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Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006, 12:50 pm
mecurtin: Diagnosing malicious puppetry

Internet fandom and RPGs probably have more experience with malicious sock-puppetry than other communities do. Is it possible to make checklists of "what to watch out for" and "how to guard against" that are not also how-to guides? So far the incidence of obsessive malicious puppetry in fandom has been pretty low, but individual puppeteers have wrecked an amazing amount of damage.

I'm trying to think if there's a way for fandom to help other online communities (e.g. political blogs, religious blogs, etc.) guard against malicious puppetry, which they may well be experiencing without knowing it. But I don't want to make it too easy for puppeteers to get started, either. On the other other hand, it looks as though the most extreme puppeteers managed to put together pretty similar bags of tricks without learning from each other.

I get the feeling that there's also a new DSM (psychiatric diagnostic manual) classification in this.
(Deleted comment)

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 10:38 pm (UTC)

Someone (wish I'd save the link!) made this point in regards to Ms. Scribe: "You should take information with a grain of salt, but that doesn't mean you have to go down on the shaker."

Spelled out at Bad_Penny, it seems obvious that Ms. Scribe had way too much drama to be plausible, but spread out over a period of years--and interspersed with daily normal LJing like "My kid did something cute today" or "I just saw suchandsuch a movie" it's much harder to see the pattern. It's just difficult to believe that someone could lie so thoroughly and so long about something so trivial, especially when she was meeting up with other fans and lying to their faces about it.

I would say that the big lesson to be learned form Ms. Scribe is not to dismiss accusations out of hand because the accused is a friend or the accuser is an outsider. If you take them seriously and they're unfounded, the worst you can do is vindicate your friend.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 05:39 pm (UTC)

It's an interesting question. I see in the constantine affair (speaking strictly as an outsider, and only going on the basis of the charlottelennox writeup) two different things happening with socks:

- the fawning fangirl sock
- the aggressive sock

Both were meant to puff up the puppeteer in the minds of other fen, and particularly in the minds of BNFs. And both seem really fake to me.

With the first category, they praised constantine lavishly and made websites for her. I don't find making websites for an author out of line (giving money for laptops, OTOH, seems very weird to me, but that apparently was done by real people). I do find constantine's reaction to them weird. I've had people make websites for me, and icons, and draw pictures, and beta, and translate my stories. I think those are all common things for fen to do for one another. But I don't see people doing those things for me as about me, or just about me. I do think people do things like that because they like someone's stories. Still, I see them as more about the people doing them - about their kindness, about their generosity, and about their skill. So, I'm thankful for what they do and also very appreciative of skills I don't have, like website design and Chinese translation. They are doing things I could not do.

With the constantine affair, her reaction is to be flattered at the websites etc. and to see the efforts as reflective of her, of what a wonderful writer she is. Maybe that's the view that a BNF or BNF-wannabee takes, but just the same, I'd at least consider sockpuppet if I saw a reaction like that.

With the second category, the "nutty Christians" and other aggressive sockpuppets just seem too extreme and too flat. I said elsewhere that if those characters appeared in a story I was beta-ing, I'd recommend fleshing them out in the author's mind, that even a character who appears briefly can feel like a real person if the author has a good sense of who s/he is. With real people, you get to know a little bit about them and then you find out more on a haphazard basis, but the things you know all fit together. With sockpuppets, it doesn't work that way - the pieces you know seem like they are jigsaw pieces from a bunch of different puzzles. They don't fit together. The more you see of the sock, the less real s/he seems. Real people work the other way.

Beyond the above, I think I just would not bother to get to know her nutty Christians or other aggressive socks, because their rudeness and hostility would make me unwilling to speak to them. And, I think, I'd feel the same about constantine in her main incarnation, as well. All this calling people who disagree with you "fucktard" or "cunt" or whatever - I just can't imagine wanting to have any kind of discourse with someone who behaves like that, whether under her regular pseudonym or others.

I say more in my own journal about this whole affair.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)

Please excuse a silly question, but what is a BNF?

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 06:25 pm (UTC)

MSScribe started the ball rolling, but she didn't do all her dirty work alone. She exploited things that already existed in fandom. The belief that there is One True Way, and that people who disagree with you are evil. The willingness to gang up on someone who is different. The whole Leader/Submissive Follower dynamic. The desire to belong to the hottest cliques. The belief that anyone who has anything critical to say about fandom as a whole is just a troll, out to destroy the entire fandom way of life.

