Monday, 05 December 2016 15:57

BERTON: How to reinvent yourself on the Internet


Once upon a time, when newspaper websites were still in relative infancy, I received a call from a reader about an online article we had written.

She had just been married, and wanted us to remove an article about her new husband from our website. Its continued presence on the Internet, she said, was harming his ability to get work.

It seems the man had served time in prison for randomly shooting at people from the balcony of his downtown apartment building.

"That was all in the past," she told me.

I tried to tell her removing such a story would be unethical, to say the least.

It was not the first call of its kind, and it was certainly not the last. In fact, calls like this are multiplying. Not a day goes by when an editor somewhere doesn't get such a request.

People are increasingly concerned about their Internet profiles, and want editors to help them clean it up. We rarely, if ever, acquiesce. We fix errors or will make amendments when necessary.

And so increasingly the job is left to so-called "Internet scrubbers" – a new and growing industry wherein people pay tens of thousands of dollars to have companies do what news editors will not.

If they cannot exactly remove such articles from the public record, they can bury them in a haystack of shiny, new articles, positive recommendations, or even fake news, expertly designed to rise up to the top of the Google class system, er, results lineup, and outshine to the point of obscurity everything that falls below it.

It is another example of how the truth can be manipulated, obscured, or whitewashed to reflect an alternate reality, and a reminder to all of us to be careful what we read, check the sources of our information, and always remain skeptical of first impressions.

One high-profile example of Internet scrubbing was uncovered earlier this year by reporters at the Sacramento Bee, who acquired documents that show "an aggressive effort to counteract an avalanche of negative reporting" after student protesters at the University of California Davis were pepper-sprayed in 2011.

The newspaper called it an effort "to scrub the Internet of negative online postings."

Some call it search engine optimization, or search engine results management. Or online reputation management. Or, as the Bee article noted, quoting one of the documents, "a more involved relationship with Google platforms."

The effort cost more than $100,000.

Some people and organizations also try legal avenues, and threaten media organizations with lawsuits. This also happens daily, with mixed results.

After all, there is always the risk it too will all backfire, as it did at UC Davis.

There is even a term, apparently, for such a nightmare scenario: the Streisand effect. It is named after the famous singer attempted to have an aerial photograph of her mansion on the California coast removed from the Internet. Before the attempt, the photo of Barbra Streisand's house had been downloaded six times. After: 240,000.

Welcome – again – to the new and ever changing world of "news" in the Internet age.

Author:  Paul Berton


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