Saturday, August 1, 2009

An Actual Threat to Online Communities

Last night, I wound up having a long conversation with the friend of mine who first suggested to me that even with its elaborate set-ups and clever video manipulation, "Borat" failed to show Americans as a bunch of boorish clowns. Instead, it showed how even a bunch of people who could no sooner leap mountains than find Kazakhstan on a world map were more or less welcoming to an overbearing stranger with some wacky personal habits.

He just saw "Bruno," which is apparently supposed to show Americans are a bunch of homophobic clowns, but may actually have more to say about whether we're a bunch of Bruno-phobic people wary of overbearing imposter Austrians. (And that comes in addition to the tiredness of the Germans-and-Austrians-as-Nazis brand of comedy...again, not an offense to my sense of empathy for modern-day German speakers or to victims of Nazis, but a full and painful affront to the funnybone).

Anyway, we got to talking about the Internet and identity. After both taking a very middle-of-the-road position on anonymity (at the end of the day, it's the writer's choice, it's been around forever and not about to go anywhere), we got to talking about an actual threat to online communities -- identity spoofing.

There have been many famous cases of this in the past -- two that come to mind right away are that of baseball manager Tony LaRussa and NBA player Ron Artest -- both have had people create Twitter accounts purporting to be the celebrity and making comments that caused massive ripples across the Internet, and, of course, reverberating soundly throughout the "real world." In LaRussa's case, it led to a lawsuit against Twitter.

More recently, a New York tabloid had reported on its gossip page that a New York Mets player had been out cavorting with some young bimbos at a certain nightspot...when in fact, he had been with his wife in the hospital, who was giving birth to their child at the time. The Post's source for their "information"? Twitter. Sure enough, someone created an account using the player's name and identity in order to put out the disinformation.

Also this week, I heard about a catering service owner being *busted* for ordering all of his employees to give five-star reviews for his wonderful food and service on a particular Internet review website (thankfully, it didn't take much sleuthing to figure out something was up when the site got hit with the flood of near-simultaneous glowing reviews...or when two of the employees made formal complaints the next day). On top of that, I was giving a book an *Amazon read* when I saw comments that were casting a lot of other comments into doubt. I had never really thought about the verification mechanisms before, but it seems that publishers and authors have very obvious, and very perverse, incentives to manipulate those ratings.

I don't think anonymous writers are creating a threat to this community -- the virtual one, the bricks, mortar, and people one -- or the areas where the two come together (i.e. Hot Dog Diplomacy). If comments become too incendiary, authors can screen them out, before or after the fact. If bloggers become too incendiary, they can be marginalized -- much like a TV channel you don't enjoy watching, you can simply not click on the site for a blog you don't want to read.

In fact, even for the warts it does have, anonymous writing has a type of purity that the "open kimono" variety doesn't -- by definition, you can't be a self-promoter if there's no tangible, flesh-and-blood *self* to be promoted by whatever it is you're putting out.

But I'm a bit more worried about spoofing...I guess it could go "real world" as well (For instance, no one from the Sun verified a letter I had sent them before they published). But online it just seems too easy. A comment style -- for instance, a mini *letter* to the author closed with a "best, [insert author's initials]" could be easily aped. Amazon reviews, or reviews, can be manipulated to steer business to or from an establishment or corporation. A false Twitter account could make people really believe you're making light of dead St. Louis Cardinals.

Maybe as media formats like Facebook and Twitter mature, better verification measures will be put in place.

Maybe if false alarm commenting becomes a problem, bloggers can tie comments to specific, vetted e-mail addresses before posting.

Maybe Amazon will find ways to flag suspicious patterns of five-star and one-star comments.

In the meantime, though, I may need a grain of salt to go with what I digest online.


C R Krieger said...

The last time I had a letter published by The Boston Globe, they called me to check with me.  This was within the last 60 days.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...


It seems like they should...there are so many examples where papers have been spoofed by this (even the Old Grey Lady...really). Eventually as our on-line "signatures" become more easily trackable, maybe the chance of this happening on-line will diminish..but for now it just seems way too easy.


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