Sock-puppets, anonymous comments and trolls

Posted by Tim Ireland at October 29, 2008

Category: The Political Weblog Movement

This entry was posted on
Wednesday, October 29th, 2008
12:26 am and is filed
under The Political Weblog Movement.

(a ‘long and boring’ post on a subject that fascinates me)

Some of you chaps must think me a bit odd to be constantly putting myself in the line of fire when it was established long ago that champion ‘bloggers’ Iain Dale and Paul Staines won’t hesitate to censor threads, retro-moderate posts, hide behind anonymous abuse and tolerate outright sock-puppeting (and worse) from their allies.

But damn it all, it’s educational material for a growing community.

And this time, it’s not me in the firing line, but Iain Dale…

Iain’s banked a lot on his latest pop at peacemaking, but recently he wasted time chasing* yet another passing ambulance and ended up falling over his own feet and then under the wheels. Entirely.

[*Iain does this a lot, this scrambling to be part of one issue or another, which is why it is more conspicuous when he avoids issues that are not as favourable to the Tories and/or his friends as they could be.]

Here’s the post that did the damage:

Iain Dale – Don’t Throw All the Blame at Ross & Brand

And here comes the educational (i.e. ‘long and boring’) part:

First of all, this issue is going to draw out of the woodwork those people who will to take any opportunity to damage the BBC and/or press their case for a change to the licence fee system. There are also people who don’t get/like Russell Brand and/or don’t get/like Jonathon Ross, and you don’t have to be all three to end up mouthing off without really thinking things through or (*gasp*) considering more than your own viewpoint/agenda.

There is also one unapologetic user of sock-puppets on the loose in the relevant thread who has no love for Iain, and at least one unapologetic user of sock-puppets nearby if not in the thread who would have Iain’s babies if he asked.

You also have to remember that all of this is happening in an environment where Iain, by continuing with his bad habit of tolerating anonymous abuse when it’s in his favour, actually encourages the use of anonymity and sock-puppetry on both** sides, even though he spends a lot of his time denouncing the practice.

[**There are many people who will not comment under their own name or usual ID because they see no point in exposing themselves to anonymous abuse from Iain’s regular supporters. So because the people fighting Iain’s corner anonymously attack anyone who opposes or contradicts Iain and are allowed to get away with it, these people start to comment anonymously also. Then the people fighting Iain’s corner start to pretend to be more than one person in order to ‘outnumber’ the opposition and make contradictory arguments without contradicting themselves, and the whole thing spirals into the sewer from there. Take a look at the present state of the site of Paul Staines (aka ‘Guido Fawkes’) to see where this is headed, and please note that we are talking about a wider view over time here, and not describing a development specific to this thread.]

So into the thread we go:

Thread marker #1

At October 28, 2008 4:54 PM , Martin said…

Good to know you are the side of people who make abusive and offensive phone calls, Iain. We should always put the blame fairly on the people who don’t cover things up properly. It’s the Tory way.

At October 28, 2008 5:03 PM , Iain Dale said…

Martin, your comment qualifies for idiotic comment of the day. I haven’t defended their despicable calls at all. I just think threat the producers deserve the blame for the fact it was ever transmitted. Read the headline again.

Iain’s first mistake is taking what appears to be the easy way out, by only answering an obvious troll*** from a known troller with a brusque slap-down.

[***A more complex and one-sided example of this technique can be seen here.]

In a thread with more supporters, this technique can and frequently does work for Iain, as often there will be a number of people (some each pretending to a number of different people) answering other comments and/or countering other points for Iain with facts/lies/distractions/distortions/abuse/love-custard.

But there is less of that kind of intervention here, mainly due to Iain picking the wrong word (twice) in an ill-advised post.

So from this point on a wave of perceived contempt begins to build as more and more people enter the thread and encounter one unanswered question/challenge after another before they themselves settle on the nature/tone of their own comment.

Iain further compounds the problem and adds to the wave of perceived contempt by responding in the post instead of mucking in on the thread. When doing so, he also makes the mistake of blaming his error on the reader(s); making this gesture appear to be even more arrogant:

UPDATE: People seem to have got the wrong end of the stick here, possibly because I used the word ‘entirely’.

Meanwhile, some familiar faces are beginning to appear (i.e. regular posters who only use one ID and/or are making this kind of comment under their main ID) and – while they may not lay into Iain with flying fists, they do make it clear which side of the debate they stand on… and generally, it’s not with Iain in this thread.

Close allies are noted by their (presumed) absence+, which can only make any anonymous attacker(s) bolder.

What’s also missing here (through no fault of Iain’s) is a clear/central role involving the Labour Party; even though there is at least one individual clearly trolling, no-one is yelling ‘troll’ in this thread. Brown gets a passing a mention and there are some vague suggestions of Daily Mail readers chipping in, perhaps without declaring an interest, but (and this is partly Iain’s fault) no-one is indentifying trolls when there are clearly trolls about or being anywhere near as wary of sock-puppets as they should be****, because these words have been reduced to meaningless partisan barbs and whines after endless false accusations in Iain’s threads (that are SFA to do with my ongoing attempts to see this nonsense curtailed and more to do with certain parties seeing ‘NuLab’ conspiracies behind every contributor not toeing the Tory line).

[****Just for starters; the mob descending on Iain is not as large as it appears.]

