Nasty breakups are bad enough. But what if your ex broadcast your dirty laundry to millions? That's what British actress Tricia Walsh-Smith did infamously on April 10, when she posted the first of three YouTube videos in which she slammed her soon-to-be-ex-husband for everything from his questionable character and inadequate sexual skills to his extended family, whom she disliked. Walsh-Smith's videos, which were collectively viewed more than 4 million times, reflect more than just the despair of a jilted woman. They're part of a larger and fast-growing problem: reputation-wrecking online.
Derogatory comments spread easily online and off, but in the real world, they are often easily forgotten. The same kind of malicious statement posted online can spread farther and last forever. "Now we have this giant megaphone of the Internet, where every little whisper about someone shows up in Google," says Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
These days, as more and more people join social-networking sites, comment on opinion-sharing sites like TripAdvisor.com and Yelp.com or otherwise participate in life online, personal attacks against individuals and businesses on the Web are being taken more seriously than ever. Barb-trading has escalated sometimes in front of thousands of witnesses and so too have the ways in which the maligned are fighting back. Many try to discredit their attackers by posting a rebuttal to the offending post or by asking website managers to remove disagreeable material. Some folks sue their critics for defamation. Still others take the ultimate step, hiring online-reputation-management firms to help re-craft their Web image from scratch.
If you had the resources, you could always launch your own counterattack: Barack Obama, frustrated with the false rumors being spread about his background and religious history, created a website in June called Fight The Smears to debunk them. But taking matters into one's own hands can be fraught. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales was notoriously outed in 2005 for attempting to whitewash his own entry on the site (Wiki contributors noted that he deleted references to his Wikipedia co-founder, Larry Sanger, as well as to a search site he founded that included adult content). Now a monitoring program called WikiWatcher aims to unmask similar transgressions on other Wiki entries such as when ExxonMobil tried to downplay the environmental impact of the Valdez oil spill and when the FBI deleted aerial images of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp from the camp's entry.
If you can't mute your critics on your own, suing them for defamation might seem like the most effective way to stop the problem. But to win a case, you'd have to prove that intentionally false statements have damaged a lot more than just your feelings. You would also have to know whom exactly to sue, which can be virtually impossible since so many Web posts especially on gossip sites like Juicy Campus, Faceliss and The Dirty are anonymous or pseudonymous. What's more, the 1996 Communications Decency Act frees site operators from any liability for posts made by visitors to their sites. "It is ridiculous how you can post something on the Internet and not be accountable for it," says Chris Martin, founder of the online-reputation-management firm Reputation Hawk.
The primary goal of online-reputation-management firms like Martin's is to expunge the first page of a client's Google search results of all negative links. "We call the top five search results the 'danger zone,' because you don't even have to scroll down to see them," says Martin. For $1,500 a month, Reputation Hawk will actually create new Web pages that cast you in a positive light (usually with your name in the URL), post links to positive Web mentions of you on social-bookmarking sites like Digg and Del.icio.us and start positive blogs on Blogger or WordPress. (Keeping the blogs up-to-date is your responsibility, however.)
"You take all this new information we create and put so much pressure on the top 10 results in Google that the false negative stuff gets pushed down," says Martin, who says it can take months to burnish an online image. "Once it's pushed out of the top 10, they're pretty much O.K." (Of course, it's not a perfect solution readers who click to the second page of your search results will uncover your cyberskeletons.)
If you don't have a few thousand dollars to spare, a more reasonable approach is to confront your detractors directly. "The answer to bad speech is more speech," says Google's Matt Cutts, who's in charge of ranking search results. To start, he suggests setting up a free Google Alert, which e-mails you every time your name appears in a blog post or on a website; this at least lets you know if you have a problem and, often, with whom.
Once you've found your critics, you have to figure out what to say. The right response will get you everywhere: Selena Kellinger, owner of the party-goods store Razzberry Lips in San Jose, Calif., apologized to a customer who had posted a critical review of her store on Yelp. Her critic, Jumoke Jones, was so impressed with Kellinger that she replaced her negative review with a positive one. Karl Idsvoog, a journalism professor at Kent Sate University in Ohio, took a more confrontational tack. He responded to students' accusations that he was a "rude, disrespectful, pretentious snob" on Rate My Professors by posting a Web video on Professors Strike Back that said, "We're not there to babysit. We're there to train professionals. Grow up."
The upside of the ever churning online rumor mill is that it does justice to those subjects who have come by their bad reputations legitimately. "Every fraudster in the world thinks that we're here to help them out, but we're not," says Robert Russo, CEO of Defend My Name. For bad guys, the megaphone of the Web can be a very useful thing. For everybody else, it's nice to know that when the virtual community starts to whisper, you can now shout back.