on the part of this “William” character. You can’t simultaneously claim it was just this one case that got highlighted, now we move on, while also arguing that it is endemic to the internet.

    And I’m not asking Mooney to go back through every thread and every commenter. I’m assuming he’s got a reason for claiming that both sides have been engaging this behavior, which implies he’s got some suspicions about certain pseudonyms. All he has to do is look and say, “see, I was right!” or “oops, I guess I was mistaken”.

  9. Jon

    “pathological behavior”

    Oh come on, that’s a bit too much drama, isn’t it? The kid’s a college student.

  10. a different phil

    The kid’s a college student.

    Or so he claims, anyway. At this point, nothing he claimed can be accepted at face value.

  11. Wowbagger

    Jon said:

    Oh come on, that’s a bit too much drama, isn’t it? The kid’s a college student.

    There are times when he posted three consecutive comments under three different names, all within a handspan of minutes of each other. If you look back over some of the threads here, and add the whole YNH mess on top of that, it’s getting a bit beyond ‘youthful high-jinks’ and ‘boys will be boys’.

    That said, I don’t know if there’s much to be gained in dragging through old threads – unless, as PZ implied, Chris believes he can demonstrate that William and his sock-drawer army weren’t the only ones playing at it.

  12. Jon

    What is YNH? Sorry, I haven’t been initiated to that Internet masonic lodge level…

  13. Gus Snarp

    @Jon – If you don’t know what YNH is then you are missing half the story. That might explain some of your posts. Start here: http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/the-curious-case-of-the-youre-not-helping-blog/

  14. Jon

    Oh, The “You’re Not Helping” blog. Sorry, I didn’t know that got a TLA (Three Letter Acronym.)

  15. Stephen

    Wait. You’re taking the conduct of a single person and generalising it to everyone involved? I feel like I’ve seen this pattern before somewhere…

  16. Guy

    There are times when he posted three consecutive comments under three different names, all within a handspan of minutes of each other. If you look back over some of the threads here, and add the whole YNH mess on top of that, it’s getting a bit beyond ‘youthful high-jinks’ and ‘boys will be boys’.

    It’s not a matter of having psychological issues unless you consider dishonesty a mental disorder. Sock-puppeting is an extreme form of trolling.

    As the Wikipedia entry notes, sock puppetry is frowned on:

    Sockpuppet (sometimes known also as a mule, or a glove puppet) is an additional account created by an existing member of an Internet community pretending to be a separate person. This is done so as to manufacture the illusion of support in a vote or argument or to act without social effect on one’s “main” account stay away from the issue. This behaviour is often seen as dishonest by online communities and as a result these individuals are often labeled as trolls.

  17. Demanding that they go through old threads and find all evidence for sock puppetry is excessive.

    Writing a script which systematically goes through all posts, flagging all instances of “different” people sharing the same IP address is a fairly trivial programming exercise. There will be a bit of noise due to proxies and dynamic IPs, but it would certainly highlight any further cases.

  18. Wowbagger

    Jon wrote:

    Oh, The “You’re Not Helping” blog.

    Yes, that one. Did you read the post? Do you now understand that this behaviour is more significant than a one-off lapse in judgement on William/YNH/Tom Johnson et al’s part?

  19. Jon

    OK, yes. It sounds like a college student with a lot of time on his hands, and possibly some bad habits to kick. (Or maybe not a college student as #10 pointed out.)

    So… What are we establishing here?

  20. jaranath

    Jon, the heavy investment of time and effort Will put into it, nearly all of which related to creating artificial assent to and support of his ideas…I have to agree with others, I think this is pathological in some way. I think sockpuppetry can be “normal” to indulge in, but this was extreme and persistent. Sockpuppetry BECAME his norm. I’d love a psychologist’s take on it.

  21. Christopher Letzelter

    Chris Mooney said: “That apology goes out to ANY commenters who may have encountered a sock puppet on our site.”
    Chris, I hope you also look into apologizing to people who were lambasted for being skeptical of the poeple posting as “sockpuppets.” I look forward to Part Two.
    Chris

  22. Hitch

    A made up story by that blogger was elevated to a primary post and claimed to be credible and used to argue that New Atheists are nasty.

