BY RON FEINBERG / Web Editor //
Being a low-tech guy in a high-tech world, I was a little puzzled when I came across the term “sock puppet” recently in news articles about Michael Broyde.
At first blush, I thought the well-known Atlanta rabbi and Emory Law School professor had been using a kid’s toy in classroom lectures or on the bimah to make his talks more interesting and entertaining. It turns out there’s little amusing about the troubles that Rabbi Broyde finds himself in today. It also turns out that sock-puppeting is at the
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heart of the digital mess he’s stumbled into.
For the last two decades, the rabbi has used a fake identity to publish letters in a number of scholarly journals and online correspondence, often in defense of positions that he’s authored or publicly endorsed. More troubling, Rabbi Broyde has admitted using a fake name to gain membership in the International Rabbinic Fellowship, an association of liberal Orthodox rabbis that is a rival of the more established Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), a group he’s been associated with for years.
For these and similar issues, the rabbi has been granted “an indefinite leave of absence” from the RCA’s top rabbinical court, the Beth Din of America, and officials at Emory report they are “reviewing the matter” and have launched an inquiry.
Let’s be candid, for most of us in the larger Jewish community – especially those outside of the Orthodox movement – this bit of drama is mostly background noise in a world moving at the spend of light. Ironically, it’s the fast-paced nature of our high-tech world where something like sock-puppeting becomes both possible and problematic.
For those of you, like me, who are woefully uninformed about such high-tech shenanigans, I offer this brief primer:
A “sock puppet” is an online identity used for purposes of deception. The term originally referred to a false identity assumed by a member of an internet community who most often spoke about himself while pretending to be another person, but the term now includes other uses of misleading online identities, such as those created to praise, defend or support a third party or organization.
A significant difference between the use of a pseudonym and the creation of a sock puppet is that the sock puppet poses as an independent third-party unaffiliated with the puppeteer.
If all this sounds officious and somewhat strained, you can blame Wikipedia, my source for all these digital details. Where better, I figured, to find a definition for a techie term than on a web-based encyclopedia?
But back to the situation at hand: Rabbi Broyde has apologized in a fashion, but has also downplayed his actions, especially the use of a pseudonym. He noted in one news story that writing under an assumed name has a long history in Jewish discourse.
He’s right; truth to tell, pseudonyms and pen names have been used by writers for hundreds of years – if not longer. Meanwhile, sock puppets have been part of the digital world ever since the first cursor blipped onto the screen of a personal computer.
Think about all the various websites that offer reviews – Yelp, Travelocity, Expedia, TripAdvisor – and the thousands of responses from people who offer up five-star ratings for all types of services. It’s a given that many of these reviews are the work of sock puppets, business owners simply pumping up the value of their companies.
In fact, the problem has become so huge in recent years, that Amazon.com recently pulled thousands of book reviews from its site, knowing that many were written by the reviewed work’s author, their friends or their family. As often as not, the postings were penned under false names – sock puppets – and offered five-star reviews.
Of course, that’s just a few bogus ratings; greater damage comes when someone uses the web to attack their competitors. One infamous example:
In 2007, John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods – yes, that Whole Foods, the granola-friendly company that wants to both feed and save the world – revved up his use of a sock puppet for fun and profit. Under the name “Rahodeb,” Mackey wrote posts extolling his own company and predicting a dire future for Wild Oat Markets, a rival.
Whole Foods, by the way, was in the process of acquiring the smaller company at the time.
So, given what we know and knowing that more will be revealed in coming weeks, I find myself wondering exactly where Rabbi Broyde is on the digital spectrum of right and wrong. Is what he’s done worse than an author on Amazon using an alias to push his latest book?
Then again, is what he’s done as bad as the toxic notes posted by the CEO of Whole Foods?
I’ve never met Rabbi Broyde. But everything I hear and read about him, both personally and professionally, suggest he’s a brilliant academic with a caring and compassionate soul.
There’s no question he’s stumbled badly. But, even given the sock-puppeting issue, are his recent misdeeds the true and full measure of the man?
Time, I imagine, will tell.