Sock Puppets, Journalists, Dialog, Hiltzik

For the last few days, Patrick Frey (Patterico) has been working on a post that pretty conclusively demonstrates that Michael Hiltzik has been using sock puppets – commenting on his own blog, Patrick’s, and several others under more than one pseudonym.

Go read his post, and take a look at the evidence he’s put forth – he is, after all, a prosecutor.

Patrick talked to me when he first starting thinking this through, and one thing we both discussed was “why does this matter?” Other than the obvious – and juvenile – glee in dinging someone who has dinged him, what’s the relevance of this?

Patrick will be making his own case in future posts, I believe, but I want to take a moment and make mine here.

Let me start by talking about pseudonymity.
If Hiltzik were – as a hypothetical – in a recovery program, and someone who posted on a recovery website or discussion board under a pseudonym, to protect his privacy in “the world”, to have connected the pseudonym and the person would be an act of gratuitous cruelty.

But there would be no intersection between his life in the world – as a reporter, columnist of blogger – and the personal world in which he was talking about issues related to his recovery (or sexuality or diet or whatever).

Patterico and I both started out blogging under pseudonyms that we defended – there were very few people who knew that Armed Liberal was Marc Danziger, and at my first blogger events, TG awkwardly introduced herself as “Mrs. Armed Liberal”. We both did it for what we felt were valid reasons, and have both since come out.

But no one has ever wonder what I wrote or where I stand.

Everything I’ve written as a blogger is out there, and there’s a very simple and transparent ability of any reader to look at my words and, if they so choose, form an impression about who I am and what I think.

When Hiltzik (or John Lott, who did the same thing) broke that rule, what he did was to poison the dialog by creating a situation where readers can’t trust writers.

On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, as they say. But a pseudonym doesn’t have to be obvious. It could be that everything Trent Telenko has written was really written by me – how would that change your perception of his or my honesty and the seriousness with which you’d take my words?

What this enterprise is about, to me is a simple exercise in creating a public dialog about issues that matter.

We have to trust each other to do that.

Michael Hiltzik, like my Journalist In The Hat, doesn’t trust us or the dialog. He’s undermined it.

And, I’ll suggest he’s done so because it has no value to him.

Then I went to Brian’s party, and met a journalist (sadly didn’t get his name or affiliation).

I’ll skip over his arrogance and rudeness; he was in a hostile environment, and maybe he was nervous. But watching the discussion, I realized something that brought the Times issue into clearer perspective for me.

…that while I have (violently at times) disagreed with other bloggers in face to face discussions, I always had the feeling that there was a discussion going on, a dialog in which two people were engaged and trying to understand each other’s points, if for no other reason than to better argue against them. But in dealing with The Journalist In The Hat, no such dialog took place. He had his point to make, and very little that I said (or, to be honest, that others who participated, including Howard Owens, who pointed out that he had worked as a journalist) was heard or responded to. He had his points, and he was going to make them over, and over, until we listened.

UPDATE: Hiltzik replies to Patterico. I didn’t think I was easy to surpise, but I’m gobsmacked.

14 thoughts on “Sock Puppets, Journalists, Dialog, Hiltzik”

  1. In my opinion, if you do this, barring extraordinary circumstances, your reputations should be burned. You should not be forgiven. People should not take your seriously again.

    If “Trent Telenko” was a sock puppet for “Armed Liberal” or “Marc Danziger” I would not take any of them seriously again. It would be downright creepy if Joe Katzman’s excursions into the mystic (with which I rarely agree, but which I takes seriously and “give a chance” to) were the work of someone whose real opinions were not at all like those of the sock puppet “Joe Katzman”.

    I have no problem with extra pseudonyms, as appropriate. I use one myself, because my chess club requests that players use a comical pseudonym based on chess. I think that’s cute, so I played along – but there is no deceit in it.

    On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog. (Unless you stand up for freedom for Chinese dogs and Google or whoever rats you out.) I think that’s a good thing. Information that can hurt you is something you have the right to guard. And if this is respected, people can speak a bit more freely and forthrightly, and I think that’s great.