    Many commenters at the time have indicated that the story didn’t appear credible and that it is questionable to use an a story like that to support a view.

    The fallout of this has not been good. Mind you William (YNH) not only ran the blog but also heavily sock puppeted here.

    Certainly things have been made worse not better for it and groups of people have been painted in a bad light.

    Well that’s established.

    Details on Tom Johnson who allegedly provided fake credential to appear as a credible witness are still not established. And there is a look at other sock puppets, though as best I know there is no credible leads that any other sock puppetry of that type or scale exist at all. But it’s up to the site admins to choose what to investigate.

    Ultimately a lot of establishing has happened. The real question is, will there be reconciliation given the consequences some of the comments and posts had on the relations of groups and individuals.

  23. Jon

    Well I’m not going to engage in remote psychologist here, not a good idea even if you’re qualified. I’ve known a lot of crazy college students who weren’t really “crazy.”

    I’d say a lot of the interest here is fueled by trying to discredit Chris, too. He’s a bit like Trotsky on the lam from the Stalinists… Heresy can be a threat to the whole ideological project, so certain people seem to want his head on a charger.

  24. hyperdeath: you willing to write the script? Or perhaps pay someone at Discover Magazine to do it?

    I love these “Doing X is such a trivial exercise (probably because I’m not doing it, and have no idea how things are run behind doors) …” posts.

  25. designsoda

    Or perhaps pay someone at Discover Magazine to do it?

    It behooves Discover Magazine to pay someone to do it (or rather, buy existing scripts like the ones used in scienceblogs) in order that something like this doesn’t happen again.

    No one is asking anyone to manually check every post ever made at The Intersection.

  26. Christopher Letzelter

    Jon,
    I don’t think most commenters want to discredit Chris, though they (and I include myself here) disagree with his accomodationist position. They want integrity, and now there needs to be an admission that the “Tom Johnson” story is discredited and cannot support Chris’ characterization of his “New Atheist” opponents. There may be examples out there – I haven’t seen any – but this isn’t one of them.
    Chris

  27. There may be examples out there – I haven’t seen any – but this isn’t one of them.

    Just read PZ Myers’ blog if you want ample examples of a New Atheist behaving in a completely rude, unprofessional, and uncalled-for manner.

  28. Jon

    I think Chris already agreed that the Tom Johnson story is discredited.

  29. John Kwok

    @ Rob Knop -

    It’s also quite hypocritical and sanctimonious of PZ to be posting here, since he still regards as a joke, a death threat against Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum that was posted at Pharyngula back in March. He thought that the ensuing uproar was over “coarse language”, but it is indefensible for him or any of his supporters to claim that that comment in question was a joke, not the sickening threat that it was.

  30. Christopher Letzelter

    Rob – yeah, but that’s a private blog, not a professionally- or academically-sponsored event, like the “Tom Johnson” chickanery claimed to be.

  31. I echo those who think that the “There could have been sockpuppetry on both sides!” was cowardly and uncallled for. Is it possible? Sure. But without any reason to accuse, it’s just empty slander. Chris should strike that phrase.

  32. Dan L.

    I think sockpuppetry can be “normal” to indulge in, but this was extreme and persistent. Sockpuppetry BECAME his norm. I’d love a psychologist’s take on it.

    I don’t. Maybe the kid’s really contrite, maybe he’s still lying, maybe he’s not even a kid. If you’re not willing to believe what he says, well, we just don’t know. I say give the guy a chance to redeem himself or let him fade into obscurity, whichever works for you.

    Rob Knop @ 26:

    How is that an example of what Jon is talking about? Myers kind of has good reasons for trying to discredit Mooney, but I don’t think he’s actually trying since he doesn’t seem to think Mooney is credible in the first place.

    I think Chris already agreed that the Tom Johnson story is discredited.

