Seek and Destroy: Internet Defamation and What You Can Do About It

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In the next two weeks, I will be publishing my non-fiction book, “Seek and Destroy” right here on WordPress in two parts.  I hope that you find it informative and helpful.

Seek and Destroy: Internet Defamation and What You Can Do about It

 

 

By Kenneth Eade

 

Copyright 2013 Kenneth Eade

Cover image Copyright 2011 Valentina Eade

Chapter 1.  Internet Defamation

                        

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”  We all know that line, and many of us have used it in retort to a vicious verbal attack.  But, the truth is that words can hurt you, especially when they are broadcast online, to thousands or even millions of people.  We’ve also all heard the old adage, “Don’t believe everything you hear,” but the fact is that many people do believe everything they hear and, whether they do or not, have a tendency to repeat it, especially if it’s scandalous.

In the first part of this book, we will go over what defamation is, how it can affect you, and what the law is regarding it.  In the second part, I will teach you what you can do about it, starting today, to repair a reputation that has been broken online.

The advent of the Internet has had a profound impact on the manner in which ideas and information are exchanged in the 21st century.  It has leveled the publisher’s playing field, putting newspapers, magazines and bookstores out of business, and enabled any average person with access to a computer the potential to reach a broad audience on whatever subject that person may choose.

However, unlike a newspaper or magazine, authors of Internet “articles” are not restrained by ethical guidelines or legal principles.  While the notion of free speech may be an honorable one, the first amendment’s sanction is by no means absolute.  Just as the second amendment’s right to bear arms does not give a person the right to shoot somebody, the first amendment’s protection of free speech does not apply to all speech.  Defamatory speech is specifically not protected.

There are many examples of the power of the Internet in today’s cyber world that have had a profound effect on the real world.  Middle Eastern governments have been toppled, using the Internet as a weapon of social change.  Whistle blowers can now “blow their whistle” to a larger audience, but, as we can see in the cases of Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, the power of the Internet is no match for power of the United States government, whose boundaries of enforcement go beyond any geopolitical border, and can even force down the airplane of a government official of another sovereign state if it suspects you are harboring a treasonous criminal.

In the days before the Internet, bullies, people jealous of your success, competitors in the workplace or competing businesses were still out there, but their attacks were short-lived and soon forgotten.  The Internet gives them the power to permanently destroy any reputation that is associated with any name that can be “googled,” and the results will outlast your lifetime.  Questions like, “Mom, was grandpa really a bad man?” may become commonplace in this cyber age.

Technology has moved faster than the law with regard to the Internet.  The Internet gives the defamer the power to destroy a hard earned reputation with a few clicks of a mouse, with far reaching effects to an unlimited audience.  The Google algorithm prioritizes the “most popular” searches on the first page of search results.

Let’s face it, people love scandals.  Many a top news story have been made, especially in the United States, from a scandal.  Remember Monica Lewinswky, for example?  People, in general, love bad news, which is why the news is so full of it.  Bad news is a “headline” and everything else is just a

“feature.”  What this means to the Google algorithm is that the more scandalous the gossip is, the better position that gossip will achieve in Google’s results, and the longer it will stay there.

Gossip, which used to go by “word of mouth,” would never have been published by any respectable newspaper or magazine.  Now any blogger can be a “reporter” – even an investigative reporter – without any journalistic skill, responsibility or conscience.  And the gossip that they spread about you can ruin your credit, cost you a job opportunity, or lose you clients.

Chapter 2.  Cyber bullying and cyber harassment

When I was young, my family moved to Europe.  We lived in a suburb of Athens, Greece and I went to school in an international school with the sons and daughters of diplomats and military officers at about the same time the educational system in the United States began a tragic decline.   As a result, when my family moved back to the states, I was farther advanced in my education than my peers.  As I had already advanced a grade before we left the States, I was left in the middle of the seventh grade.

The first week of class, when the teacher asked a question and I knew the answer, I raised my hand to answer it.  This was normal for me.  In fact it had been expected of the students in my school.  We enjoyed learning and enjoyed sharing what we had learned.  Nobody told me that back in the States it would make me a target for ridicule, and that I was expected to act ignorant in school in order to be popular.  Playing that role could have saved me a lot of grief.  Instead, I was the “Greek Freak,” a “fag,” and a “pussy,” among many other endearing names that I will never forget.