Perhaps one way to guard against people like her is to learn to think for yourself, and not be afraid to express your opinions.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 08:19 pm (UTC)

You know, that's a good point and one which nobody's seriously addressed yet. Some people have said she was bright; it seems to me she wasn't particularly because she never tried on anything that didn't have a fandom precedent.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 06:39 pm (UTC)

The msscribe way was two have two kinds of sockpuppets, both flat caricatures: the adoring fangirls and the aggressive and stupid trolls.

I don't think that anyone is going to copy that in any recognizable way, so any lesson learned will be of not much use, because people will find new forms of sockpuppetry. I believe that what probably was msscribe's latest act of sockpuppetry is probably already amazingly popular: the sockpuppet distorting the views of the enemies' side by associating with them.

A Greenpeace troll, for example, would demand mandatory vegetarianism and a ban on leather. I am pretty sure that certain political blogosphere host unknowingly a lot of blogs, whose only purpose is to discredit the blogosphere's views. I can't prove it, but it seems logical.

Of course, if such a sockpuppet is subtle enough it's very difficult to distinguish them from the genuine nutjobs.

Thu, Jun. 29th, 2006 07:13 pm (UTC)

both types of sockpuppets are extremely common. what's not so common is that the same person used both types, and how targetted the aggressive ones were against the GTers. i don't really think that was originally planned, though. and yes, i agree with you, that this type of thing is becoming more and more popular.

i find the aggressive sockpuppet generally to be much easier to detect. squeeing fans are alas a dime a dozen, and most of them are real. even somebody new to a community might bring an initial fanclub of friends.

but msscribe's aggressive fansocks were such horrid caricatures that i am surprised and dismayed people bought into them. of course there are christian nut jobs, we've probably all heard of fred phelps. but look at the membership of phelps's group; it's tiny. so here we have an unattractive low-class redneck christian nut job from texas named darlene -- good grief, that one has a neon sign over its head blinking "TROLL". it says some not very complimentary things about that part of HP fandom, that they were so willing to accept that thing as real. and i would hope that they'll examine their own reactions, except for the most part i don't see a whole lot of insight into that. pottersginny had such a strong classist and anti-christian design, and yet people didn't notice, and most have still not noticed. that's a problem that has nothing to do with msscribe, and everything to do with nasty stereotypes.

the christians you know, are they like that? i don't actually know a single christian personally who is (i'm an atheist, but i grew up christian in a fairly nutty sect, but even they didn't get remotely close to pottersginny's characterization). and that's just the christian aspect; the rest of pottersginny is as paper-thin and phony as that. not a single real person is like that. not even fred phelps.

so here's something to beware: people who resonate strongly with our inner stereotypes of groups we dislike. sure, if it's too good to believe, be wary; that's kind of an old caution. but be wary as well if it's too bad to believe.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC)

I think the biggest protections we can have against trolls are observation and common sense.

Observation is key here. The first step: Pay attention to IP evidence, and use Occam's Razor about what it says. If IPs are consistently shared between fans and their biggest fangirls, or between fans and aggressive trolls, it's probably not explained by elaborate tales of shared computers and account-hacking; it's probably sockpuppeting. Yes, sometimes IP logs won't tell the whole story (college IPs and other big providers), but still, pay attention to it. The number of people who blew off clear IP evidence during the MsScribe investigations still stuns me.

The other thing that staggered me about the MsScribe saga is how poorly MsScribe kept her stories straight and how little anyone cared. Pay attention! Identity is mutable on the Internet, but if nobody can keep their medical history, relationship with another person, and family status straight, chances are they're liars (and bad liars at that).

I think the big thing that leads to susceptibility to sockpuppeting is this BNF mentality, particularly prevalent in the HP fandom around the time this was going down. When the fandom is focused on a few "big fans" and judge others by their devotion to those names, it's easy to slip in sockpuppets and trolling as long as the perpetrators are perceived to be above the law.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 09:30 pm (UTC)

I remember reading it and thinking "Where did she get the TIME?" so I think a lot of it amounts to people not believing someone would bother with such an elaborate series of stunts.

So the advice from that would be "Yes, people would go this far."

