The smoking sock puppet mysteries
‘Sock puppeting’, in which writers use pseudonyms to promote their own work and denigrate rivals, has hit the headlines. How common is it, and can you ever trust an online review?
IN RECENT weeks, crime novelists in Ireland have been gripped by a real-life whodunit: let’s call it the Mystery of the Sock Puppet. It may sound like a vintage Agatha Christie novel, but this story is rooted in the digital age. In hard-boiled fashion, it is a tale of deception, intrigue and detective work. Moreover, it brings to life an issue of relevance to wider contemporary society: the uses and abuses of the internet.
The particulars of the case revolve around “sock puppeting”, the practice of using online aliases to promote one’s own work and even to denigrate that of one’s rivals. Recently, on his blog, Armagh novelist Stuart Neville accused Belfast author Sam Millar of using pseudonymous accounts on Amazon to attack Neville’s books, as well as those of fellow crime writers Declan Hughes and Laura Wilson. Millar has denied the accusations.
Neville based his charges on reviews posted on Amazon by four customers, with the names Cormac Mac, Noir Fan, Crime Lover and Crime Queen, who shared similar biases. All make glowing reference to Millar’s work, with five-star reviews abounding, while savaging the other authors, with Neville’s and Hughes’s work criticised for being anti-Irish or anti-republican.
Wilson, it is claimed, started receiving bad notices after penning a bad review of Millar’s work. Neville’s evidence is not entirely circumstantial. In a post from the Amazon.frsite, Cormac Mac acknowledges a five-star review of Millar’s novel The Redemption Factory and signs the comment as “Sam Millar”.
Neville, who has previously blogged on these sock-puppet attacks, says: “I have no desire to get into a feud or a spat, because it does no one any good.” His only previous contact with Millar was when the latter sent him a congratulatory email over a publishing deal. Over the past few weeks, however, the matter has become a talking point in crime-fiction circles, prompting a group of authors, including Neville, to sign an open letter condemning the practice.
“That was the tipping point,” says Neville. “If I’m going to be taking a public stance on the issue of ethics, I can’t shy away from something that involves me.” In his latest blog post, Neville writes that he has now said his last words on the matter.
Millar – whose memoir On The Brinks details his eventful past life, from being a republican prisoner on the blanket in Long Kesh and being incarcerated in America for involvement in a famous bank-truck heist – has denied Neville’s charges, telling the BBC news website that “as far as those fake names, I can say I have never written a review using them.”
Millar’s publisher, O’Brien Press, last week admitted that Nevilles case against Millar looked “strong” but accepted the author’s refutation. “Sam said he never used those accounts and it’s not him,” says the company’s managing director, Ivan O’Brien. “He said if he reads a book and doesn’t like it, he doesn’t review it.”
But the publisher was also examining the charges. “The whole practice is wrong, we condemn it, we would never do it, and would never support it,” O’Brien adds.
The issue came into focus within the crime genre during the summer, when writer Stephen Leather admitted at a literary festival that he used fake identities to create an online buzz about his books. More recently, thriller author RJ Ellory confessed to using false names to promote his work and rubbish that of his rivals.
Espionage novelist Jeremy Duns, who uncovered the online antics of Leather and Ellory, thinks such acts are not isolated. “I fear it is widespread,” says Duns, who was involved in drafting the open letter on the matter. “But obviously I don’t know, because it’s very difficult to prove.”
But sock puppeting had been simmering under the surface previously. It first came to public prominence in 2010 when British historian Orlando Figes was accused of pseudonymously praising his book The Whisperers on Amazon while trashing other volumes on Soviet history. After initially issuing legal threats and then blaming his wife, Figes admitted his culpability. More recently, Johann Hari, a columnist with the Independent in London, resigned after admitting (among other things) that he anonymously altered Wikipedia entries on rival journalists.
Of course, feuds have always been part of literary life, from William Faulkner belittling Ernest Hemingway to Gore Vidal battling with Norman Mailer. But online aliases give a more contemporary and underhanded spin to this venerable tradition.
Declan Hughes, who shares Neville’s suspicions about Millar – “I’m not actually a detective, but both Stuart and Laura Wilson both say it points to him and I agree with them” – says that promoting one’s own work under an invented name is “somewhere between comic and tragic . . . But it’s quite another matter to go undercover and take a pop at people who are annoying you or you don’t like. It all leads to the broader issue on the internet, which is anonymity.”
In this context, sock puppeting is just the latest problematic development arising from a unique characteristic of the online environment. From fake reviews on the Tripadvisor travel website and false Twitter identities to the nameless cyber-bullying of teens and trolls posting provocative comments on forums and newspaper sites, web users are increasingly taking nefarious advantage of the fact that, to quote the famous canine cartoon caption from the New Yorker: “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”
In the fiercely competitive online marketplace, where self-published authors operate on the same playing field as bestselling ones, gaining any edge can be important. But in the case of sock puppeting, that is only part of the problem. “It’s happened because it’s become more competitive, but it’s also easy to do and there’s no sanction,” says Duns. In terms of concrete measures, Duns would like to see sites such as Amazon insist on reviewers using real names; moreover, he would like to see them enforce existing policies forbidding such abuses.
With the current controversy unresolved, it is tempting to view the contretemps as a passing distraction, the latest online storm in a teacup. But for many, not least Neville, it’s more important than that. “It’s not about individual feuds, it’s a matter of ethics within the industry,” says Neville. “The problem now is that writers will always look more closely at any comments they get. And readers are real losers. How can they be sure any five-star reviews are genuine? It’s not good for the publishing world.”