Digital Assassination: How to defend yourself against online smear

You don’t have to be a celebrity to be a victim of a web smear. Anyone with a mobile camera can take a damaging picture of you and post it online. Character assassination, happens at warp speed, which is why you must fight right back, fast.

Uttara Choudhury October 08, 2011 11:24:10 IST
Digital Assassination: How to defend yourself against online smear

The War on Nikki Randhwa Haley, the second generation Indian American who became South Carolina’s first female governor was fought not with sticks and stones, but with blog posts screaming that she had committed adultery. Haley is not alone. There are a number of celebrity victims of Web-smear, such as, film star Brad Pitt, who can be seen online and nude in unauthorized photos of his buff vacation.

Digital Assassination How to defend yourself against online smear

Mark Davis, ex-White House speech writer

You don't really have to be a celebrity to become a victim of a web smear. Anyone with a mobile camera can snap a damaging picture of you and post it on the Internet where it can spread like kudzu in a Google environment. Character assassination, like everything else online, happens at warp speed, which is why communication experts say it is important to turn the tables on your attackers — and fight right back.

“You need to at least to have the monitoring capability and capacity to make a lightning fast response,” says Mark W. Davis who has co-authored a new book called “Digital Assassination” with Richard Torrenzano.

Davis talked to Uttara Choudhury in New York about how we live in a digital age, where we are surrounded by potential “shame famers.” Fortunately, “Digital Assassination” tells you how to get online and defend yourself.

A former White House speechwriter, Davis is a business consultant and writer who advises technology and Fortune 500 companies.

You claim that “In the future, which is now, everyone will have 15 minutes of shame.” Can you expand on your statement?

Richard Torrenzano, my co-author and I believe we are already in a full-blown digital crisis in which anyone can be subjected to a reputational attack that is global, instant and forever.

Some examples: A political candidate has a campaign website put up that looks real, only it is seeded with strange and inflammatory statements that the candidate would never make. The owner of a hotel is unfairly accused on a review site of hosting prostitutes. A teen-age girl commits suicide after being taunted by a middle-aged woman digitally posing as a teen-age boy. A woman who has appeared on popular television shows is portrayed in a lascivious way on an online dating site, complete with her home address and phone number.

The ‘shame,’ of course, really belongs to the digital assassins who perpetrate these attacks. At the rate things are going, this will likely happen to everyone at one time or another. Hence, our 15 minutes.

Since all it takes is a few sound bites or damaging images to create a “TubeBomb” on YouTube, how quickly do we have to defuse it?

The iconic case is Domino’s Pizza, which suffered damage to its brand when two juvenile employees posted pranks in which they did disgusting things to home-delivered pizza. (The pizzas in this case seemed not to have been actually delivered, but the images were strong and indelible — enough to drive away customers.)

Forty-eight hours later, the Domino’s CEO posted a highly effective YouTube response, announcing stringent action (including arrest warrants for the fired pranksters), affirmed the quality of his product, announced changes in hiring policy, and upheld the honor of Domino’s independent owners and 1,25,000 employees.

By the standards of classic media relations, this was a brisk response. By the standards of the Internet, however, it may have been five “digital days” too late.

What is a digital day?

We define a digital day as eight hours, or about the time it takes for a new post to get initially noticed and shared.

Of course, there are many items on the Internet it is best not to respond to; and some that deserve only a cursory response.

When the life of a company is attacked in this way, however, you need to at least have the monitoring capability and capacity to make a lightning fast response.

The issue is trickier for individuals. Few people I know monitor themselves as obsessively as a corporation must. After all, we like to travel, hike or golf, see relatives, read books and go offline. The stakes are also lower for an individual. So most of us, if attacked, can afford the luxury of sitting back for a spell and mulling a best response.

As you or your company can be harmed at the speed of a Twitter post. How does a person go about scrubbing a searchable Internet record that continues to do great harm both personal and financial?

Unfortunately, nothing on the Internet can be scrubbed. Even posts that are removed might, if on Twitter, be archived by the Library of Congress. Other posts can be preserved by Internet archive sites like the Wayback Machine. And, of course, anything that is digital is subject to endless reproduction.

Digital Assassination How to defend yourself against online smearPlease share a few of your strategies, as well as tactics and keystrokes to blunt and reverse digital assassination attacks.

There are a number of steps you can take, but each of them is highly contextual to your assessment of your vulnerability, the viral appeal of the attack, and the nature of your digital assassination.

This is important to understand, because just about everything you can do might set off your attacker to double down on his onslaught, or inspire kindred spirits to join in on the attack.

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With that caveat, here’s what you can do when attacked.