    You’re missing the point. Mooney used the Tom Johnson story to fuel a narrative about new atheists being terrible, harmful, awful, nasty people. That narrative has always been thin gruel with a lot of people asking him for specific evidence about all these problems caused by those new atheists, and this was one of his few real examples. Now it turns out it was concocted specifically to support Mooney’s questionably narrative in the first place.

    Mooney obviously has to admit the Tom Johnson story is discredited. The question is whether he will admit that it discredits, at least to some degree, his anti-New Atheist agenda.

  33. David Margolies

    Rob Knop (26): “Just read PZ Myers’ blog if you want ample examples of a New Atheist behaving in a completely rude, unprofessional, and uncalled-for manner.”

    I do read his blog, and while it is not a church social, I do not find what you see at all. But you link to nothing. As seems to be usual, assertion without evidence.

    Note further the Tom Johnson story was about people being rude in person, not in comments or email, and being rude to those invited to some sort of meeting designed to be inclusive, which is very, very different from writing an intemperate comment on a Blog, particularly a blog which is pretty clear about its position and which does not claim to be inclusive or particularly polite.

  34. Malchus

    @Rob Knop:

    I am a theist – specifically an evangelical Christian. Myers is blunt, direct, and occasionally given to hyperbole. But to call his behavior unprofessional demonstrates that you are unaquainted with professional scientists, and certainly ignorant of Christian fundamentalist behavior. Myers is my antithesis, but his skill in direct communication and his passion for reason and sanity are a breath of fresh air in comparison to Mooney’s remarkably fuzzy thinking.

  35. Chas Becht

    @Thomas Joseph (23):
    “you willing to write the script? Or perhaps pay someone at Discover Magazine to do it?”

    I know you weren’t addressing me, but I would be willing to write such a thing. It really is trivial.

    To the proprietors: If you are interested in such an exercise and would like assistance, feel free to contact me at the email address provided in the comment submission form.

  36. Thom Watson

    The Intersection: “we’re also considering further actions to rein in some kinds of comments that don’t contribute anything or engage in baseless attacks, etc…. For now, rest assured that if your comment is substantive, thoughtful, not an attack, etcetera, then it will appear fairly promptly, although not instantly of course.)”

    Rob Knop @26: “Just read PZ Myers’ blog if you want ample examples of a New Atheist behaving in a completely rude, unprofessional, and uncalled-for manner.”

    How exactly is that comment “substantive, thoughtful, not an attack”? And yet it was approved.

  37. Jon

    Dan L You’re missing the point. Mooney used the Tom Johnson story to fuel a narrative about new atheists being terrible, harmful, awful, nasty people.

    You’re exaggerating what’s being argued because you take it so personally and seriously, so it might come across to you that way–but “harmful” is accurate. There are lots of things to fuel the narrative, not just Tom Johnson. I’m not going to do all the Googling to find the examples. I’m sure you can find those yourself. You might disagree and say that’s “thin gruel.” Fine, we disagree.

  38. hyperdeath: you willing to write the script? Or perhaps pay someone at Discover Magazine to do it?

    Yes to the former. No to the latter.

    Then again, I’m unlikely to be taken up on the offer. (Furthermore, my post was intended as a counterargument to the argument that systematically checking for past sockpuppetry would be a gargantuan task. It was not intended as a direct suggestion.)

    I love these “Doing X is such a trivial exercise (probably because I’m not doing it, and have no idea how things are run behind doors) …” posts.

    But it is a trivial exercise. Even without direct access to the database, it is easy. Modern scripting languages are loaded with advanced library functions which can be used to parse information from a page with just a few lines of code. The site structure is formulaic, and automatically cycling through it would be straightforward.

  39. Richie P

    John Kwok@28-

    What is this death threat? Sorry, I didn’t catch that one. Have you got any links to this?

    Even though I am broadly on the New Atheist side of this discussion, I do have to admit that the commentators on Pharyngula can be a bit of a rowdy bunch. I hardly ever post comments there, even though I read PZs blog posts. It’s a bit too dog eat dog for my liking.

