Like an elephant, the Internet never forgets.
The benefits we’ve reaped from the web’s digital rolodex are obvious, particularly in the arena of accessible fact-checking and record-keeping. However, it comes with an ugly caveat: as the Internet’s influence in society grows, the business of digital extortion and defamation has grown into a profitable tool to embarrass, blackmail, and otherwise harass both public and private individuals on a global scale.
With no expiration date on our old tweets and little context to our photos and private messages, our words and pictures online become available ammunition to anyone eager to tarnish our names. The number of reputation attacks online show no sign of stopping, and is becoming an increasingly worrying problem in an increasingly connected age.
This has created an anxiety among people – young professionals and business owners in particular – on how to best balance their past and present participation online with their lives and careers offline. When the lines that once separated the past, present, professional and personal are blurred, it puts future generations in an existential bind: the Internet is a cornerstone in 21st century communication, but it’s also an endless digital well for attackers. Is it possible to successfully “grow out” of an old online reputation and into a new one?
Making a complicated issue even more confusing is the myriad of outdated career advice and beliefs about your online reputation. While this advice is well-meaning, it often ignores the technical complexity and constant changes of search engines as well as the law surrounding online harassment. We dug into some of the most pervasive online reputation myths below, and provided some insights as to why these beliefs don’t reflect the facts:
Myth: “The best way to avoid trouble online is to not exist online.”
Reality: Despite conventional wisdom, this is actually false. In fact, going “off the grid” can have the exact opposite effect: having no internet presence means that your “seat” at the metaphorical online table could be taken by someone else. To put it simply: if you’re not active online, this means that anyone has the easy ability to impersonate you online or make a bunch of false claims about you. If you have no established web presence, these defamatory results could potentially become your only web presence.
Myth: “Make sure to lock up all of your social media profiles, and never make them “searchable” for search engines.”
Reality: This piece of advice is misleading. While it’s true that you should be always be aware of the reach and general privacy of your personal social networks, calibrating a few public social profiles to reflect your professional endeavors can actually help build a positive reputation.
Myth: “I’ve been online since I was 15 years old! It’s impossible for me to track down every single tweet, comment, argument or bad joke that I made when I was young.”
Reality: While you may not be able to remove everything unflattering you’ve ever done online, you should definitely try, particularly if you have hopes of becoming a leader in your industry. If you’re having a tough time figuring out where to begin, a good way to start is to Google yourself. Once you have a clear understanding of what results Google thinks are the most essential pages that define you, you can start weeding out the most important results you want to remove.
Myth: “The chances of someone damaging my reputation online are slim. Nobody is really going to dig up my old tweets… Right?”
Reality: While it’s true that we can’t guarantee someone will dig up your old tweets, we also can’t guarantee they won’t, either. A growing trend among online extortionists is to blackmail their targets by threatening to share past social media actions with employers, family members, friends, or to the online community as a whole. We don’t think this is something you should leave it up to chance. If bad tweet, misleading photo, or old video doesn’t reflect who you are today, it’s not going to do you any favors tomorrow.
Myth: “If someone is attacking your reputation online, or information about you online is inaccurate, you should be able to take the defaming person to court for it.”
Reality: It depends on the manner of your circumstances, but this is generally difficult to do, particularly if you live in the United States. While the European Union ruled in favor of an individual’s Right to be Forgotten online under certain circumstances in 2014, the United States has not adopted a similar stance on the ability to request the removal of outdated or inaccurate information on search engines, despite a growing number of industry leaders calling for stronger legislation.
In cases of libel, it’s true that you may be able to sue if someone online posts something defamatory about you, but legislation against online libel comes with its own unique challenges. For example, if you can’t track down an anonymous online attacker, you can’t serve them court papers. Similarly, in cases of harassment, prosecution against cyberstalking or cyberharassment is often limited in scope, underrepresented by law enforcement, and uncomfortable for a victim to pursue, particularly if the case involves intimate or invasive details. Often times, it’s a difficult and expensive path to legal recovery, and it can draw additional attention to an emotionally distressing event you may be eager for people to forget.
Myth: “The Internet is forever, therefore it’s impossible to recover from a bad online reputation.”
Reality: A bad hit online isn’t a definitive judgement of your character, and it is possible to recover from a bad online reputation if you’re persistent. A tenacious approach at building out your best qualities on the web can represent a more accurate profile of yourself, which can help you live beyond a previous mistake. Defending your online reputation retroactively is an uphill battle though, which is why we’re adamant on taking a proactive approach. Building your online reputation today can help prevent the spread of an attack tomorrow.