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If you run an online forum or a blog that allows readers to comment, you sometimes feel like you’re having a conversation in the fog. Often people will contribute anonymously or make up names or places where they live, or even lie about their gender, age or occupation.

So what can you do about it? You might require a valid email address, but it’s difficult to force people to be honest in an online forum because dishonesty is so ingrained in this type of forum, as is anonymity.

The issue came up here on MediaShift when a number of people (or what appeared to be a number of people) expressed their opposition to Net neutrality legislation. Timothy Karr, campaign director of Free Press, did a little basic sleuthing to find a coordinated campaign by various blog and forum posters who gave talking points from telecom companies opposed to Net neutrality. I followed up and wondered whether this campaign was indeed coming from telecom companies or people they paid.

While I have seen a lot of evidence pointing toward certain individuals who post time and again against Net neutrality, I haven’t found a “smoking gun” that proves without a doubt that this campaign is paid for by telecom companies. But it does speak volumes that none of these individuals would respond to my queries or those of other bloggers interested in this topic. If they are not being paid, and are not working in a concerted effort as it appears, then why not at least deny it?

The telecom companies have a sorry history when it comes “astroturf” or fake grassroots campaigns. For Net neutrality, they set up a site called DontRegulate.org, complete with Flash animation, as well as TV4Us in the web domain WeWantChoice.com. During the push for municipal wireless networks last year, blogger Glenn Fleishman reported on astroturf efforts by the telecoms opposed to municipal wireless that would undercut their paid broadband services. (Fleishman uses the term “sock puppets” to note how the companies get their message out through channels that aren’t obviously from the companies themselves.)

In the latter case, a group called New Millennium Research Council released a negative report on municipal wireless, and was later found to be a project of Issue Dynamics Inc., a PR firm that works on behalf of telecoms. I contacted Issue Dynamics, because the company also happens to have a blogger relations division to help people monitor and do “blog outreach.” Could this group be behind the sock puppetry going on in blog comments? IDI’s assistant vice president Kevin Reid responded to my email query.

IDI does not post comments on blogs on behalf of its clients and it does not pay others to do so either,” Reid said. “We would also never recommend a tactic like this to anyone. As far as I am concerned, this is just a bad idea that has been implemented by someone who does not understand how the blogosphere works.

“In this particular instance, any comment opposed to Net neutrality will now potentially be considered suspect regardless of the merits of the comment itself. So, the impact of this blog commenting effort has actually done more harm than good. And, it is now going to be more difficult to have discussions around this issue and that is bad for everyone. You cannot trick the blogosphere into agreeing with your position. If you try, you will fail and may be burned along the way.”

That’s a good point. No matter who put this campaign in motion, it has utterly backfired and generated more bad press for the telecoms and their position against Net neutrality. The fact that so many bloggers spoke up about the suspicious comments they saw on their blogs helped to bring attention to the issue and quiet the sock puppets.

But what can we do now? How can we stop similar campaigns in the future, especially if they grow more sophisticated? Tish Grier, who edits the Corante Media Hub, wrote in a comment on MediaShift that we will all have to be wary of such tactics.

“What this may end up doing is forcing more folks to be transparent,” Grier wrote. “It may also cause more folks to blog and more bloggers to better screen their comments sections. We’re going to have to get very savvy about what we’re reading and responding to in our comments. Online interaction has, though, always been very nuanced because of the lack of physical cues. Weeding out ‘astroturfing’ efforts will indeed add to one’s online communication skills set.”

No doubt. Topix.net has had some success in its online forums by using automatic geo-location, which tells you where posters are writing from. And if commenters also cross-reference links to their blogs, websites, online photos — or any proof that they are who they say they are — that would help us trust them.

Of course nothing is perfect, and just having a blog or website or photos won’t instantly make you trustworthy. But conversely, people wouldn’t accept any validation effort that encroached on their privacy. So we’re left with an imperfect system and the lingering feeling that we can’t totally trust the motivations of people who post in comments here and elsewhere online. The best defense we have is to check and double-check what people say, and work together as a community of bloggers to out the people who would try to use sock puppetry, astroturf or other means to deceive us.

What do you think? Do you have technological or other solutions that might help dissuade sock puppetry? Or do you see this as an overblown problem? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Sock puppet photo by Amy van der Hiel]