The bullies were strong in number, and they had allies, who joined in the bullying as part of a “mob consciousness.”   Some allies who joined in to be “cool,” others joined so as not to be bullied themselves, and still other allies were the ones who did nothing, told nobody and “minded their own business” in order to be left alone themselves.  Then it turned violent.  I was forced to change clothes and take showers in the locker room, where, for some reason, the bullies found confirmation that I was a “fag.”  I had to buy gym shorts with a tie rope in the waist to prevent having my pants (and underwear) pulled down on the co-ed fields.  I was taunted, constantly pushed and shoved wherever I would go by a band of enemies that was growing every day.  I was challenged to fights regularly.

Making friends was also fun in this atmosphere.  I had a couple of best friends, Russ and Gary.  We hung out together every day, got together at lunchtime, and went to each other’s houses after school.  We even walked to school together.  One day, out of the blue, they both turned on me and became my enemies.  Just like that-for no reason.  So, not only did I have to endure being called a Greek Freak and a fag, I also would have nobody in my corner.

A cyber stalker will go to any length to try to cause you pain and ruin your reputation.   As the name implies, they will virtually “stalk” you on the Internet, to no end.  In the real world, this behavior would be possibly criminal and you could seek a restraining order against it.  But in the online world, there is literally nothing to protect you, and the cyber stalker will often hide behind a mask of anonymity to prey on his or her victims.

As the bullying got worse and worse, I turned for advice to a Franciscan Monk I had met on my travels.  We became “pen pals” and communicated for many years.  My holy pen pal’s advice?  Turn the other cheek like Christ?  Pray, and try to understand your enemies?  No, his advice was to learn to fight and kick the living crap out of the next person who became violent against me.

My first fight was a challenge where the bullies put some poor shmuck (one of the allies who joined the mob so he wouldn’t be bullied himself) up to challenge me.  My reputation was at stake, so I had to fight him.  I took my lessons from another famous bully who used to go to my school and used to taunt me himself.  For some reason, he decided to cross the line over into my corner because we had a mutual friend, who turned out to be my best friend for every year of my life thereafter.  Rick Penn, the bully, taught me a brutal way of fighting.  The poor schmuck didn’t have a chance.  Dozens of kids showed up at the local park and circled us as we fought, and I emerged the winner.

But that was not good enough.  In line at the school cafeteria one day, I tapped a fellow student I knew from one of my classes on the shoulder to ask him a question, and he turned around and hit me in the face.   So, taking my Pen Pal’s advice, I beat the living crap out of him.  We were both suspended and, afterwards, I never had trouble from him or anyone else.

There is a wonderful award winning short film made by Director Rocco Shields called Love Is All You Need? (http://loveisallyouneedthemovie.com ) that tells the tale of bullying with a special twist.  In her story, the heroine is heterosexual in a time in which being gay is the socially acceptable norm.  The girl in the story is bullied because of what her peers suspect is her “deviant” sexual orientation, and it drives her to the ultimate despair.  I’m not gay, but having been bullied as a teenager because I was different from everyone else, the film touched my heart.

The Internet age has changed the rules for bullying.  With the growing phenomenon of cyber socializing on the Internet, and the fact that school age children and teenagers have computers at home, iPads, and cell phones, all with Internet access, bullies can reach a broader audience with their humiliation and hate speech, do it instantaneously, and the defamation has a permanent place in cyber space.  This is known as cyber bullying, and it has reached such epidemic proportions that it has been cited as the cause of many teenage suicides.

Megan Meier was the victim, in 2006, of an elaborate cyber bullying scheme that is fairly common.  As retribution for allegedly gossiping about her daughter, a neighbor’s mother and her bullying friends set up a fake My Space account purporting to be that of a 16 year old boy.  They sent messages to Megan and chatted with her, and Megan fell in love with the imaginary boy.  Then came the last act.  The imaginary boy sent messages “breaking up” with Megan, shared her messages to “him” all over the Internet, humiliating her, and then sent a message saying, “You are a bad person and everybody hates you.  Have a shitty rest of your life.  The world would be a better place without you.”  Megan then killed herself.

Cyber bullies spread lies and rumors about their victims, often anonymously, including acting like their friends (much like Russ and Gary did with me) in order to obtain personal information and photographs, which they will manipulate and post on blogs and websites.  Bullying is also done by email and text messaging.