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 07:55 pm (UTC)

I haven't ever dealt with malicious sock-puppetry, (knock on wood) but I wouldn't be surprised if it would fall under an existing DSM classification. There are probably already a few that deal with elaborate deceptive behaviors.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)

I haven't ever dealt with malicious sock-puppetry, (knock on wood) but I wouldn't be surprised if it would fall under an existing DSM classification.

After the RP implosion, a woman I know (identified in the account so far as "storyboard girl's friend") who worked for a group of psychologists, shared the situation with them. With the usual disclaimers since they had never actually met "CatO," they uniformly offered a tentative diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, one of the symptoms of which is a tremendous need for attention, to the extent of deeply hating/resenting anyone *else* who is getting attention.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 08:40 pm (UTC)

Here are a few of the things that msscribe and CatO had in common:

Huge desire for attention.
Deep resentment of anyone *else* getting attention.
Deep resentment of anyone else perceived as successful in the fandom.
Willingness to hurt others to get attention; apparent inability to empathize with others (possibly the most dangerous symptom of all).

Creation of sockpuppets including both friends and enemies (the latter designed to cause sympathy by attacking, and to generate opportunities for the puppeteer to respond eloquently and cleverly and thereby win approval).
Creation of sockpuppets on different levels: hordes of relatively personality-less groupies, and a handful of deceptively individual puppets who appear to the casual observer to be genuinely different people.
Munchausen-by-Internet incidents - i.e., illness, death in family, injury in car accident - carefully timed to deflect criticism and garner sympathy.

I read through the story too fast and didn't notice whether msscribe had CatO's creepy gift for identifying and exploiting psychological vulnerabilities in other (real) people. If so, that's a definite similarity.

Also, I don't quite know how to phrase this, but in conversation with CatO's socks there was a definite feeling that rational discourse was breaking down. It was like talking at cross-purposes. I get a similar impression from the conversations reported in the msscribe account.

Weird little coincidences I have to mention:

Constant emphasis on a child and his/her accomplishments.
(CatO's child was imaginary; don't know whether msscribe's toddler was real.)
Claiming glamorous high-status jobs for self or socks.
Claiming a mixed-race origin and exploiting it for sympathy and status. (CatO claimed to be part Native American, IIRC.)

There are also commonalities between CatO and the infamous VB of LOTR fandom:

Claim to have access to an actor from the fandom, including faked messages from him.
Affair between male sockpuppet and a married female fan resulting in that fan getting divorced (in CatO's case it was apparently all online, while VB's went WAY beyond that).

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 09:51 pm (UTC)

Claiming glamorous high-status jobs for self or socks.

Now that you mention this, I'm thinking that in every sock puppet case I've been aware of, the puppetteer has claimed to have a high-status job and mentioned it pretty much constantly. I know people in fandom who really do have jobs like that, but very few of them make as big a deal of it as do the socks and their owners.

Sat, Jun. 24th, 2006 11:23 pm (UTC)

I would say that, to start with, it's probably safe to assume that 90% of fandom trolls are sockpuppets; while the number is probably lower for more mainstream communities, I think that in both cases a really persistant troll is unlikely to have come from outside. It's one thing to leave a drive-by nasty comment on a public blog entry, but to create a blog and systematically harass people over a long period of time--it's a rare whacko breed who has the patience to argue with the opposition, day in and day out. When the same troll, or a series of similar trolls, linger for more than a few entries/days, start looking at IP addresses.

On a related term, I think it's important for anyone running a blog or website to understand IPs and how they work, and what is or isn't possible and plausible in terms of spoofing and matches. In fact, having a good understanding of Occam's Razor is generally important: a lot of the evidence in the Msscribe story has been called "circumstantial," but there is a point beyond which you can't claim coincidence anymore, and that wasn't even visible in Msscribe's rearview mirror.

Knowing the community can also be crucial, not only because it gives you a sense of perspective (how did she attract so many flamers and trolls when she's so far on the periphery of fandom?) but because gathering information about socks across different sites can form a more complete picture of the problem. Msscribe left clues on four or five different websites, not to mention various emails and journals, and it's only when those are all viewed together that the evidence really adds up conclusively. It's also important to seperate your public and private personae, if you're running some kind of site/blog/archive/whatever; even if you don't like someone on a personal level, you have to be able to say, "As the person in charge of my site, I'm asking you, as the person in charge of your site, for help and information." And if you get such a request, you have to be able to respond in kind.

