The smoking sock puppet mysteries
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.”