Beware The Digital Assassin
Personal and corporate reputations are increasingly vulnerable to online attacks that often ruin lives and businesses. A book by two leading reputation management advisors explains how “digital assassins” attack, and what you can do to defend yourself.
How do competitors, “black hat” hackers, determined promoters of special interests, personal enemies, and trolls use the Internet to destroy your company’s—or your personal—reputation? Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis count them in their book, Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand, or Business Against Online Attacks. Torrenzano and Davis see seven basic modes of attack.
While most of these methods—which the authors call “swords”— have been around as long as humanity itself, the Internet brings a speed, scope, and permanence to the amount of damage a digital assassin can do.
Though technology has not stood still in the two years since the book was published, the ways people use it to destroy reputations are timeless. And despite better firewalls, malware sniffers, and other tech defenses, the digital assassins are as prevalent as ever. As Torrenzano said in a recent interview, “The ability to smear reputations breeds on the Internet. Instead of the problem getting smaller, it is now reaching a crisis level.” For a ripped-from-the-headlines example, one need look no further than the 2013 data breach that endangered the identities of 40 million Target customers.
“No one is safe, no one is immune to this,” adds Torrenzano. “Anyone who has a public profile is vulnerable to attacks on their credit and credibility. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about this until it happens to them.”
Using examples that range from ancient Rome to recent headlines, Torrenzano and Davis explain in terrifying detail why you need to understand the digital deviltry that exists to terrorize your business and ruin your personal reputation, as well as the seven “shields” you can use for protection.
Slash and Tell
Among the seven swords are two the authors call New Media Mayhem and Silent Slashers.
New Media Mayhem—Everything old is new again, with a twist, especially when it comes to media. “This new global media environment oddly takes us back to the level of a disgraced inhabitant of a small village of a prior era, condemned for life by gossip,” say the authors. While 20th-century media at least attempted to provide fair and balanced reporting of news, in today’s Google-centric news environment, what rises to the top of the search page isn’t necessarily the best coverage, but the most sensational. “More dirt means more eyeballs, which means more ad revenue,” the authors say.
Traditional media, while still a force, is being replaced by “the clowns and barking seals of a digital circus,” say the authors. Today, corporate systems are open to hacking, there are “sticky” negative images that “spread like kudzu in a Google environment,” and non-governmental organizations collude with secret donors, media, and prosecutors to bring down high-profile targets.
Even attempting to fight back can backfire, as entertainer Barbra Streisand found out when she sued to keep an environmental activist and Pictopia.com from posting aerial pictures of her mansion. The authors explain that the ensuing publicity drew millions to view the photo on the once-obscure site, and “the picture wafted all across the Internet, like so many dandelion seeds, into too many places to monitor or count.” Attempts at suppressing an image now often leads to its promotion on the Internet—a phenomenon now known as the “Streisand Effect.”
There is no shortage of “Gossip Girls”— think sensation-sellers such as TMZ and Perez Hilton—who are willing to pile on to anything that sounds salacious with no regard to what’s fair. And don’t forget the “Shame Famers” looking for attention any way they can get it, even if it comes at the price of outing themselves as being involved in the scandal.
Even corporate competitors are taking off their digital kid gloves. “Indeed, low-grade corporate warfare is constantly being waged between technology giants through patent trolls, insider blogs, and corporate talking points that accompany lobbyists thrust in front of senior congressional staffers and regulators,” they say. And not just tech companies are engaging in this type of battle; the authors cite examples from Jenny Craig to Burt’s Bees to Facebook.
Once the spin is out of the bottle, it can and will amplify across the Net, leaving tattered reputations in its wake, say the authors.
This is tricky to combat. The law has come down on the side of interactive computer services that are used to spread lies, rumors, and disinformation, saying that it is solely on the individual poster, who, of course, may be impossible to identify.