In the days before the Internet, bullies, people jealous of your success, competitors in the workplace or competing businesses were still out there, but their attacks were short-lived and soon forgotten.  The Internet gives them the power to permanently destroy any reputation that is associated with any name that can be “googled,” and the results will outlast your lifetime.  Questions like, “Mom, was grandpa really a bad man?” may become commonplace in this cyber age.

But cyber bullies do not stop when they leave school.  They become cyber stalkers.  The problem with cyber stalkers is that they have more power when they are cloaked in anonymity, as well as less responsibility.  If a cyber-stalker acts anonymously, it is harder to identify him and bring him to justice.  Anonymous free speech has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Talley v. California, 362 U.S. 60 (1960).  Of course, that was over 50 years ago, when there was no Internet, but it’s still good law.

So, as a result, you have cyber bullies using modern technology to torture their victims to the point of despair and even suicide, and they have a constitutional right to say whatever they want anonymously.  Threats of violence, harassment of former romantic partners, posing as the victim and posting private matters and photographs on the Internet is very common.

A cyber stalker will go to any length to try to cause you pain and ruin your reputation.   As the name implies, they will virtually “stalk” you on the Internet, to no end.  In the real world, this behavior would be possibly criminal and you could seek a restraining order against it.  But in the online world, there is literally nothing to protect you, and the cyber stalker will often hide behind a mask of anonymity to prey on his or her victims.

Groups of cyber stalkers will even organize together on Internet chat boards, and help each other to harass a stalker’s victim, publishing altered photographs, threats and personal information.  These “cyber mobs” find validation in each other’s support, and lose their sense of personal responsibility for their actions, and become even more aggressive when they believe they are supported and respected by the others in the mob.  It gives them a false “authority” which they capitalize on it by spending their time doing online “research” on their victims, which they see as a kind of “detective work.”

Chapter 3: The law of defamation

 

“Everywhere I go, I get slandered, libeled, I hear words I never heard in the bible,” Paul Simon.

Definition of defamation

The law of defamation varies from state to state, but, essentially, in the common law, defamation is a false statement, published to another party, that causes injury to a person.  If it is an oral statement, it is slander, and if it is a written statement, it is libel.

If you are a public figure, you have to prove the additional element of malice, which is a “knowing or reckless disregard for the truth.”  Public figures, such as celebrities and especially elected officials are pretty much fair game.  If they weren’t Jay Leno would be in a lot of trouble.

Defamation is, in most jurisdictions, a civil wrong, or tort, but there are many countries, including Russia and China, where defamation is a crime.

In California, the defamation law is essentially a codification of the common law.  It is either libel, or written defamation or slander, or oral defamation.  It is essentially a false statement, made to another person, which causes harm to that person’s property, business, profession or occupation.

Libel is “a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes a person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injury him in in his occupation.”  California Civil Code section 45.

“Slander is a false and unprivileged communication, orally uttered, and also communications by radio or any mechanical or other means which: 1) charges are person with crime, or having been indicted, convicted, punished for crime; 2) imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease; 3) tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits; or 4) imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity; 5) which, by natural consequence, causes actual damage.”  California Civil Code section 46.

California, like many other jurisdictions, also has defamation per se, where damages are assumed, if the false statement accuses the victim of a crime of moral turpitude, a loathsome disease, such as a sexually transmitted disease, or accuses a married person of not being chaste.

Pretty clear, isn’t it?  Okay, so someone has published an untrue statement about you on the Internet, which has caused real damage to your reputation.  Remember the Franciscan Monk?  Attack!!!  Ready, fire, aim!!!  Wait a minute – not so fast.  As my criminal law professor said the first day of class, “The first semester I’m going to teach you how to put the criminals away, but the second semester, I’m going to teach you how to get them off.” There are defenses to defamation that you have to be aware of, such as privilege, truth, and opinion.

Truth and privilege

Truth is an absolute defense to defamation.   So, if your cyber bully can prove that what he is saying about you is true, there is nothing you can do about it.  There are also certain cases where you are protected from whatever you may say about a person.  These are cases of privilege, and you generally have a privilege to say anything you want, no matter how outrageous or harmful it may be, in a judicial, legislative or administrative proceeding.

