Bear with me here… I’m not posing as an ideal, I just want to show you what we’re dealing with. You’ll know what I mean when we reach the Important Bit:
My name’s Tim Ireland. I also post under my first name ‘Tim’ and/or the nickname ‘Manic’. During the research phase of the recent Bit Of Necessary I initially engaged with users and abusers of multiple identities on their own terms before returning to blogging and posting under ‘Guido 2.0′ for a time. Finally, on some sites (usually large/busy ones and/or those that do not allow profile links), I go with the username ‘bloggerheads’, as this makes the source of any information/opinion I provide easier to identify or find.
But… what all of these labels have in common is a single and verifiable online identity that comes back to one location; bloggerheads.com
(It also needs to be noted that all of the above can be managed and maintained without purchasing a domain or revealing your real name. It does not require, as some habitual users of multiple identities would have you think, the introduction of compulsory ID cards, genetic profiling, or personal barcode tattoos.)
At this website, it is explained quite clearly who I am and what connections I have to other politically-oriented groups or individuals. Further, if there is any external political material that I’m in any way associated with, I put my name on it and I specify the nature of my role.
Important Bit: Sadly, this does not stop some people from screaming until they’re blue in the face that I’m hiding my identity and/or a range of political associations.
(In the past, I have been accused of being secretly associated with Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the Conservatives. Generally, and most amusingly, the people who make these accusations are themselves hiding their own identity and/or political associations.)
But you can rest assured that things could be far, far worse…
Over the past 6 months or so I’ve expressed concern about sock-puppeting and astro-turfing…
For the n00bs:
Sock-puppet = A false (and typically fleeting/disposal) online identity
Sock-puppeting = The use of single or multiple false identities
Astro-turfing = A small number of people using many sock-puppets to create the illusion of a grass-roots movement
… and I have, throughout, issued a warning that if we don’t reign this in soon, we are going to be neck-deep in effluent by the time the next general election comes around.
The two by-elections in Ealing Southall and Sedgefield provide us with a timely warning… and a bit of a watershed moment, IMO.
Yesterday, it was revealed that Grant Shapps – the head not just of the Ealing Southall campaign but for Conservative campaigning in general – was reduced to personally sock-puppeting the opposition on YouTube.
1. That he did it was pathetic enough.
2. But he messed it up royally, which made it hilariously pathetic.
3. He then provided an excuse that was (a) predicted and (b) unbelievably pathetic.
4. Finally, he somehow convinced or compelled political
commentator campaigner Iain Dale to shovel his shit to the masses with a great big heap of sugar on top. Which was… well, words fail me, to be honest.
Suffice it to say that I’m sure that there were quite a few bloggers who may not have listened at all to my concerns about certain right-wing bloggers (and an uncertain number of sock-puppeteers) in the past, but see Iain Dale in an entirely different light today.
Take a look at the related comments thread yourself. With the exception of two individuals who have a tight relationship with Iain Dale, there isn’t a single person with a semi-verifiable identity who’s even entertaining the notion of buying the ‘1234’ story.
Another Important Bit: It’s also worth noting in light of the theme of this post that one of the two individuals mentioned here – Praguetory – declares it implausible that the Tory campaign leader would do such a thing but then states – without a shred of evidence – that it is entirely likely that the Labour campaign leader would. Praguetory is also fond of repeatedly claiming – again, without a shred of evidence – that any criticism posted anonymously to a Tory blog is the sock-puppeting work of that same Labour campaign leader (Tom Watson) or myself… or perhaps both of us in unison when we’re not having rude bumsexual fun together. Of course, this is only likely to influence people in circumstances where Praguetory has the time/resources and the supporting environment necessary to repeat this claim under a number of different guises, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself…
While the Shapps matter was the main talking point amongst bloggers, I spotted a number of obvious sock-puppeteers throwing in red herrings and offering support for Shapps that ranged from “So the guy made a mistake. Big deal.” (translation; “It’s not a conspiracy!”) to “The Lib Dems hacked his account!” (translation; “It *is* a conspiracy!”) and Mark Pack even appears to have caught and named one in action under the main Shapps thread.
You may use the words ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb’… me, I’d use the word ‘casual’… and that’s the aspect of this that worries me most.
But there’s more…
At the same time that the use of (and excuses for) sock-puppets cost Shapps and Dale so much credibility, someone thought it a good idea to press ahead with two anonymous websites attacking the dishonest practices (!) of the Conservatives and the Lib Dems in Ealing Southall; conwatch-ealing.com and libfibs.co.uk
They’re obviously the work of the same person; both use the same design template (which includes some very clumsy attempts to ‘play’ search engines), both provide the same contact email address – firstname.lastname@example.org – and, crucially, both stemmed from this Blogger profile which clearly shows the mysterious blank spot that would lead most sensible people to suspect that this *might* just be the work not of an everyday citizen, but of a Labour activist (be they authorised or otherwise).
If there’s any lingering doubt, we also have the initial link support for these two blogs, which comes to us via a known Labour supporter.
So now we have two sites claiming to be ‘watchdog’ sites that are, in fact, propaganda machines that are the work of an opposing party or an activist/supporter of that party… but there is no formal/obvious indication on either of them that they are in any way linked, and absolutely no statement on either of them regarding the identity, intentions or affiliations of the author(s).
This, in my expert opinion, is a really fucking stupid and downright selfish act.
What possible good do they expect to come of an exercise that ensures the typical web-user’s experience of the Ealing Southall by-election is reduced to a shouting match where the majority of visible contributors are (a) anonymous and (b) shouting “Sock-puppet!” at each other?
We already have known bloggers crossing swords, but because they’re known (even if only by nickname) in such cases they have clearly stated affiliations (or at the very least a track record of not being 100% honest about them) that provide us with vital context. There’s also the possibility that even sworn enemies will remain civil (to a point) because they know they have to get on with life after this by-election is over.
But – if you’ll pardon the rather confused metaphor – when everybody starts playing with sock-puppets, the gloves come off far too often.
The resulting bitchfights feature a varying number of casualties, but always damage the health, development and reputation of politics and weblogs in general.
The by-election demands a tight deadline, so I’m giving the author(s) of these particular sites until tomorrow afternoon (12 July) to either delete the sites or have the limited integrity required to belatedly declare an interest and/or stake their reputation on them.
This is not a command from the absolute ruler of the blogosphere, and neither is an attack on any ‘right to free speech’ that some people lay claim to when they are in fact compromising the rights of others to speak freely and be heard.
This is a polite warning from one blogger who has seen this go too far too often.
This is a polite warning from one blogger who will be doing everything he can to find the author(s) of these sock-puppeting efforts if the sites are still in an operational or anonymous state from midday tomorrow.
Liberal, Labour, Tory… I don’t care who’s doing it; the political blogosphere is getting busier, the stakes are getting higher and the time for tolerating sock-puppets is over.
UPDATE (12 July) – It’s midday! Rolling updates can be found here.