    But fundamentally being a fake, even just sometimes, when you think you can use your sock puppet to your advantage and get away with it – no, that’s not acceptable. If you’re a fake, you’re a fake.

    The first time I encountered a “sock puppet” it was an alternate identity for someone who is or claims online to be a priestess. Her knowledge of the relevant tradition seemed good. There was no reason to doubt, any more than there always is with religion and with people online, that when she said something, she might be mistaken but she was serious. She lied, created fake identities, fed herself questions she wanted and trolled, because, as she explained after all efforts to deal with the problem by deleting questions, having people banned, and making “trust” an issue of friendship, hurt feelings, manners and even perhaps by implication religious faith, she thought she would get away with it.

    It is strange and unpleasant – like being polluted – to realise you’ve discussed serious spiritual matters with sock puppet, a false identity, “someone” whose every word is utterly a fake because they are.

    What was confusing at first was that she had a well-credentialled colleague Y who vouched for her: hey, X likes to keep online and real life separate, but I’m upfront. Except that Ys doctoral thesis was nowhere to be found, and her university had no information on such a person.

    It is creepy to find yourself investigating someone you thought you knew as a friend, feeling bad about it – and then encountering layer after layer of misdirection, half-truths, awkward silences, and shifting stories that change as each previous one is disproved. It seems dishonest people are really good at making people feel bad about demanding straight and true answers. Which, when you think about it, means their crookedness isn’t an incident – it’s a fundamental part of who they are, something that’s driven the skill set they have needed to acquire to navigate life in the manner that suits them.

    Barring some kind of extraordinary circumstances, I think that ends – it does not merely “call into question” for a little while – your credibility as a clear channel to the divine, or your credibility as someone who is serious about serious moral and political issues, or just as someone who tells the truth about what they consider beautiful or funny, or as someone who’s really there at all, in the sense that we expect there to be “someone there” when we really talk to people.

    A fake is a fake is a fake. Let them be cast out and all their names forgotten.

  2. Actually, it’s simpler. Hilzik is lying. And if he ever pulls that on Winds, he’ll be IP banned here before you can say “Jack Robinson.”

    It’s one thing to simply have a pseudonym. That’s fine, several of our authors do. If people are aware that it’s a construct, then so be it.

    Some such folks use multiple psuedonyms. I find it a bit immature since I’m a “stand by your words” guy at heart, but generally I consider it harmless. As long as the technique isn’t being used in a deceptive way, then no harm no foul as long as you’re 100% pseudonymous across the board.

    We get to a blurrier line if, for instance, someone with a public identity needs an pseudonym in order to comment on issues unrelated to that identity. Like the rehab example. Or if Gene Simmons wanted to come blog here as ‘Lyck I. Tup’ to avoid the fan clutter, then fine (Gene – call me!).

    But what we have here is someone whose professional and public identity is tied up in words and opinions, submitting opinions about criticisms that touch directly on his work under that public identity, under a false name. He is doing this to escape accountability, and also to “puff up” the appearance of support for his position.

    That, my friends, is pure lying in public. It’s the sort of thing that, if the LA Times was a real newspaper, should get him fired.

    If he’ll lie about something so fundamental in public, he’ll lie about other things too.

  3. The thing about it is, early on pseudonyms were normal on the internet, even encouraged on some websites as noted above. Some websites that deal with difficult issues or where things are discussed that make people vulnerable to various forms of attack still encourage that practice. So when someone like ArmedLiberal posts under a pseudonym and then later changes over it isn’t really an issue, its more about the way the whole webernet thingydoodle developed.

    That is not what’s going on here. This is someone fairly new to blogging – I say ‘fairly new’ not to excuse the behavior, more to explain that he didn’t expect to get caught – that is from the very start using pseudonyms to deliberately mislead people. And beyond the deliberate deception the self aggrandizement represented in the other-named comment posts is really kind of sick.

  4. Besides tossing in the usual typos, I added too much and thus obscured my point.

    #2 from Joe Katzman: “If he’ll lie about something so fundamental in public, he’ll lie about other things too.”

    That’s my point in a nutshell.

    By the way, Patterico’s prosecution is a treat. Already convinced? But wait, there’s more … and more … and more.