In fact, about the only thing that might be seen to be in Iain’s favour at this stage is the fact that he already has comment moderation on; nothing gets published without his say-so, and he doesn’t need to ‘retreat’ to this position.


1. Because Iain is busy playing peacekeeper elsewhere, comments are left uncleared for long periods of time and then published in chunks, which results in a confused and disjointed thread where there is little chance of anything approaching a conversation and a greatly increased risk of some people needlessly repeating hits/points/challenges (not knowing that they have already been made and are merely awaiting clearance).

2. It also makes it near-to-impossible for anyone but Iain to ask folks to stop and take stock of this or that in order to calm the thread. Iain certainly can’t do that at this late stage because it would involve skipping a large number of points/challenges raised by an unknown number of people, many of whom could in this thread be people who would otherwise support him. And an outsider can’t do it, because any such attempt that doesn’t benefit from perfect timing will most probably be buried in surrounding flames when it is eventually published.

3. Finally, the use of comment moderation leaves us in little doubt that it is Iain Dale who is primarily legally and morally responsible for any libel that might creep into the thread.

I think this serves as a fine example of something that might be considered libel and (if you’re reckless enough to think/act this way) could lead to action against an ‘insignificant’ blog, even if it does involve a target (or targets) in less-than-advantageous circumstances:

Thread marker #2

In this context, I’m confident that I can use this as an illustrative example, but this is not a smart thing to publish when the topic is the potential dismissal of two presenters, each with their own history including a significant/successful battle with substance abuse. (Alcohol for Ross, heroin and alcohol and just about everything else for Brand. But neither of them would be pleased to be accused of cocaine use at the present time, and neither of them should have to put up with baseless accusations about it, and the law is on their side.)

And here to help me to close the lesson is Iain Dale.

No, seriously.

Keeping in mind that Iain turned on comment moderation a few days ago (and so reads every comment before he decides to publish anything), it is easy to see that, in the very post that started it, Iain Dale himself expresses his opinion that he alone is responsible for the disaster this thread has become:

Iain Dale – Don’t Throw All the Blame at Ross & Brand

As I understand it this was a pre recorded show. While the phone calls were distasteful and ill judged, Brand and Ross are not to blame for the fact that they were transmitted. The fault lies entirely with the programme’s producer and editor. It is they who should be called to account for this debacle.

I personally disagree; I think Iain is primarily, and not entirely, responsible for the disaster this thread has become.


UPDATE(ISH) – While I was writing this (around 11pm), someone – *sigh* – anonymously submitted the following comment which identifies some major factors. It was cleared for publication at about midnight when I was tidying and spill-chucking.

Thread marker #3

At October 28, 2008 10:54 PM , Anonymous said…

“But the fire being directed at them over Brand’s phone call to Andrew Sachs is entirely misdirected.”

Iain, you suffer the same personality disorder as the BBC. You cannot, never, admit you are wrong.

How can you write the above statement saying ‘entirely’ and then claim your readers have got ‘the [wrong] end of the stick’?

Please, admit you are wrong. You have been soundly battered by your readers.

However, I have noticed you often betray a childish petulance when you are contradicted

(Psst! I could’ve written most of that myself. But it’s not my fault that there’s any uncertainty.)

Please excuse the minor housekeeping notices attached to this post. They have to go somewhere, and both are directed at proven and unapologetic users of sock-puppets.

(Hendren: Even when rewriting history and bravely making false assertions in an environment where you know they won’t be corrected or challenged by your target, you manage to contradict yourself. And that’s all you’re getting, sorry. I do not want to make the mistake of winding you up over your proven sock-puppeting antics and baseless accusations to the point where you’re calling my house and disrupting my private life again. So you ‘win’ that thread. Well done.)

(‘Martin’/Lobster/Dip: It was clever of you to ‘out’ yourself while the heat’s off and almost everyone is looking elsewhere. But what good is an identity with no credibility? And how is it in any way fair to attack someone’s reputation without banking your own against what you have to say? And that’s all you’re getting, sorry. No traffic or linky-love for you. It should be enough that a troll of yours got some attention and actually turned out to be useful for once.)

UPDATE (9:30am) – Some minor links and corrections have been added. Oh, and this:

[+ It should have occured to me last night that Iain’s closest ally Phil ‘Dizzy’ Hendren isn’t likely to turn up in this thread under his main ID, because he is fond of making nuisance calls himself, and Iain has yet to condemn that on his blog. I can’t see either of them wanting to open up that can of worms with so many people on the warpath about the calls made by Ross and Brand, and the unanswered question about where Hendren got my ex-directory number still hanging in the air.]


  1. Professor Paul says

    My bad, but when I read about Iain in Israel this sprang to mind;The Sermon on the Blog, by Iain Dale"And seeing the multitudes,and doubling their number so it sounded more impressive, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came unto him: And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying:Blessed are the poor in intellect: for theirs is the kingdom of Dorries and spurious science.Blessed are they that follow my blog: for they shall be fed twaddle & pap.Blessed are the meek: for they shall be allowed to troll & sockpuppet anonymously.Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be dissapointed by my blog.Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain no mercy from me.Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see no purity on my blog.Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God,unless of course they be Tony BlairBlessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for Guido & I shall jump on the bandwagon in an ill advised fashion!Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my the sake of a mention on my blog roll."

  2. Manic says

    hahahaha!"My bad…"Well, I'd *like* to forgive you, but that's not my department, I'm afraid.

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