New Republic blogger Lee Siegel praised his own writing using an online alter ego, and then denied that it was him. He’s out of a job – not for commenting on his own work, but for lying about it. It’s easy to put on an online mask. The thrill of anonymous interaction inspires some to say things they would never say in person – sometimes courageous things, sometimes just petty and mean. Where’s the line between play-acting and fraud?
One of the joys of the Internet age is the great new lingo it is producing. To “flame wars” and “phishing” we can now add “sock puppet.” A sock puppet, for those still boning up, is a false identity through which a member of an Internet community speaks while pretending not to, like a puppeteer manipulating a hand puppet. Recently, a senior editor at The New Republic got in trouble for some particularly colorful sock puppetry.
When Lee Siegel began blogging for The New Republic, he found, as many others have, that Internet posters tend to be fairly outspoken — and a good number of the posters on the blog were harshly critical. An exception was “sprezzatura,” who regularly offered extravagant praise. After Mr. Siegel was criticized for his writing about Jon Stewart, host of “The Daily Show,” sprezzatura wrote: “Siegel is brave, brilliant and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep.” A reader charged that sprezzatura was in fact Mr. Siegel, but sprezzatura denied it.
The reader turned out to be right. When The New Republic’s editor, Franklin Foer, was tipped off, he ended Mr. Siegel’s blog and temporarily suspended him from writing for the magazine. Mr. Siegel’s biggest offense, Mr. Foer says, was denying that “sprezzatura” was he. That dishonesty, Mr. Foer says, was inconsistent with The New Republic’s obligation to its readers.
That was the right call. Sock puppetry may be rampant online, but journalists writing for their employer’s Web site have a greater responsibility to be honest than run-of-the-mill posters.
Intentionally deceiving readers is wrong no matter what technology is used to convey the misinformation.