Online attacks on your reputation can be distressing and difficult to deal with. Sometimes there are no good options, just options that are less bad.
What’s the problem? On your favourite Facebook page, something you wrote is taken out of context to convey the opposite of what you meant. Then there are claims that you took a bribe. There’s a website with compromising photos, featuring you! Your boss and co-workers receive racist messages — from your email address. And there are news stories linking you with hate groups.
Imagine that your activist group becomes the subject of repeated nasty, damaging messages online, where they are seen by audiences you care about. There are blatant falsehoods, repeated over and over, and subtle misrepresentations that seem plausible enough to believe. Your group’s Wikipedia page is hostilely edited to make all of you seem self-interested and misguided. There are deepfake videos that falsely show your leading members renouncing their views and engaging in salacious activities.
It’s bad, but it’s not new. Even before the Internet, individuals and groups were attacked in the mass media and in campaigns organised by opponents. But quite a few things about online attacks are different, many of them worse.
Anonymity It’s now easier for attackers to hide their identity. This means you can’t easily assign responsibility or begin a dialogue.
Less restraint When you can’t see the other person, and they can’t see you, it’s easier to be nasty. Researchers call this the online disinhibition effect. In contrast, when you’re face to face with someone, personal and social expectations encourage politeness: people are more reluctant to be rude.
Less filtering Editors of newspapers screen submissions to weed out inappropriate material. This does not eliminate problems but at least reduces them. In contrast, many online platforms are not moderated, or not very well: there is less filtering. This makes it far easier for attackers to post their material.
Permanence After someone posts a hostile comment, it can stay there indefinitely, and others can post it elsewhere. It’s not so easy to have the comment removed. In contrast, spoken comments and ones in print only are less likely to have lasting impacts.
New technology Tools using artificial intelligence are readily available that enable users to alter photos and create videos in which, for example, your face realistically replaces someone else’s. You might be shown chatting with Vladimir Putin or kicking a puppy.
Reputations under attack
This is the sixth in a series of posts about dealing with unfair attacks on reputation. Since the 1970s, I’ve advised hundreds of people who contacted me about being defamed. Each case is different and the best option for one person may not work for someone else, so I will suggest several options for consideration. Other posts deal with false statements, derogatory labelling, guilt by association and malicious gossip.
Imagine you’re in a group dedicated to public welfare. Opponents mount a campaign to discredit your most prominent figure, Alex, and your group, with false claims and nasty comments on Facebook pages, doctored pictures on Instagram, and a webpage with a “Hall of shame” listing Alex’s personal details and contact information, inviting harassment. Your website is hacked and your Wikipedia page is edited to put your group in an unfavourable light.
It sounds horrible, and it is. Before doing anything, it’s worth thinking through options, examining each type of attack and choosing the most effective option.
For some attacks, it’s easier and safer to do nothing. If nasty comments are on an obscure Facebook page, responding to them might only draw more attention to them. Fake videos may be unbelievable. If your reputation is sufficiently strong, you may not need to worry. Remember that you will probably think negative comments and images are more significant than they seem to others.
In some cases, you can reply in the same forum, or another one. Prepare a careful comment and post it in the same place, or another one, or send it to your supporters. What sort of comment? It might be better to focus attention on your positives and not spend too much time countering hostile comments. Often, readers don’t have the time or interest to get to the bottom of disputes: “they said – we said.” Instead, they will be influenced by the style of the comments. If you come across as calm, sensible, coherent and generous, this can be more effective than an angry rebuttal.
You’re aware that your attackers are hypocrites, are being funded by a notorious source, and have a long record of discreditable behaviour. Instead of defending against false claims, you can try to discredit the attackers, exposing their agendas and methods.
Sometimes this can work wonders. It’s also risky, because it might lead to more abusive exchanges.
It’s the obvious option: make a complaint to someone in authority. It might be a tech company like Facebook, an Internet service provider or a government agency. You can ask them to take down offending posts, photos and videos, cut off service to offenders or in some other way stop the abuse.
The trouble is getting a response. The history of tech company responses to obvious violations of rules, such as sending death threats, is that usually nothing much is done. The company may consider the comments about you and your group “acceptable.”
There’s another problem. Even if you get some action from authorities, the attackers might just pop up somewhere else, using different names. In fact, after they learn what you’ve done to try to stop them, they might become more careful — and more persistent. Furthermore, they might start claiming you’re a censor.
Take legal action
You can sue for defamation. Good luck, because you’ll need it. Sometimes you can’t even identify the attackers. Even if you can, legal processes are slow and expensive, and most cases are settled out of court. If, by unlikely chance, you have some success in court, attackers can continue their assault, being extra careful to remain anonymous.
Suing has another disadvantage. The attackers can publicise your legal action, giving even more attention to their claims. You might become a victim of the Streisand effect, in which an attempt to silence someone online leads to greater publicity about their claims.
Rather than trying to get rid of damaging material online, you can try to overwhelm it with positive material. You can set up websites and Facebook groups and encourage supporters to make comments on them and links to them. People searching the web seldom look beyond the first few links, so if you can push adverse material to the second page, few will see it. In general, having positive material adds to your reputation, often far more than trying to directly counter negative material.
Reputation management techniques only work for some types of attack, mainly hostile material online. It doesn’t address damaging emails.
If online attacks put you in personal danger, you need to protect yourself and other group members. If you are doxxed, the online threats might lead to physical ones. Consider what you need to do to ensure your safety. In extreme cases, this might mean moving away from home, closing all your social media accounts, changing your phone number, even adopting another name.
If you are outspoken online, have a public profile, you may receive hostile messages, especially if you are a woman or member of a minority group. The more prominent you become, the more likely you are to receive threats and abusive messages via email, phone and social media platforms. This is serious and you need to find ways to protect yourself. Note that when you receive a threat by a direct message, it may be extremely distressing but it is not an attack on your reputation, because your reputation is what other people think about you.
Set an example
Try to behave in a model fashion: polite, sensible, supportive, generous, courageous. Many people who know you will see the attacks as lies and misrepresentations. Some of them might be able to counter some of the attacks.
Find others who have been attacked, and join with them to resist. This might mean collecting documentation to highlight the problem, sharing insights about what works and what doesn’t, providing mutual support to deal with trauma, and working together for common causes. You and your group shouldn’t try to do it all on your own.
Tech companies make more money the longer users stay on their platforms, and one way of keeping users engrossed is by making them angry. This isn’t a conscious plan but just results from algorithms carefully designed to maximise screen time and hence profits. Changing the algorithms means changing the entire business model, for example by making the companies non-profit public entities. That’s not going to happen easily or quickly!
Online attacks are especially difficult to handle. Sometimes there’s little you can do. Complaint procedures are weak and ineffective, and counterattacking might make things worse. There’s no easy solution, so think about your values. At the very least, you can behave according to the highest principles. Others can attack your reputation, but you can still behave ethically and altruistically.
Thanks to Clark Chilson, Anneleis Humphries, Julia LeMonde and Julia Nennstiel for helpful comments.