How To Not Be A Sockpuppet

By Neuroskeptic | October 9, 2014 4:53 pm

As a pseudonymous blogger and defender of the idea of anonymous and pseudonymous writing, I believe that you shouldn’t need to use your real name in order for your ideas to be taken seriously.

However, pseudonymity can be abused. When this happens it crosses the line and becomes sockpuppetry. But where exactly is that line?

As I see it there’s one very simple rule that anyone using a pseudonym should respect:

Don’t lie.

Or to elaborate:

Don’t make false claims about your identity – explicitly or implicitly.

You might say: but “Neuroskeptic”, you yourself are claiming to be someone you’re not, with your pseudonym. But I don’t think I am.

“Neuroskeptic” is obviously not my real name. It’s clearly a pseudonym, and so anyone reading something written by “Neuroskeptic” will assume that the author is someone who’s chosen to write as “Neuroskeptic”. Which is true. That’s what I am. So I’m being perfectly transparent.

However, had I chosen a ‘realistic’ pseudonym like “Peter Sounick”, or whatever, then I’d be being deceptive, because this appears to be an actual name, and obscures the fact that I’m using a pseudonym. There is an implicit understanding that a real-looking name is real. (There are exceptions: novelists and actors often adopt real-looking pseudonyms. I think these are not deceptive, but only because they’re a normal and expected practice in those contexts.)

A realistic pseudonym is bad enough, but it’s outright lying if you embelish your real-sounding pseudonym with a fake address (as in this case) or a fictional biography (as in “David Rose“, sockpuppet of British journalist Johann Hari.)

But a deceptive pseudonym is only one of many ways to become a sockpuppet. Even an ‘obvious’ pseudonym can be deceptive in certain contexts. For example, I believe that one shouldn’t comment ‘in the third person’ on ones real identity. This would break the implicit understanding that we talk about ourselves in the first person – that if I am talking about myself, I do so openly.

Breaking this rule, and commenting on a story concerning himself under the pseudonym “Paul”, just got notorious academic fraudster Diederik Stapel branded a sockpuppet on the Retraction Watch blog – and rightly so.


Likewise, it’s deceitful to use two or more different pseudonyms in the same conversation. This would go against the understanding that within a given context, each person has one identity. To use multiple pseudonyms in the same context – or indeed a pseudonym in addition to your real name – could create an illusion of consensus.

This is the rule that I most worry about breaking myself. My real identity, after all, has all the same opinions as Neuroskeptic. So I have to make an effort to ensure that I don’t end up stating my views twice.

Finally, lying about ones background is obviously wrong. Given that I am a British man, if I claimed that “Neuroskeptic” was the pseudonym of a Syrian lesbian, I’d be lying. I would also be lying if I denied being a neuroscientist, because I am one.

I think I would also be dubious if I omitted to mention some relevant aspect of my identity – if I owned stock in a company and then commented on that company, without disclosing my stake, say. But that would be equally deceptive if I did it under my real name. Undeclared conflicts of interest are not specific to pseudonymous comment.

  • Pedro Paulo Oliveira Jr

    Not to mention you appeared in the flesh in the Buzios’ congress :) And without a bucket in your head.

    I guess there’s a bunch of people who know who you are. But I agree that using a pseudonym gives you more freedom, specially in the first explosive posts back in the old blog.

  • feloniousgrammar

    I’ve given some thought to changing my name legally to Cranberry Mint.

    The idea that anyone should have to stand naked in front of the entire world and make themselves a target in order to be trustworthy is a most specious one. What do people who demand this think about their names? I’m thinking, too much; and having one’s name on a post or comment doesn’t make the substance of the comment any more trustworthy than it would be if they used their family crest as an avatar.

    • Buddy199

      Great name for a drag queen or a John Waters character, or both.

      • feloniousgrammar

        I just like the way it sets teeth on edge.

  • Susan Wright

    This is really silly. Whatever is written stands on it’s own merits.

    • Neuroskeptic

      I agree – what is written should stand on its merits.

      The best way to ensure that this happens is to use a transparent pseudonym (in my view.)

      • Susan Wright

        A master of double speak at work.

    • ohwilleke

      It depends. When the merits of an argument like the one made by Robert T. Kiyosaki in his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad and related works and presentations, depends on ad hominem arguments related to authorship (i.e. in my life this worked for me so you should believe me), the argument is dishonest an questionable when it isn’t true, even if the arguments made have some merits of their own.

      Misleading statements about authorship when the argument is based on personal experience is problematic (and indeed is problematic even if the work is formally anonymous).

  • Nick

    I worry slightly about what would happen if pseudonymous authorship, particularly in the formal literature, was anything other than very exceptional. I’m not sure that it scales very well. With a lot of innovative ideas, the question “What if everyone did this?” is often worth asking.

  • Bearpants112

    I agree with the messages within the article and would like to assert that the efforts to end anonymity in online communication will herald the end of the Internet as a forum of free thinkers.

  • Metalhead Nick

    I think some of these comments are missing the point. Yes, it is true in a philosophical debate say, you only need to apply the rules of logic and weigh the arguments. A person’s name or station or who they say they are should not affect the merits of the argument. The links have some other examples worth checking. How can whatever is written stand on it’s own merits when you are say, reading book reviews. All of them are favorable, very much so. You get the book and it’s horrible. Oh, turns out the author wrote the reviews under fake names. You can weigh the favarable and negative reviews, but without having read the book, you are relying on the reviews to represent someone’s actual option. Sockpuppeting can be as simple as having the management of my crappy (really crappy considering the high cost) apartment post favorable reviews that are obviously untrue (to those who love there) and that no one living there would ever post. It’s funny they even try to address or rebut negative reviews with their own ridiculous slant. But hey, it works, that’s why I moved in there. It had really good reviews. I agree that one does not have to use their real name to be ‘honest’ or whatever. But that’s where the tension is – you can actually be more honest with some degree of anonymity, ie less fear of reprisal, etc., but you can also better spread disinformation…

  • ohwilleke

    Put another way, affirmative misstatement and non-disclosure are often not equivalent.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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