    Also, Dwilkers – yup.

  5. Also, his professional reputation and livelihood is predicated on people trusting him as a source of information.

    In a very basic way, he fudged his data. In his position, that is an unforgivable sin.

    Book him, Dano.

  6. I followed a link to Patterico’s case-in-chief, and promptly sorted out my own ethical analysis on my blog. This one hit pretty close to home, for me, since I’m in the process of trying to start a pseudonymous blog that won’t get my personal opinions mixed up with my public persona (I’m an attorney for a nationwide public interest firm). Now I’m reading through the rest of my RSS feeds and it looks like EVERYBODY is talking about is.

  7. It does bring up a fascinating novel concept for a blog, though. Imagine a blog with fairly temperate, intelligent posts but with a comments section inhabited by an extremely contentious cast of characters with highly varied personae and points-of-view, all written by the same person.

    Nah, in that direction lies madness.

  8. Maintaining a public and a secret identity doesn’t strike me as an inherent problem; I have an artist friend who has a professional site, a personal site, and a for-fun dating-and-fashion-advice site. Very different audiences, and she’s sharp enough to bring very different personas to the stage in each.

    The fundamental difference here is these different personas don’t interact with each other. She personal blog persona (which is very authentic to the woman I know) doesn’t faun over the advice blogger. (Doesn’t have anything to do with her, for that matter). The professional site is strictly that; it features her artwork and a few essays on her artistic process.

    Each persona and site is honest within its market.

    Hiltzik was gaming his market. Particularly as a business and economics specialist, very very bad karma.

    Scott, as long as you can firewall your personas, and not have them interact, I don’t see where you would be running into any ethical problems, at least from my perspective.

    (I’m not clear on what a “Public Interest Firm” would be, but if you’re involved in professional advocacy it could be dicier, but then again, you’re the lawyer so you’d know better. I’m only talking about my gut reaction to your description of your situation.)

  9. I know credibility of source is important in a debate, but let’s say “Trent Telenko” _is_ a sock puppet for “Armed Liberal.” I can still analyze on their own merits the arguments each “identity” makes. If I agree with “Trent” and later find out he’s the same as “AL” I may have to reevaluate my opinion of “Trent” and look more carefully at the arguments I initially agreed with, but at the end of the day, I’m still going to agree or disagree with the arguments, not the person putting them forth. If, for example, I find out that “AL” was using “Trent” to satirize opinions opposed to AL’s then either a) I already thought “Trent” was an idiot or b) I agree with “Trent” and consider “AL” so arrogant that he believes he only has to present an opposing argument to make those holding it look ridiculous. In neither case does my opinion of the argument change.

  10. Anyone else think about ‘Ender’s Game’?

    This example may be a ham-fisted approach (it seems to be mainly about self gratification), but such a technique would be useful in social manipulation.

  11. re: social manipulation

    Dear Editor:


    Name Withheld/Bill in Fall River

    No one actually thinks this second-rate hack is the first to ever do something like this in the world of journalism? Right? If so, see: Franklin, Benjamin*

    * I’m not comparing Hilzik or whatever the hell his name is. Please don’t read it like that. Benny did it tongue in cheek and with a bit of wit. Unlike you know who.

  12. frontinus: _see: Franklin, Benjamin_

    Yes, but I’m thinking of the web today and being … well … more evil. Which is why I mentioned ‘Ender’s Game’.

  13. What Hiltzik has done is nothing new.

    Using multiple names in an attempt to hide your already anonymous self to make a particularly offensive comment, or create phony allies for your arguments is considered bad form, and cowardly, and has resulted in lots of people being run off of websites, blogs, message boards, video game communities, etc in shame and ridicule.

    What Hiltzik appears to have done has brought many an anonymous 16 year old to tears and shame. For a professional journalist to be caught red handed is an embarrassment to not only him but to his profession and his employer.

    If indeed Michael Hiltzik, Mikekoshi, and Nofanofcablecos are all one in the same, and he has pretended to be different people defending each other then the term “pulling a Hiltzik” will live long after his career is dead and forgotten.

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