Great moments in sock puppetry

British historian Orlando Figes admits to anonymously trashing competitors' work online

Orlando Figes, the renowned Sovietologist of London’s Birkbeck College, discharged a double-barrelled shotgun into his reputation this past week, becoming the latest scholar to get caught using an online alter ego—or “sock puppet,” in the technical parlance—to wage war on rivals and settle old scores. The chief investigator was Rachel Polonsky, a Russian-lit specialist who once printed a scathing review of one of Figes’ books and had heard through the academic grapevine that the notoriously belligerent historian didn’t take it well.

On April 12 Polonsky noticed that her latest work had attracted a curiously slanted one-star review on Amazon.com from a commenter nicknamed “Historian”. She knew immediately who was behind it. To borrow from her narrative of Figes’s rumbling:

“This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever written,” Historian began. “Polonsky, it turns out, is not an academic, as claimed in the blurb, but the wife of a foreign lawyer.” …I clicked on the “See all my reviews” link beside Historian’s name, and read all ten. As well as trashing my book, Historian had trashed three books by [rival Soviet historian] Bob Service, and the book by Kate Summerscale that beat Figes and The Whisperers to the lucrative Samuel Johnson Prize in 2008.  “It is better to go to Figes’s The Whisperers,” Historian told Amazon readers in his hatchet-job on Service’s Stalin.

All it took was one click on Historian’s profile to link to the incriminating nickname ‘orlando-birkbeck’. How could he have been so careless, I marvelled. The nickname was generated when Figes set up his Amazon account to buy books. When he created Historian’s profile on the same account in 2008 and began to publish online reviews, he doubtless did not inspect the details of this profile—never pressed the link on his own name that led straight to the incriminating nickname.

This hilarious ineptitude might have remained nothing more than a subject of dinner-table snickering in ivory-tower circles, but friends of Polonsky who had been told what had happened rushed to Amazon to point out that Figes was rubbishing competitors and praising himself while in transparent mufti. A salvo of libel threats from Figes’s lawyer followed. Fortunately, Service was able to able to obtain evidence unambiguously linking the “orlando-birkbeck” identity to Figes and his office address.

Confronted with this material, the cornered Figes passed up the chance to do the smart thing and confess all. Instead, he threw his wife under the bus, having his lawyer tell reporters on the evening of Apr. 16 that “My client’s wife wrote the reviews. My client has only just found out about this, this evening.” Figes’ wife is a law professor, and the historian’s face-saving claim that she had been spraying anonymous venom online seems to have been universally regarded as an untenable fairy tale. And so it proved on Apr. 24, when Figes finally came clean, let his poor missus off the hook, apologized twice to all and sundry and then some, and shuffled off on sick leave.

It is a fascinating case study full of warnings for anyone who relies on his reputation enough to be tempted by anonymity at all. (Good rule of thumb: if you want to say something anonymously, stop and ask yourself why the hell you can’t sign it.) Sure, Figes’s use of his wife as a human shield is a standard-setting feat, a Beamonesque leap in sheer son-of-a-bitchery. The sock puppetry is easier to understand. It is a plunge off a short pier that it is too easy to imagine blundering down. No one seems sure just what employment consequences Figes might face; creating an imaginary friend to say of oneself “I hope he writes forever” isn’t punishable behaviour, just contemptible and creepy.

Meanwhile, the case for English libel reform has found a fresh justification—one so perfect that the parties to the dispute might almost be suspected of staging the whole thing. But while Figes’s rabid, threatening behaviour might border on the literally incredible, it is all too common. People in the news business aren’t well-placed to point this out, but if you construct any reasonable list of history’s ten most famous libel cases, the number in which some legitimate interest in truth was actually at stake will probably not be more than two. Oscar Wilde and Liberace sued over suggestions about their personal proclivities that are now known, without much doubt, to have been accurate. Whistler and Ruskin fought idiotically to mutual exhaustion over a review that, by contemporary British standards, would be considered rather soft. The tormentors of old John Peter Zenger technically didn’t even argue that the seditious material in his newspaper was untrue. Of the well-known libel cases from the past that I can name off the top of my head, given five minutes and a stick of gum, about the only one in which definite consequential inaccuracies are known to have been perpetrated is Times v. Sullivan. As a very general rule, it’s not outright lies that make people angry enough to call a lawyer.

[Mindblowing bonus link for hardcore fans of Soviet history: turns out there really was a Hotel Bristol, sort of!]

[Bonus link for fans of the unrelated Canadian poet Robert W. Service: health advice from his forgotten nonfiction book Why Not Grow Young?]

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