Can Writing Style Determine Email Authorship? Facebook Ownership Dispute Raises Issue

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Lawyers for Mark Zuckerberg turned to a linguistics expert to answer an all-important question in a pending lawsuit: Did Zuckerberg really write emails discussing a contract giving plaintiff Paul Ceglia a 50 percent stake in Facebook?

California State University professor emeritus Gerald McMenamin concluded Zuckerberg is probably not the author, raising some eyebrows in the forensic linguistics community, according to a New York Times op-ed column by Ben Zimmer, executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com. Critics say the evidence cited by McMenamin isn’t solid enough to support his conclusion.

McMenamin analyzed 11 “style markers” in the emails, including different use of punctuation, spelling and grammar. In one suspect email, for example, “Internet” was lowercase, at odds with known Zuckerberg emails. Because Ceglia purportedly saved the emails to Microsoft Word files, identifying information from message headers and server logs isn’t available.

Other linguistics and computer experts have developed their own systems to identify authorship. Two experts analyzing Enron emails developed bundles of linguistic features numbering in the hundreds they use to analyze a “write-print.” The features include the positions of greetings and farewells in emails and a preference for symbols over words.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “DLA Piper Withdraws from Paul Ceglia’s Suit Against Facebook”

ABAJournal.com: “Facebook Alleges Scam by Plaintiff Seeking Corporate Stake, Seeks Access to His Computers”

ABAJournal.com: “Would-Be Facebook Co-Owner Cites Email Evidence in Court Filing; Social Site Lawyer Calls It Fake”

ABAJournal.com: “Man Claims 84% Stake in Facebook, Gets TRO; FB Calls Suit Frivolous”

ABAJournal.com: “Did Facebook CEO Actually Sign Contract on Which 84% Ownership Claim Is Based?”

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