Opinion

If a statement by your cyber bully is an opinion about you, this is a defense to libel.  For example, if he said, “I think Joe Blow is a jerk,” and he knows something about you from which he can formulate that opinion, the statement is probably not actionable.  Likewise, if it is a “fair comment,” or an expression of your opinion about a matter in the public interest, like Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, for example (I purposely chose the most ridiculous example), the statement is probably not actionable.

Damages

Okay, your cyber bully or mob has published statements about you on the Internet, you’re not a public figure, the statements are false, they accuse you of a vicious crime or loathsome disease, and it has completely ruined your reputation and your business.  So what?  Even if it is libel or slander per se, you still have to prove damages.  You may be saying, “But of course my business has been damaged.  It’s ruined.  My reputation is my business.”  Fair enough, but it’s very hard to prove that you have lost a customer or client whom you don’t even know about.  In a defamation case, you have to bring evidence of the damages you suffered in order to recover anything significant.

Prosecuting a legal case is expensive, time consuming, and it’s very difficult to be a litigant.  The discovery process can be humiliating, and can feel like an invasion of your privacy.  Plus, you have to prove you had a good reputation to begin with.  All of this takes evidence, which means that you have to locate witnesses who will testify about your good reputation before the defamation, and witnesses who will testify that you had a bad reputation after, because of the defamation.  It’s not as easy as you think.  And that cyber bully, the one who has all the time to post nasty things about you all over the Internet, remember him?  He probably doesn’t have all that time on his hands because he’s rich and happily retired, getting bored counting his money and just decided to trash you every day on the Internet.  He probably has all that time on his hands because he is a loser with nothing else to do.  How could he possibly pay you any damages even if you get them?  These are all very important things you need to consider before you go out and hire F. Lee Bailey or Alan Dershowitz.

Chapter 4: What about Justice?

 

As a lawyer, when I found myself faced with a group of cyber stalkers in a cyber-mob, I did what came naturally to me.  Since I had learned in school that the only way to handle a bully was to kick his ass, I sued.  And, since I sued, I have been asked for advice and even been proposed employment to help many others who have fallen victim to cyber harassment.  I have many years of litigation experience, and have prosecuted landmark cases against big defendants, which could have had precedential value, had they not been settled with confidential settlement agreements.  As a result, I cannot even talk about them.  So, naturally, when I prepared by Internet libel case, I didn’t go into it blindly.  I knew I was forging new ground, but I researched the matter thoroughly and found legal support for my arguments.

Federal cyber stalking law

47 USC section 223, known as the anti-cyber stalking law,  prohibits the interstate or foreign communication of “obscene communications” with the intent to abuse, threaten or harass any person, and “indecent” communications to persons under the age of 18.  But don’t expect the FBI to be taking on your cyber harassment case anytime soon.  They are too busy going after people who may have downloaded or watched any type of under-age pornography (another despicable activity).

The federal law probably could be of some use if a member of a cyber-mob is posting personal information that could place you in potential danger.  For example, if he or she posts your home address or telephone number, or your place of work, or information about where you may be and when, and implies or incites violence, this is a crime and if you call it to the attention of the administrators of the web site or blog where this is occurring and it is likely that the information will be removed.  Likewise, if your social security number or private information is posted that could aid in the commission of identity theft against you, this is likely to be taken down if you complain.

Several states, such as Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, New Hampshire and New York, have included cyber harassment in their anti-harassment statutes, and Alaska, California, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Wyoming have defined communications made in cyberspace to be included in their anti-stalking laws.  Texas has enacted a cyber-stalking law that is similar to the federal statute.

But if unless it’s a statement that incites violence, no matter how untrue, and no matter how cruel, don’t expect any Internet provider or even the mighty Google to do anything about it.  Unless you can prove it’s a copyright violation, there is absolutely nothing that they will do about it, and they have the full backing of the United States government to do absolutely nothing.

The Communications Decency Act

                The Communications Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA”) was enacted by Congress before the beginning of the “dot-com bubble,” with the intention of regulating pornography on the Internet.  In 1996 there was no Google, no Facebook, and no Twitter.  Cyberspace consisted almost entirely of pornography, which makes the Act already outdated by the technology it was intended to control.  Ironically, the anti-pornography portions of the Act were stricken by the U.S. Supreme Court in Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997), as a suppression of freedom of speech.  The most notable portion of the Act  that was left was section 230, which gives Internet Service providers (ISPs) immunity against any criminal action or federal intellectual property civil action with respect to any content that is posted on their site.

