In addition to its comment spam, domain speculation, and cybersquatting, Solar Home Inc also engages in sockpuppetryClick here to see all the posts in this series.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines “sock puppet” as “a false online identity used for deceptive purposes.” Wikipedia’s entry describes a sock puppet as “an online identity used for purposes of deception” including but not limited to using the extra identity to talk to/about the original, praising/defending/supporting people or organizations, and bypassing site bans.
As part of my investigation into the online practices of Solar Home Inc, I have read dozens of comments on blog posts, news articles, online solar tech articles, and investor notices written by Solar Home’s founder and CEO, Ray Boggs, and a Solar Home employee named Ron Winton. In only two cases did I find either acknowledging that they work together. This makes Winton a Solar Home sockpuppet himself. In one case, a mistake by Winton in Motley Fool comments revealed that at least one of the three usernames affiliated with Solar Home was a sockpuppet. And I found several additional usernames that are also supporting Solar Home’s resale business, but no indication that any of them acknowledge their connection to Solar Home.
Sockpuppet #1: Ron Winton
While sockpuppets are typically additional identities created by a single person, the definitions above indicate that this need not be the case. Any identity created with the intent to deceive may qualify as a sockpuppet, so long as the user of the identity isn’t being upfront about the purpose of the identity. For example, an employee who is paid to post glowing reviews of his employer’s products while concealing the fact he’s an employee is a sockpuppet whether he also uses multiple identities or not (Wikipedia describes such individuals using a slightly different term – meatpuppet).
In my research, I found only two places where Solar Home employee Ron Winton was explicitly identified as being employed by Solar Home – Watchdog.org and The Motley Fool. Given Winton posts comment spam regularly around the web, his employment by Solar Home would usually go unnoticed, and while Winton never denies that he’s employed by a solar reseller, he never proactively mentions it either.
Since Solar Home pays Winton to talk up Solar Home products and to bad mouth competitors, Winton is a Solar Home sockpuppet. The fact that Winton has at least one alternate online identity (“ronwiserinvestor”) and a likely second (“wiserinvestor”) just on Fool.com (The Motley Fools’ website) indicates that Winton is not merely a sockpuppet, but is also willing to create sockpupppets of his own that also support Solar Home’s business.
Note that this is a major difference between Winton and Boggs – Boggs’ self-identified posts all contain a link to his public Facebook profile where he says that he’s the founder and CEO of Solar Home. So while Boggs is definitely a biased commenter, he’s not a sockpuppet like Winton is.
Sockpuppet #2: “enhancedcortex” at Fool.com
The Motley Fool’s website Fool.com has an article from April 2014 about SolarCity’s business model. As with other solar lease-related articles over the last four years, someone from Solar Home (Winton, using his “ronwiserinvestor” identity) showed up to badmouth solar leasing in general and to talk up solar resellers, and Solar Home products in particular. But rather than leaving the comment spamming to just Winton, two other Solar Home identities were also involved. One, “solarexpert,” could be Boggs himself, but the third, “enhancedcortex,” is supposedly a part-time employee named Steve.
I say “supposedly” for a reason – at one point in the comments, Winton responds to another commenter using the “enhancedcortex” username. When this error was discovered, Winton claimed that “enhancedcortex” and he both share a PC at Solar Home, and a close examination of the various comment timestamps indicates that this explanation is at least plausible. Plausible doesn’t mean true, however.
In addition, “enhancedcortex” denied his relationship to Solar Home and lied about having received a PPA (power purchase agreement) quote that was worse than a resale system. “Enhancedcortex” later apologized for lying and Winton claimed that “enhancedcortex” was punished for what he wrote. But a close examination of the timestamps indicates that “enhancedcortex’s” apology includes, as explanation for his behavior, reference to a comment that happened after he originally lied. This could be a simple mistake, but it’s the kind of thing that casts a shadow of doubt over the apology’s sincerity.
It’s not possible to know whether “enhancedcortex” was truly a third person or merely an alternate identity of Winton’s (or someone else’s, for that matter). What’s indisputable is that “enhancedcortex,” at least for several days in April, functioned as a Solar Home sockpuppet.
Other Solar Home sockpuppetry
Beyond Boggs’ own identity and Winton’s various identities, web searches for comment spam with Solar Home-related content has turned up other identities that are also tied to Solar Home. For example, “solareye” and “solarpro” have both posted comment spam over the last four years that is substantially similar to comment spam by Winton and Boggs.
Another identity, “inductancereluctance,” has posted 415 comment spam since August 21, 2014 (as of 9 AM on 10/15/2014). These comment spam are often on articles where Winton, Boggs, or both have already posted, and many refer other commenters to Solar Home-associated websites and products (specifically their Hyper X solar panels). And yet “inductancereluctance” never mentions in any of the comments I’ve read that he or she is associated with Solar Home. Their Disqus profile is even private, hiding all information except the number of comments made.
(As an aside, when I Google one of the search terms “inductancereluctance” claims will turn up lots of news articles about people having a hard time selling homes with solar leases – “solar lease scaring buyers,” including the quotation marks but not the comma – I got no hits on news sites indicating that buyers were scared off by solar leases, but 29 or so hits on other Solar Home comment spam by “inductancereluctance,” Winton, and Boggs.)
It’s clear at this point that Solar Home engages in sockpuppetry. First, we know that Boggs employes Ron Winton, that Winton maintains multiple identities (ronwint, ronwiserinvestor, and wiserinvestor), and that Winton only rarely admitts he works for Solar Home. This makes Winton a sockpuppet. Second, we know that “enhancedcortex” denied he worked for Solar Home and lied in support of Solar Home’s business, which make him a sockpuppet too, although a rather short-lived one. And third, we have at least four other online identities from the last four years that post comment spam that is very similar to Boggs’ and Winton’s own – “solarpro,” “solarexpert,” “solareye,” and “inductancereluctance.” Given the nearly identical nature of this spam, each of these identities can be considered a sockpuppet as well.
The question isn’t whether or not Solar Home uses sockpuppets to support their business. Rather, the questions are how many different sockpuppets does Solar Home maintain at any given time and how many are yet to be identified.
Tomorrow: How to avoid buying from Solar Home.