  40. Richie P

    Rob Knop @26: “Just read PZ Myers’ blog if you want ample examples of a New Atheist behaving in a completely rude, unprofessional, and uncalled-for manner.”

    PZ just speaks his mind. Personally I find it refreshing, and unlike, say, Mooney he really does challenge bad ideas and uncritical thinking. Mooney likes to think he does the same, but he is unwilling to tell religious folks what they really need to hear. Instead, he insists that we bend over backwards to be nice, and not hurt any of their feelings. He probably means well, but this is never going to be enough to deal with the current state of religious bewilderment that our society finds itself in at the dawn of the 21st century. It may be a bitter pill to swallow, but it must be swallowed.
    The message is clear and it should be this :
    That there really is no good reason for believing any of that stuff, no good evidence for it and certianly no good reason to try to force it on the rest of us.

  41. That there really is no good reason for believing any of that stuff, no good evidence for it and certianly no good reason to try to force it on the rest of us.

    That statement applies to the “New Atheist” message as well. Sure, there’s no good scientific reason to believe that there’s a God… but a lot of people have found good reasons to believe it, and there’s no scientific proof that they’re wrong. As such, there’s really no good reason other than personal preference to insist that there’s no God. And, there’s no good reason to force it on the rest of us, and there are good reasons not to– specifically, driving people away from science, as Mooney and Kirshbaum outline in their book “Unscientific America”.

    This is why I prefer the term “fundamentalist atheist”. “Tell people the Truth, tell them what they must hear, and they must swallow the message that we have.” That’s the approach you advocate, and it’s also the approach of the most firm of the fundamentalist religions. Fortunately, most of us are not so extreme.

  42. Nullius in Verba

    “but a lot of people have found good reasons to believe it, and there’s no scientific proof that they’re wrong”

    It depends which God you’re talking about. There’s scientific proof that some of them are wrong, and it’s a logical truth that of the hundreds of mutually contradictory religions people have believed in, almost all of them must be wrong, but even hard-line atheists would agree that there can be no proof that Gods generally are impossible.

    People once found reason to believe that Tlaloc existed, and was hungry for sacrifices. Would you describe yourself as agnostic on the question? Is it legitimate to have a positive belief that Tlaloc does not exist? It’s a scary thought – do you think he might?

    “Tell people the Truth, tell them what they must hear, and they must swallow the message that we have.”

    I haven’t met such an atheist, so I can’t comment. I can’t prove that no such atheists exist, of course.

    But the ones I have met do argue that they have a right to speak the truth as they see it, and argue for it, without having to compromise just to ‘be nice’ or avoid upsetting people. Or even to ‘build bridges’.

    The argument you seem to be describing is over whether religion merits special protection from being criticised or insulted, special consideration in decision making and ethical considerations, simply because it’s a religion, and independent of the evidence for its truth. In Britain, the Archbishops of the Church of England have seats in the upper legislative house, and thereby influence our laws, simply because of their religion. On any debate or discussion on a contentious ethical issue that affects all of us they always invite people to represent the religions. Why should they have any deeper insight into ethics, just because they happen to be religious?

    Once people are old enough to make an informed choice, they can believe whatever they want. But their belief system should not have any special privilege over any other belief system – political, economic, or social – purely by reason of it being given this “religion” label. If your religion believes that it should, I’d fight that, but on other matters I believe in freedom of belief. I’m against interference and imposition, except to prevent significant and actual harm. All I want is a level playing field.

  43. Paul Burrell

    here’s a suggestion, if you’re not interested in researching the history: alter your display of posts to start including the IP addresses folks post from going forward.

    This will inhibit some folks from posting from the office.

    Folks who are inhibited by that probably shouldn’t have been posting from the office to start with: your office IT staff knows or should know what you’re doing with your office PC anyway, and if they don’t know today they could know next week without your ever being aware in the change in posture of your network.

    It would probably be unsporting to decide to display this information for historical posts, given the level of investment that seems to be going on. (But anyone posting comments to any blog should be aware of the fact that the info is available and displayable by the blog owner in many cases and that a retroactive decision on how they use their site logs is their call.)

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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