Even though it is limited to federal criminal and intellectual property law, the landmark decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal of Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 Fed. 3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997) held that section 230 gave ISPs immunity from all civil liability with respect to content published on their sites, whether or not that content was altered by the ISP.

The Zeran case was an obvious case of cyber harassment.  In Zeran, a mob of cyber bullies advertised T shirts and other items glorifying the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building by Timothy Mc Veigh, such as “Visit Oklahoma…It’s a BLAST!”  and posted Plaintiff Kenneth Zeran’s home telephone number on the message.  Zeran requested AOL to remove the content, which it initially did, but later refused to remove additional similar postings.  Zeran received a barrage of threatening telephone calls and the threats of violence resulted in his home being placed under protective surveillance.  While other courts around the country have rejected CDA immunity, in cases where the ISPs contributed content, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Zeran case, so the result you may get in any particular case is determined by where your cause of action arose, and, thus, what court you bring your lawsuit in.

On February 12, 2013, the President Obama signed Executive Order 13636, calling for the development of a Cyber security Framework, to protect systems and assets vital to the United States which could have an impact on security or national public health and safety.  Some legal authorities have postulated that this may extend to publicly held companies, and that it may be a sign of cyber security regulation aimed at identity theft, viruses or malware, and potential “advertising injury” which could include copyright infringement and defamation.  See Insurance Cybersecurity Regulations – What Insurance Coverage Do You Need? http://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/insurance-cybersecurity-regulations-wh-35583/.

Strategic lawsuit against public participation

Now that we have determined that it is highly unlikely to succeed against an ISP for the defamatory content that appears on a particular site or sites, there is another hurdle to overcome.  If you are in a state such as California, any lawsuit that is determined to censor or intimidate your cyber bullies can be summarily dismissed, and you can be assessed with the cyber bully’s attorney fees and costs of suit.

They are called strategic lawsuits against public participation (“SLAPP” suits), and 28 states have enacted legislation outlawing them, in different incarnations.  They are Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont and Washington.

The intentions behind the anti-SLAPP statutes are noble ones.  The primary objective behind a SLAPP suit is to intimidate people who petition the government with grievances.  Florida has the most restrictive anti-SLAPP law.  It is limited to suits brought by the government in response to the right to peacefully assemble, instruct representatives, and redress grievances before governmental agencies, and also applies to homeowners with their homeowner’s association.

California has the most strict anti-SLAPP statutes.  It applies to any action “arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech” in connect with a “public issue.”  California Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.   This is defined in the statute as any written or oral statement made before legislative, executive, judicial or other proceeding, any written or oral statement made in connection with an issue under consideration or review by a legislative, executive or judicial body, any written or oral statement or writing made in a place open to the public or a public

forum in connection with an issue of public interest, or any other conduct in furtherance of the exercise of the constitutional right of free speech in connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest.

In connection with a public issue or an issue of public interest has been interpreted by some California appellate courts to mean any issue that applies to any person who, by their “accomplishments or mode of living” create a bona fide attention to their activities.” Hilton v Hallmark Cards, 599 F.3d 894 (9th Cir 2010), quoting Montana v. San Jose Mercury News, Inc., 40 Cal. Rptr. 2d 639 (1995).  This leads anti-SLAPP attorneys to argue that the public decides what a public issue is and, in this case, the “public” is your cyber mob, because it’s something that they are all talking about.  As my ex-mother in law used to say, “Only famous people are talked about.”

Under the California statute, your cyber stalker can make a motion to dismiss your case in its initial stages, before you have the right to discovery to even find out who your defendants are (in the case of unknown defendants, who you may sue as “John Does”).   This motion stays all discovery, and shifts the burden to the Plaintiff to provide evidence that proves a probability that he or she will prevail on the claim.  This is almost impossible to do without discovery, making it a fait accompli.  The winning of the motion signals the dismissal of the case, and you are assessed with your opponent’s attorney’s fees and court costs.

My case arose from a feature film I made called, Say it in Russian, which I recently turned into a little book.  The film was produced and financed by a publicly held company that traded on the “Pink Sheets” and I was an officer of that company.  The film was finished right before the Global Economic Crisis of 2008 and did not do very well in distribution.  As a result, the stock price declined and several people whose shares declined in value decided that I was to blame.  Long after I had left the company and it had other officers and directors, I was talked about.

