Sock Puppet Sinks Pundit

How Lee Siegel's antics made The New Republic into an even bigger joke

In recent years, The New Republic, one of the nation's leading magazines of political and cultural commentary, has been embarrassed by scandals involving two of journalism's original sins: fabrication of stories and plagiarism. But the latest scandal, involving the magazine's cultural critic Lee Siegel, has to do with a transgression peculiar to the Internet age: sock puppetry.

A sock puppet, in Internet parlance, is a false Internet identity created for deceptive purposes. Siegel, who had been writing a culture blog for The New Republic, had started using the pseudonym "sprezzatura" on the blog's forums to praise himself and savage his critics. In response to readers who had criticized Siegel's negative comments about TV talk show host Jon Stewart, "sprezzatura" wrote, "Siegel is brave, brilliant, and wittier than Stewart will ever be. Take that, you bunch of immature, abusive sheep."

After a reader expressed suspicion that "sprezzatura" was Siegel himself, he fired back, "I'm not Lee Siegel, you imbecile."

This incident illustrates both the extent to which the Internet has become a primary forum for public discourse, and the vast opportunities it creates for ethical and professional lapses. But new technology brings no exemption from basic rules of conduct.

When Siegel's deception was brought to the attention of New Republic editor Franklin Foer, the response was swift and draconian. Siegel's blog was terminated Sept. 1, he was suspended from writing for the magazine, and his past articles have been removed from the magazine's online archives.

While many journalists and bloggers reacted to Siegel's downfall with glee, a few came to his partial defense. Slate.com press columnist Jack Shafer questioned the gravity of Siegel's sin, noting that any website that allows pseudonymous comments "implicitly sanctions the practice of sniping at foes from a camouflaged position." If people can attack Siegel on his blog without using their real names, Shafer suggests, one could argue that "he should be allowed to do the same to them."

However, Shafer misses a key distinction: A pseudonymous identity is not the same as a false identity. In most online communities, creating multiple handles for deceptive purposes is a severe breach of "netiquette," resulting in banishment or disgrace. It's fine to post on a forum as, say, Princess Leia. But once you establish that identity, posting as BikerChick2006 to jeer Princess Leia's opponents is a no-no.

Lee Siegel's online identity was "Lee Siegel" since he was blogging under that name. For him to create a pseudonym and use it as he did would not be acceptable practice on any Internet forum, and shouldn't be acceptable practice in journalism. Siegel invented a patently fake identity for his sock puppet, pretending to be "an editor at a magazine in NYC" who had published Siegel. His attacks targeted not only anonymous posters but journalists writing under their own names, such as The American Prospect's Ezra Klein.

I take no joy in Siegel's humiliation, and I think The New Republic overreacted by removing his articles from its website. Still, his behavior has been a depressing combination of dishonesty, narcissism, and stupidity.

Siegel is not the only professional pundit to be caught in a sock puppet scandal. This year, Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik was stripped of his column and blog for using fake handles on his blog and those of his critics. Economist John R. Lott, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, passed himself off as his former graduate student "Mary Rosh" to defend his work and attack critics.

It is often argued that the Internet has a unique capacity for self-regulation, and that users will develop ways of ensuring that people behave. Yet, as the problem of spam shows, self-policing does not always work. Sock puppetry, too, has done serious damage to many online communities, and has often required the administrative powers of website owners to combat it. When people engage in such misbehavior in connection with their professional work, they should pay a professional price.

What they should not do is blame it on the Internet. Siegel told The New York Observer that he "took the blogosphere's bait" and that he initially saw nothing wrong with his actions because "this is really cowboy territory, with very few boundaries." But deception is deception, no matter what the territory. The fault, dear Lee Siegel, lies not in the Web, but in ourselves.

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