By Brandi Makuski, Editor-in-Chief &
Nick Wood, MMC Director of Content
The online comment section of any publication has potential to showcase some of the best and worst a given community has to offer.
Sometimes, a comment can shine light on a story from a fresh, and noteworthy, perspective. A comment may also kick off a healthy debate — we’ve seen several over the last several months.
Of course, there are always those who seem to type their thoughts without first thinking — or reading the story — and incur the wrath of a dozen other commenters disappointed the contribution wasn’t more informed.
We allow the comments to stand — with the exception of those including vulgarity, victim-naming, personal attacks or threats — for the sake of furthering conversation in the community, because we adore freedom of speech. Our very livelihood depends on it, but really, a journalist’s job means little if it can’t further community conversation in some intelligent, fact-based manner.
But recent weeks have uncovered a disturbing trend in the City Times online comment section: sockpuppeting.
According to Merriam-Webster, a sock puppet is a false online identity used for deceptive purposes. They are typically created by a person or group to praise or defend their own opinions or views while pretending to be another person. The use of sock puppets was unknown to City Times staff until recently, when a reader pointed out the practice was underway in our own comment section.
These “sock-puppeteers” have upended the online discussion on a few recent stories of local importance — to include a story on the recently-proposed townhomes on the city’s east side. Some quick research uncovered several sockpuppets among the commenters, and we have since removed their comments from our page.
Similar practices are nothing new to the newspaper industry; Twitter and other social media outlets allows users to opine using names like @TheREELdeal041, and both Yahoo and Gmail allow people to contact media outlets anonymously.
Pen names have also been used throughout the history of media. Most notably, Benjamin Franklin made history with his Silence Dogood letters in the 1720s. But where Franklin’s open letters poked fun of colonial life, religious hypocrisy and the day’s fashion trends, sockpuppeting of today appears to be used largely for personal gain.
Some may use the deception to cowardly protect their position within a business community, or, to avoid criticism from the public. Others use their sock puppet identities to praise or defend themselves, or to attack those who hold opinions contrary to their own.
The anonymity also allows for false bravado, and the false appearance of widespread support for a cause.
Unwillingness to own your words, and to accept consequences for them, is the ultimate act of cowardice and does little to further a conversation in any meaningful way. It even has potential to stifle constructive conversation because, really, anyone utilizing a sockpuppet is by definition looking to hide their background, motives and allegiances.
The practice will no longer be tolerated in the City Times comment section.
From the first day of this newspaper’s inception, our staff has published some strong opinion pieces on various topics related to the Stevens Point Area. We support our opinions with facts and statistics, and while some bring us praise, and others bring us criticism — we have the courage to put our real names on each.
We welcome your opinions, too, but encourage you all to follow that example, because anything less will no longer be tolerated.