Five years later, those same cyber bullies joined a cyber-mob and talked about all the public companies I represented, in an attempt to ruin my business and my reputation.  They still talk about me, but nobody cares anymore.  In fact, I came across their antics one day when I was “googling” myself.  I had written a successful best-selling book called, Bless the Bees: The Pending Extinction of our Pollinators and What You Can Do to Stop It.  The cyber mob, still talking about me eight years later, accused me of plagiarizing somebody’s work.  I had written two articles for the Los Angeles Daily Journal that I had expanded upon and which became two chapters in the book.   But, before I wrote the book, I became an active environmentalist and advocate for the bees.  I started several online petitions against bee killing insecticides and against the Monsanto Protection Act, wherein I used some of the language from the article (which eventually made it into the book).  They were accusing me of stealing my own work and they didn’t even realize it was me who had written it.

I lost my case against the cyber mob and their forum because the judge decided that talking about me on the Internet was a public issue.  I was famous and I didn’t even know it.  Therefore, if you are even remotely contemplating any legal action against your cyber stalkers, it is best to seek an expert in the SLAPP law of the particular state that you live in (and/or the one that the potential defendants live in).  You may be famous and you don’t even know it.  Welcome to the public spotlight.

Chapter 5: We live in a virtual world

 

For as long as you have been living, people have been judging you, sizing you up, in almost every social capacity you have been involved in.  This used to be done in person.  A person would meet you, ask you questions, and get a feeling for what you were all about.  In this virtual world, however, many relationships are made online.  Before eyes meet, people have already exchange electronic resumes on some dating site or Facebook.   According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the percentage of married couples in the United States who met online is a staggering 35%.     And, in the business or professional context, people used to go to a doctor or lawyer based on a personal recommendation.  In this cyber world, they are more likely to let the Google algorithm do the recommendation for them.

The Google Algorithm

Google’s search engine is the most popular in the United States, with a market share of over 65%, and is one of the most popular search engines in the world, operating in many different languages.  When most people in the United States look for a business or service, they are most likely to do it using the Google search engine.

The Google algorithm is a mathematical program that searches out key words on over 150 million Internet web sites and assigns a rank to each web page on which the key words appear.  It is so widely used, the word “google” has also become a verb in American pop culture.  “Google it,” is a common answer you may hear to a question that somebody is not familiar with.  And, when people are trying to decide whether to use your services or patronize your business, or hire you as an employee, they are likely going to “google” your name, and use the information they read about you to make a decision.

Is that a sound way to make a decision?  Probably not.  Just because something is printed about you on a website, or even ten or 100 websites, it doesn’t mean that it is true.  But it is what they are going to look at in making their decision, so you have to face it.

The power to speak anonymously, once used as a political tool, can now be used by virtually anyone.  An email account, Facebook account, or Twitter account can be set up for any fictitious person, in any aka.  Anonymous persons chatting on Internet chat rooms or bulletin boards can be difficult, if not impossible to trace, and the sites themselves that post the libelous material have the immunity to do so, thanks to the CDA.  Gossip is becoming the equivalent of news.  What used to be written on the bathroom wall about a teenage girl’s reputation can now be broadcast to thousands, and the record of it stays in cyberspace forever.  The same teenage girl, when she becomes a mother, can look forward to her daughter reading, in explicit detail, how much of a slut she was when she was a teenager or, even worse, watching pornographic videos or pictures (possibly even manipulated) that may have been taken by a scorned lover or ex-husband.

The perpetrators of these crimes go unpunished.  Since they are not committing the crimes face to face, the distance and removal from the victim is like an air force pilot who drops a “smart bomb.”

It becomes impersonal, the victim is dehumanized, and morality is altered.  It’s easier to pull the trigger when you can’t see the person you are aiming at, and witness the blood and gore as the bullet

connects with its target.  The Google algorithm doesn’t care if the search results it returns are true.  It is designed to rank the most popular sites higher.