Last, I would say it's really important to make accusations and evidence public, if it can be done in a non-wanky manner, if only to guarentee that people will be pressured to respond. And make sure everyone knows that there's nothing to be lost by investigating an accusation of sockpuppeting--the innocent will have their names cleared, and the guilty deserve to be caught. That's the difference between what angua9 and charlottelennox did with regards to Msscribe, and look at the different results they got.

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 01:09 am (UTC)


This is an interesting site, and if you do happen to know a manipulative member of fandom you might be surprised at how many points of similarity they exhibit with the traits listed here.

I am so pleased, so very, very pleased, to see the attention given to the Msscribe affair, because now there's fandom-wide awareness of the depths to which some emotionally-sick people will sink. Now, when someone say's 'XYZ freaks me out a bit', perhaps their concerns will be seen as valid, instead of imaginative.

It also stands as a warning to other sick puppies out there - people do notice, people do back away, and people do keep evidence.

I think a lot of the perpetrators rely on people's reluctance to create scenes or make accusations to get away with a lot of their behaviour. It must give them a feeling of confidence and superiority. I hope the Msscribe affair, the whole unmasking, makes the rest throw up in terror.

On one hand, I feel sorry for anyone who is so obviously mentally unhinged; otoh, when you witness the behaviour first-hand, you simply feel sickened.

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 03:42 am (UTC)

I don't really feel all that sorry for them, because they are notoriously peple who don't want treatment for themselves, it's the people around them who feel like they're going crazy.

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 02:03 am (UTC)

For me:

1) The too good to be true factor. When someone says JUST what is needed to support someone else, when someone says just the right thing to start a fight, when it's all too perfect.
2) Strong bonds promote endurance. It's not enough to detect sockpuppets, if you want a community, build a community that can endure problems.
3) Trust but verify.
4) A little cyncism on the internet goes a long way. One should be careful in situations that can be manipulated.

One of my concerns of observing such affairs is there's what we know and what we don't know - maybe sockpuppetry is rare. Maybe its more common than we'd like to admit.

A concern of mine is now, after this (and apparently more revelations), will there be some paranoid backlash?

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 06:26 pm (UTC)

2) Strong bonds promote endurance. It's not enough to detect sockpuppets, if you want a community, build a community that can endure problems.

This was one of the ways in which the RP fen eventually were able to rally against CatO; she apparently thought she could splinter the fandom, but there was a substantial core of people who had known each other pretty well for several years and - this is going to sound mushy - cared about each other. She was able to drive a wedge between the older fans and the new ones whom she attracted to herself, but she couldn't drive wedges *among* the older fans themselves, which I suspect is what she wanted.

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 02:46 pm (UTC)

I'm not exactly sure if this can be actually used to guard against puppetry, but this is something I keep wondering about-

How do they not trip up?

For one, keeping stories straight. I mean, it must be ridiculously difficult trying to sort out who knows what, who said what, what that puppet's exact background is and never slipping up - although I guess there are people who are good at that. She obviously was!
But also background. For instance, say you have a 35-year-old single female secretary in a law firm from Seattle (made up on the spot) who is creating sockpuppets. Clearly, they can't all come from the same background as her; in fact, it'd probably be best to have them come from completely different backgrounds. Have one of them be a 20-year-old male physics student from England instead-
But students have their own culture, with their own slang and stories and formative events and such. And so do the English (let's say she doesn't give more details than "England"), and students in England specifically, and physics students, and a lot of these are things she really couldn't know about. So she'd be forced to wing it, which might fool some people but could give her massive trouble if she ran into someone from a similar background.
Although I suppose most of the puppets people use aren't meant for people to have civil conversations with, so that issue isn't so apparent. And maybe I'm overestimating the influence of background stuff here...

I think the main point is that people don't want to see this kind of thing. People want to believe that other people are telling the truth, especially when the ones doing the lying are their friends. We really want to trust our friends, after all. So slip-ups and inconsistencies get ignored and glossed over until they're too big and there's too many to continue doing that.
Fact is that anyone gets a pretty large benefit of the doubt before people start accusing them of lying, especially being a sockpuppet - which I think is *good* because otherwise we'd all be dead of paranoia, but leads to these kinds of situations.

