Monday, June 11, 2012

Online aliases in academic debate

ASKING THE IMPORTANT QUESTIONS (really this time): Are online aliases ever justified in academic debate? Sock puppets - online commenters that create a false identity - are disrupting academic freedom and scholarly debate, says Simon Tanner (The Guardian).

If it's just a matter of discussing evidence and debating rational arguments, it doesn't really matter whether one knows all the names of the debaters. And there is a long tradition of anonymous political pamphleteering that has often served a constructive purpose.

But, that said, there is rarely a compelling reason to conceal one's identity in tempest-in-a-teapot academic debates. True, sometimes it does no great harm for an anonymous blogger to tweak the nose of academia. For example, I found the N. T. Wrong blog amusing. But, human nature being what it is, Internet anonymity leads some people to do things they would never do in their own name.

Sock puppetry goes beyond presenting arguments anonymously for an unpopular position and deliberately creates the impression that more people are making the arguments than actually are. (This amounts to a twisted appeal to the authority of numbers to give the impression of a false controversy or even a false consensus.) The showpiece example of sock puppetry run amok is the Raphael Golb affair involving the Dead Sea Scrolls (more background here and links), which Tanner mentions, citing Robert Cargill. This case moved from mere nuisance trolling to an attempt actually to damage the reputation of a prominent academic, and it illustrates sock puppetry's potential for real harm.