Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sock Puppets

If you're at all interested in the topic of how the Internet and our modern connected world is changing every aspect of our social interactions, you'll want to spend some time digging into this fascinating story in the weekend edition of the New York Times: Online Battle Over Sacred Scrolls, Real-World Consequences.

Mr. Golb, 53, is waiting to begin serving a six-month sentence for waging an Internet campaign against his father’s academic rivals
A prison sentence for "waging an Internet campaign"? Wait, it becomes more clear as you read the story.

The story involves the Dead Sea Scrolls, enormously-intriguing documents that are nearly 2,500 years old. In the seven decades since the scrolls were discovered, they have been studied extensively, but interpreting them is challenging, and has led to a (mostly) healthy debate about their significance.

This, however, is not so healthy:

He started a blog; then another and another, each under a different name. The aliases begot other aliases, known on the Internet as sock puppets: 20, 40, 60, 80. The sock puppets debated with other posters, each time linking to other sock puppets to support their arguments, creating the impression of an army of engaged scholars espousing Norman Golb’s ideas.

Though it may be hard to see that these "sock puppet debates" constitute an offense worthy of jail time, the story gets still worse, as Gelb allegedly moves on to actively smearing others:

the e-mail messages suggested that Mr. Cargill, who describes himself as agnostic, was a fundamentalist Christian and an anti-Semite.

Though it's no turn-the-other-cheek on Cargill's side, as he decides to fight back, online:

Beneath one of Mr. Golb’s pseudonymous comments, he posted a message, using the pseudonym Raphael Joel, a combination of Mr. Golb’s first name and his brother’s. The message was: We know who you are.

His sock puppets, in other words, were taunting Mr. Golb’s sock puppets.

Others are dragged into the mess, as Golb escalates to forging e-mails:

This time, in addition to using sock puppets, Raphael Golb said, he created an e-mail account with the address of, and wrote to Dr. Schiffman’s employers, colleagues and students at N.Y.U., “confessing” to having plagiarized Norman Golb in developing his own ideas about the scrolls.

As the article observes, it's not obvious that this is felonious behavior:

He wasn’t trying to defraud anybody or gain anything, his lawyers argued; he just wanted his father’s views represented. If he was guilty of slander or libel, his victims could sue him in civil court.

Still, the government didn't see it that way:

It is true that the vast majority of identity thieves seek to steal their victims’ money, but in some cases, identity thieves maliciously intend to damage their victims’ reputations and harass them, while cowering in anonymity. Such was the case here.

As Peter Steiner so brilliantly put it, 20 years ago, On the Internet, Nobody Knows You're a Dog. I'm surprised that Golb is actually getting jail time, but cyber-harassment, email forgery, and character destruction are certainly serious actions.

What the article doesn't discuss, and should be discussed more widely, is the fact that the Internet, with its apparent anonymity and action-from-a-distance aspects, is an inviting trap for those afflicted with certain mental illnesses, and it isn't obvious how our modern social organizations are adapting to recognize such mental illness and provide treatment. Clearly Mr. Gelb needed help, but it's not clear why nobody seemed to recognize that and figure out some way for his anger and hostility to end in treatment, rather than incarceration.

What do you think of the story? At what point did it all go wrong, and what could and should have happened differently? Let me know!

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