Sun, Jun. 25th, 2006 06:13 pm (UTC)

So she'd be forced to wing it, which might fool some people but could give her massive trouble if she ran into someone from a similar background.

CatO ran into that problem - one of her socks claimed to work for a book publisher, and one of the oldtimers really used to, and tried to chat with him (trying to be friendly). He blew her off. Basically her characters used rudeness to keep people at arms' length in such situations.

But you're right, it made everybody suspicious.

Mon, Jun. 26th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)

I agree with several points made above very strongly: in fact, I tend to assume that 'identities' that seem to do nothing but praise or attack some fandom member are guilty of sockage until proven innocent, and that people who mention their glamorous jobs and exotic sex lives all the time are guilty either of sockage or of, well, plain lying. In either case, it's best to stay away, and so I do. (And, to be honest, I don't feel too bad if I'm making a mistake, because I am not sure I *want* to be friends with people who constantly mention that they are e.g. a HARVARD-educated LAWYER and expert on POLYAMORY living with THREE BI MEN, whether it's relevant or not, because, man, that's just tacky. Especially if they use that as an argument during differences of opinion.)

Mon, Jun. 26th, 2006 04:43 pm (UTC)

I am not sure I *want* to be friends with people who constantly mention that they are e.g. a HARVARD-educated LAWYER and expert on POLYAMORY living with THREE BI MEN

ROFL!!!! Thank you - that was a welcome bit of comic relief in a very depressing subject!!!

Mon, Jun. 26th, 2006 02:27 am (UTC)

I've got two triggers that make me suddenly dial down my trust-o-meter: Someone's life being too interesting (because no one has that kind of stuff hapening in their life *all the time*) and inconsistencies in stories. I've met pathological liars in RL, and that's how they were caught out. They just couldn't stop embroidering, even when they contradicted themselves, and even when they left credibility behind.

Mon, Jun. 26th, 2006 05:23 am (UTC)

I'd never even *heard* the word 'sockpuppet' until I got into LOTR fandom. And then I suddenly found myself accused of having them and being in league with some troll on a list, despite IP evidence to the contrary. I had no real way to defend myself against 'virtual people.' I found that there was no way to battle suspicion once it was created (by a couple BNFs in the fandom, by the way), so I just learned to ignore it.

The funny thing was, for months afterward I found myself surrounded by sockpuppets, 'people' I friended and trusted who had sought me out via email and on Yahoo lists. And then when a close friend became an IP detective, I learned the truth. In two cases when I finally out-and-out asked for a phone number or an address to contact my new friends, one told me she was 'uncomfortable' with it, the other just disappeared.

And to tell the truth, I miss them both! Real or not, I liked them. They were awfully fawning, however, which should have given me a clue, I guess.

And recently someone I'm sure is another sockpuppet started a new journal, friended a bunch of my firends, then tried to accuse me of a bunch of garbage here at LJ. The funny thing is, I've never done one 'wanky' thing (whatever that is), and I hardly ever even post a negative thing in my own LJ. I'm the least likely target I can think of, but I've been one for years.

And it's hard to recognize the signs, believe me. These people have gotten far too sophisticated with their proxies and IP blockers, as well as their multiple details (even photos) of their lives.

Overall, I'm not too sure why people pay so much attention to all this. It only adds fuel to the fire. The best defense is to ignore it.

And always be skeptical.

Again, the only way to deal is just to ignore it and go on. When the fandom gets ugly, I move on.

Mon, Jun. 26th, 2006 06:26 am (UTC)

I agree with eiiviaru.

Observation is the key.
Paying attention to details (no one really manages to keep details straight).
Paying attention to excessive flattery (used to highlight someone else).
Paying attention to excessive hate (again, used against someone else).
Paying attention to IPs.
Refusal to disallow anonymous comments, even if apparently they keep flocking in.
Refusal to show content of insulting anonymous emails allegedly received.
Vague accusations.
Weird accidents.
Posting done when it wouldn't really feasible to do so. (ie. FROM HOSPITAL. Where I come from, there's no way to get a pc in the wards).

Most of all, paying attention. I suppose that the anonymity that the internet allows is an incetive to those with a personality disorder in need of attention. They feel clever, and powerful, by lying and getting away with it. The other side of the coin is that eventually they will overstep some boundary, and someone will pay attention, finally.