Silent Slashers—“Today the Internet empowers digital assassins, allowing undocumented charges and concocted images to ping around the globe at light-speed,” the authors say. Where once pet peeves were anonymously painted on the walls in ancient Rome, today they’re equally anonymously sprayed all over online bulletin boards, social media, and other technology platforms. Then Google’s spiders index them, and the more slanderous the post, the more hits it gets, the higher it reaches in search rankings, and the more viral it becomes.
These attackers are called “Silent Slashers” because you may not even be aware of the wound that’s been inflicted until you see it gushing all over the Internet. Again, while this type of sneak-attack character assassination is nothing new, “the dark arts of disinformation on the Internet have the potential to insinuate any falsehood, provided it is lurid enough.”
The authors also explain how Google Bombing—“which manipulates search results so that a search for one person or thing leads the searcher to something satirical or defamatory”—is both a very effective Silent Slasher tool and perfectly legal. And then there’s Google Bowling, “the malicious leaking of praise,” which the Silent Slasher uses to push a competitor’s site up the Google ranks until Google, sniffing a rat, punishes the site by knocking it far down the list.
You can sometimes put a name to an anonymous assassin by tracing IP addresses and/or threatening legal action against the site the Slasher uses. You also can try to diffuse the effects of the slash by reducing the rumor’s importance and/or its ambiguity, which are the two factors that make it Internet gossip catnip. But tread very carefully, because the more attention you bring to the rumor, the more attention it will receive—you may end up inadvertently amplifying it instead of dampening it down.
All Is Not Lost
After outlining five more ways digital assassins attack, including using “Evil Clones” to falsely represent you and “Human Flesh Search Engines” to digitally mount a real-life mob assault, the authors offer seven “shields” you can use to minimize, neutralize and even defeat attacks from those using the seven swords against you. Here are two to get you started.
› Learn about social media and other new technology. Whether on sites like Mashable, Wired, and Gizmodo; through a class at your local library or a lecture from your professional association; or from asking a tech-savvy someone to walk you through it, get your fingers on the keyboard and really get to know the Internet. “Don’t stop until you understand—with your fingertips—how search engines really work, how to start a blog and maintain it with an easy free software like WordPress; how to access the popular social networking services like Facebook, Tumblr, or Jaiku; how a search term can be optimized; how to use Google AdSense …You are not equipped to manage your reputation until you can comfortably navigate and post and actively participate on the Internet,” the authors say.
› To respond or not to respond? “The first question that must be answered in the aftermath of an assassin’s attack is whether or not to respond at all. Like encapsulated cancers or asbestos lining old buildings, sometimes it is best to leave an ugly post alone,” the authors say, because responding could end up propagating it instead in a replay of that “Streisand Effect.”
The authors add, “Ask yourself if the offending material is likely to have real-world negative consequences … Second, who has seen it?” Also look for who the attacker is, if the attack is going viral, and if there is an organization behind the attack.
Once you have determined if it makes sense to strike back, the authors offer a detailed game plan you can use to create a digital defense. However, they caution, “One or none of these options may work. Even if they do, do not expect your digital profile to change overnight. The only strategy that always works in your favor 100 percent of the time is the positive approach of creating a reputational cushion.
“The only way to obtain at least some protection is to create as much positive and descriptive information about yourself, link all your sites together, and then make as many organic links as you can to others,” the authors say. They also provide very specific ways to manage your reputation on today’s most popular platforms.
As Torrenzano says, “It’s up to you to guard your reputation. You must conduct personal and business due diligence, put safeguards in place, and monitor regularly.”
Mark Davis , a Senior Director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group, has consulted with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as well as many leading U.S. companies.
Richard Torrenzano is the Chief Executive of The Torrenzano Group, a New York–based strategic communications and high-stake issues management firm.
Digital Assassination is published by St. Martin’s Press of New York and is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
ME Global Leadership Community
Sue Pelletier, the Manufacturing Leadership Journal’s contributing editor, has been writing and editing business publications for more than 20 years. She also develops and manages Internet sites, creates social networking communities, and plans live and virtual events.