Your cyber bully doesn’t have to make up some of the information he chooses to spout about you on the Internet.  He has help – you.  Posting personal information and photographs on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn, or any number of other sites, is fodder for cyber gangs to manipulate and repost that information and photographs in ways that you may not consider to be very flattering.  Just remember, everything you put into cyberspace stays there, so make sure it’s something you want people looking at 10 years from now before you do it.  It will be there online, easily accessible to all, long after you are dead and gone.  My wife tells me not to talk to people about my personal life, which is good advice.  It’s even better advice in this virtual world not to post something personal about yourself on the Internet, not matter where you post it or whom you intend to see it.  It is a little slice of your privacy that you may be giving up forever.

Because rumors can be posted on the Internet and published to millions instantaneously, they have more powerful effects than in the past, where they were spread from mouth to mouth.  Rumors of stock splits, acquisitions and the like have caused great swings in stock prices of huge international companies.  When Steve Jobs was alive, false news that he had suffered from a heart attack sent Apple stock down $10 per share. Zynga stock rose 10% in 2013 on rumors of a possible Yahoo buyout.

Nobody checks the accuracy of anything on the Internet.  Even Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, while often a wonderful place to start research, has user generated content.  It can be contributed by anyone, as long as you follow their guidelines.  Wikipedia is probably a bad example, because at least it has some degree of respectability as far as accuracy goes.  But 90% of what is on the Internet is absolutely unverified and, therefore, unreliable.  Anybody can post to a free Blogger or WordPress blog anything they want.  And because the matter appears in printed form, it is automatically given a degree of respectability.

One of the most fascinating books I ever read was The Believing Brain, by Michael Shermer.  In The Believing Brain, Shermer explains how the brain forms beliefs and then will seek out seeming random patterns to reinforce that belief.  The same is true of what people will read about you on the Internet.

The old saying, “Throw enough shit on the wall and it will stick,” is the principle behind these online beliefs.  Simply put, if they see it in print enough times, they will believe it is true.  That’s quite frightening when statistics show that people doing an Internet search will seldom go beyond the first page of search results.  If the first impression that someone gets of you is what they read on the Internet, that bias is not likely to change after they meet you in person.  That is why it is important to take control over what people are seeing on your first page of Google.

Chapter 6: Own your name

It may sound ridiculous, but in the online world, you have no right to your name, unless of course you buy it.  It reminds me of an old case I learned in law school called Sullivan v. Sullivan.   In the early days of television, Ed Sullivan had the most popular variety show on TV.  I don’t know why.  He talked funny with a nasal tone (“It’s a really big shoe tonight”).  But if you were anybody, or wanted to be anybody, your agent had to book you on his show.  There was a local television store owned by a man whose name was also Ed Sullivan, and he used his name as the name of the store.  He was sued by Ed Sullivan, the TV show host and won, because the court held that Sullivan had the equivalent of a brand of the name, “Ed Sullivan.”  As a result, the “nobody” Ed Sullivan lost the right to use his own name in business.

The same is true of the Internet, but in a different way.  Google doesn’t care (the company – not the algorithm – because it doesn’t care about anything), if someone else takes out a Blogger account named after you, or even using your name.  In my opinion, if that is not identity theft, I would like to know what is, but Google is immune and will do nothing unless you can prove copyright infringement.  It’s impossible for you to prove copyright infringement of your own name.  Likewise, anyone can buy the Internet domain rights to your name.  It may be the most valuable thing you have but, unless you buy it yourself, you don’t own it.

Mr. Cyber bully is probably busy not just trying to smear your good name, but he has a full schedule of others to bully as well, so he probably won’t shell out the $20 or $30 that it will take to secure your name, but you should.  Secure as many domain names in as many variations of your name as you can.  If your name is John Smith, get Johnsmith.com, johnsmith.net, and johnsmith.org.  Buy domains with variations of your name using your middle name and initial, and your nicknames.  When you’re finished getting as many as you can with different combinations of your name, start using dashes in between your first and last name, and middle initial.  For example, get the name, John-smith.com and John-J-Smith.com.  Go to a domain registration site that is inexpensive like www.godaddy.com or www.1and1.com, on which you can also purchase user friendly packages that can help you design and put your own website online, with no extra cost.

The two blog sites which offer free blogs with the most Internet “power” are http://wordpress.com and http://blogger.com, which is also blogspot.com.  Make sure you get every variation of your name in both of those free blogs.

Now that you own your own name, you have a decision to make, and that decision is whether to disappear from the Internet altogether – erase your own digital imprint – or create the story about yourself that you want people to see when they check out your name.

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