• First, you can approach the webmaster of the site that hosted the comment, or the actual person who posted the offensive material, and politely ask him to take it down. The upside of this is that it might clear up a misunderstanding or elicit compassion. The downside is that if your digital assassin is the kind of person who feels joy from inflicting pain, you might encourage more attacks.

• If the webmaster or actual digital assassin does agree to remove the material, you should then ask them to use Google’s URL removal tool. (You can’t do this for them, but you can guide them to do it.) The URL removal tool will effectively remove the offending post from being read by Google’s spiders. You will then have satisfaction, with the offensive material being cleaned out in a short time, assuming the post has not yet gone viral.

• Most websites also have a Terms of Service statement that precludes defamatory material. This is legal boilerplate that you can use to your advantage.

So a more aggressive step is to contact the webmaster and inform him that the defamatory post is contrary to his site’s Terms of Service. Politely ask him to take it down. Most webmasters will. But in this case, you run the risk of spurring the digital assassin, stung by seeing his post removed, to launch a fresh attack from another venue.

• If your digital assassin cannot be identified, in the United States you can file a John or Jane Doe lawsuit to force an Internet Service Provider to give up the assassin’s IP address.

In many cases, however, a lawsuit only serves to proliferate material you don’t want others to see. This is the famous “Streisand Effect,” named after Barbara Streisand, whose legal strong-arm tactics resulted in spreading material that few had seen all across the Internet.

Again, all steps you can take entail risks of backfiring. The best mix of these tools rest on your personal evaluation and judgment.

You have a chapter in your book about the “Wicked Wiki World.” How does a Wikipedia victim get the site to make necessary corrections to a bio? Is it possible to sue Wikipedia if it puts up a damaging biography?

In the United States, it is not possible to sue Wikipedia for something that another user posts to your BLP, or Biography of Living Persons page.

The reason is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. This law holds that only the person who made the post (“the content provider”) can be sued, not the company that hosts the framework in which the comment is made.

That is why you may be able to sue “The New York Times” for running a letter to the editor that defames you, but you cannot successfully sue nytimes.com for a slur someone posts on the comments section of an article.

This is a necessary law. The United States has a uniquely litigious culture. Without these protections, it would be impossible to have any large-scale search or social media products on the Internet.

But Section 230 does give digital assassins a built-in advantage.

Can people get into trouble for creating fake Facebook or MySpace profiles and e-mail identities to leave comments on websites?

Until recently, the only trouble one could get into would be violations of the Terms of Service provisions of these services. In other words, the offender would run the risk of the wrist-slap of being banned from using these sites.

There is no way to prevent people from assuming anonymous or pseudonymous identities on the Internet.

A new law in California, however, does makes it a crime to maliciously impersonate someone else on the Internet. Other states are moving in this direction, with growing interest at the national level.

What makes the Human Flesh Search Engine such a potent force?

This is a Chinese “netizen” term for using the Internet to organize large, spontaneously organized groups to attack someone. Think of it as a flash mob directed against one individual or business.

The Human Flesh Search Engine can be deployed to crowd-source detective work about someone’s background and personal information like home address. Then it can be used to launch attacks against that target from many directions, harming one’s ability to hold down a job, attend a school, or live in peace.

One thing to note, however — the Human Flesh Search Engine is almost always based on outrage at something you have done, or it is believed you have done. The most high-profile victims have been people who’ve been caught on a cellphone camera committing some antisocial act, and had that act posted on sites like YouTube.

Unless you’ve publicly done something wrong, or you are running for office, or hold a high-profile, controversial position, this is less likely to happen to you.

You are very clear in your book that we are set up to pay a price for emails or posts that could last a lifetime. Do you advise people to think and pause before pressing the send button?

Rich and I advise people to take a deep breath before hitting that send button, and imagine what you are sending being a) on the front page of your daily newspaper, and b) being there forever.

Or better yet, put that email or post in your “Drafts” folder and sleep on it.

How do you raise the profile of positive material to add to your reputational armor?

Good search engine optimization (SEO) techniques! My friends at the Torrenzano Group call this your “reputational cushion.”

Post as much positive, neutral and descriptive information as you can find about yourself. Link your Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to your personal website or blog, your company site, your resume, and alumni groups.

Develop “link juice” by linking to popular sites. In short, try to stuff the first search engine results page about you as much as possible with results that are positive, or at least neutral, giving your digital assassin less room to attack.

How important is it for companies to use social media to manage their messaging?

Many companies still see social media as an arena for marketing. Many awaken to the need to have a comprehensive social media reputation strategy — one that protects the brand — only when they get hit.

Bottom line: Social media is no longer an add-on. It is the center of reputation and brand management.

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