'Sock Puppeting:' New Term for Old Online Practice

Q Boyer
CYBERSPACE — “Sock puppeting.”

You may not be familiar with the term, but if you have spent any time on adult industry message boards, odds are good that you have seen it take place.

In an article published by the New York Times this week, sock puppeting is defined as “the act of creating a fake online identity to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one’s self, allies or company.”

Expanding on that definition slightly, sock puppeting also can include the creation of an anonymous personality for the purpose of criticizing one’s competition — or even defaming them.

Evidently, within the confines of adult Internet industry web forums, the second definition of sock puppeting is about as rare on the boards as ‘Would you hit it?’ threads.

While many members of the adult industry contacted by XBIZ for this story had never heard of sock puppeting by that name, once provided with the definition, every last person stated that they had seen sock puppeting in action on the boards.

“It happens quite a bit,” Eric Matis of the popular adult industry web forum GFY.com told XBIZ. “It’s an easy way to do your dirty work and remain anonymous.”

Or is it?

“There is no such thing as anonymity on the Internet,” adult industry attorney Rob Apgood told XBIZ.

Apgood said that despite what people might think, the thin veil of registering an anonymous board nickname is no defense against having a defamation lawsuit filed against you.

“It might require me to do a little digging, but I will find you, and I will serve you with a lawsuit,” Apgood said.

Matis said that GFY does indeed get its fair share of requests for information on anonymous accounts.

“We get mostly informal requests,” Matis said. “But we have gotten subpoenas [too].”

Most of the time, however, the type of ‘sock puppets’ who crop up to commit drive-by defamation aren’t targeted for lawsuits, they are simply ignored.

Albert Lazarito, vice president of business development for Price Communications, the parent company of SilverCash and SilverSinema, told XBIZ that when an anonymous user showed up bad-mouthing Price Communications owner Mike Price on the boards one day, ignoring the pundit was sufficient to make him or her go away.

“[Mike] shrugged it off and it really just died,” Lazarito said.

Apgood said that his first advice to his clients is to refute the claims made by such anonymous critics, especially if the comments are directed at individuals and not at the company itself.

“The problem with defamation on the Internet is that there are no damages to speak of,” Apgood said. “Ultimately, the defamer has to be believed in order for defamation to occur, and people don’t generally take the word of anonymous posters on the boards.”

If, on the other hand, the defamation comes at the hands of a speaker who is known and respected to the reading audience, then damages might be demonstrable, and a defamation lawsuit becomes more likely.

“If the defamer is someone that the people tend to believe, and there is a measurable ill effect on the business, then that is cause for action,” Apgood said.

According to Matis, the kind of posts that lead to lawsuit threats are pretty evenly split between anonymous users and known industry figures.

“We get that stuff from both sides of the fence,” Matis said. “Long-term guys who just have a bad day and lose it, and new anonymous nicks.”