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Register • Jun 13, 2013 at 4:47 PM

With [him] as president, "Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of the distressed, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes." [He] "writes aghast the truths of God's words; who makes not even a profession of Christianity; who is without Sabbaths; without the sanctuary, and without so much as a decent external respect for the faith and worship of Christians."

Except for the flowery language, this looks like normal blogging doesn’t it?  It is telling us that with this person as president, the world will fall into amoral distress.  Who is the person the apparent blogger is writing about?  Thomas Jefferson.

Blogging on the Internet with attacking statements about people in response to articles is not such a new thing after all.  People seem to have a need to let others know what they don’t like, more than they have a need to share useful information.  Of course, in Jefferson’s time, the name of the writer of the attack was identified in the paper.  Most modern-day bloggers do not have that restriction.

Today, bloggers attack with a feeling that they are anonymous.  The release from any need to be polite that people feel when blogging under an assumed persona is pretty impressive.  They feel that they can say things in anonymous blogs that I am sure they would not have the courage to say to the person’s face.  There is also a fair amount of innuendo, gossip and speculation.  

Are bloggers they really anonymous?

In Jefferson’s time, if someone wrote an attack that was untrue, there was a possibility that they could be sued for libel. Recently, there have been several interesting cases where an anonymous blogger has been located and sued for, among other things, defamation of character. When you blog on-line, the address of your computer is recorded.  It might not lead directly to you, but it will lead to your general area. It is up to a forensic researcher to discover you. This occurred in the case of New Orleans businessman Fred Heebe, who was being investigated by the U.S. Attorney General’s office.  Two bloggers discussing the case on the Times-Picayune website were particularly prolific and vile. The bloggers attacked Heebe, his defense attorneys and a judge. James Fitzgerald, a pioneer in the field of forensic linguistics, was hired to determine who was at the source of the blogs. He identified two Assistant U.S. attorneys, who were involved in the case, as the bloggers.  Both were charged with defamation of character and one lost their job while the other was demoted and later resigned. 

A new twist:  sock puppets

Since nearly anyone can blog about an online article and not identify themselves, it is also true that almost anyone can blog the same article under several different names.  When one person creates several different personas in the blogging community, the personas are called sock puppets, presumably because it is like having a sock puppet on each hand and having them talk to one another.

Ralph Golb is preparing to serve a six-month prison term for creating such personas. He created more than 80 blogging personas and used them to wage a battle about scholastic research. He went on to create e-mail personas that he used to augment his battle. One of his targeted victims, Robert Cargill, used a computer program to identify Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and found that the e-mails and 82 of the blogs came from the same few computers. Finally the FBI was called in. Ralph Golb was charged with, among other things, aggravated harassment, criminal impersonation, forgery and unauthorized use of the New York University library system.

Writing and saying rude things about others has been going on forever.  How long bloggers will remain anonymous we have yet to find out.

References:  Miller Center, University of Virginia, “Negative campaigning against Thomas Jefferson.”  The New York Times, February 17, 2013 “Online Battle Over Sacred Scroll, Real-World Consequences.”  The New Yorker On-line December 18, 2012, “Master of the Sock Puppets."

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