Google is the world's top search engine used by millions each day. Anyone can be defamed easily, all searchable through Google. Author Sue Scheff talks about the Google Bomb and its impact on our life.
The Internet as a technology for information and quick, inexpensive communication may be fascinating for millions around the globe, but if put to malicious use against someone, it can be a paralyzing weapon.
That is what happened in the case of Sue Scheff, author of Google Bomb(HCI Books, 2009). In her book, co-authored with lawyer John W. Dozier, Sue tells the story of her victimization through serial defamatory attacks on the web that destroyed her professional career and trampled her personal reputation as well as her social life. Just by Googling her name, or that of her organization, countless people could mark her and her organization as evil entities, all because of false, malicious, and unchecked accusations (and even effusive abuse) made against her by someone who failed to use her for her own vested interests.
In today’s world, Google has become the measure of one’s reputation – hence the term “Google Bomb”. Standing up against the coercion, however, Sue finally won the historical $11.3 million defamation suit against the culprit responsible for her loss. It was very informative talking to Sue for an interview to run in the journal Recovering the Self (Vol. 3, No 1). Following is a slightly abridged version of Sue's interview.
Ernest: And to tell our readers, what were your feelings when you were attacked online out of malice?
Sue: The first time I realized that I was being attacked virtually, it was a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness – you literally are powerless to the latest and greatest educational tool - The Internet. Since then, I have received literally hundreds of emails from victims that have had the same exact feelings; in a way, it is comforting that you are not alone and have a very real sense of ruin. The fear is overwhelming; trusting anyone goes out the window; anger is a bit covered up by the sense of being powerless to do anything about it; so you become more scared than angry. Of course I was upset; however, the fact that I became paralyzed to move forward in life limited my ability to work for fear of my client finding the horrors online, as well as losing potential clients was nothing short of devastating. I literally closed my office, started working from my home, and had tendencies of agoraphobia. Leaving the house was very difficult for me.
Ernest: Your organization PURE also suffered heavily due to the cyber-slamming targeting you. How did the defamation campaign on the web affect your social life?
Sue: As I stated above, my life became limited to my home. My only time out would be with one friend who knew and understood what I was going through. I feared meeting any new people; I feared being Googled. My guard was always up and always on the defense. Basically, in answer to your question, what social life? That is stolen from you when you are virtually destroyed. After speaking with others that have been through this, it is very common. You never want to give your complete name and you even have thoughts of changing your name, which I never did but seriously considered it at one point.
Ernest: Did you think of reporting to police or taking any legal action immediately after you learnt about the cyber attack?
Sue: At the time my attacks were happening, I actually went to the police three times. I was basically told there was nothing they could do about it. As the attacks worsened and started attacking my family as well as posting private information about my kids, I found a lawyer immediately. At one point, I received a death threat and my attorney contacted the FBI that actually told me to go to the police again. I did and they did file a report since I had the agent’s name and number; however, it really didn't do much, except give me a sense of protection that if something did happen to me, I was able to file a prior report of the threats. It should be noted that when you hear experts say “go to the police”, it may be different now, but back in 2003-2007, they basically said they could do nothing.
Ernest: When you finally got a lawyer to help you, were you confident that the legal system will do you justice?
Sue: Seriously? I am not sure anyone truly has 100 percent confidence in the justice system, but I knew I had to do something. My life was being destroyed, my organization P.U.R.E. was running on a thread, my reputation was basically trashed, and I found myself being swallowed up by my own home and drowning in depression and helplessness. I don't think I had a choice and had to take a leap of faith and hope so that I would have my name cleared (be vindicated). It isn't a secret that defamation cases can be extremely difficult, as well as invasion of privacy; however, I felt I had an exceptionally strong case. There were flat out lies about me that were intentionally and maliciously posted to ruin me. I had clearly been hit by Internet Defamation and Invasion of Privacy and could prove it. I recommend that before anyone hires an attorney, they need to be aware that it is a costly experience and listen to your attorney; if he/she feels it doesn't constitute defamation, you may as well save your money. Usually a free consultation can help give the lawyer an idea if there is a case. They will also ask you if the defendant has assets (money) for you to collect if you do win, or whether you are doing this for principle. Be aware, principle can cost you a lot of money; so this is a personal decision.
Ernest: Even after winning the case in the court, the cyber attacks against you continued, and you turned to ‘ReputationDefender’ for help. Tell us a little about such companies that help protect one’s online reputation.
Sue: I always say that my attorney, David Pollack, vindicated me in court and ‘ReputationDefender’ revived me virtually. What many people don't understand is that winning a verdict, of any amount of money (and it wasn't all about the money), is only part of the resolution. What do you do when the world's largest tattoo machine won't let you forget the slander? It was a fluke that, around the same time I won my lawsuit in 2006, ‘ReputationDefender’ was just starting up. I am proud to say that I am one of their first clients and felt I had to give them a chance. Michael Fertik, the founder, called me personally, did his due diligence on my case, to determine I was not a child abuser (as the defendant wanted people to believe), and he went to work on showcasing the good work P.U.R.E. does and my work as a parent advocate. They teach you how to maintain your online presence; they created websites with my information and helped create a realistic view of who I really am. In other words, my real life was meeting the digital world without the slime and grime that my defendant wanted people to see. This was not an easy task and took months to do. Even today, you can find the negative stuff, however many can read through the vengeful posts. Personally, in today's virtual world, I believe all businesses need to consider a reputation online management company. My only experience is with ‘ReputationDefender’, and I do consider them the pioneer of these types of services.
Ernest: Okay Sue, near the end of your book, you suggest that unless parents can teach their children the proper use of technology, like the internet, they shouldn’t allow them using new technology at all. So what are some of the basic things about the Internet that everybody needs to teach the young in their family?
Sue: Most important is to teach your kids, especially teens, what you post today, may come back to haunt you tomorrow! Keep your social networking sites clean. Stay out of chat rooms that are not monitored by someone you know (such as a school); predators are all over the Internet; you never know who is truly behind that screen name. I know many experts will say to keep the computer in a public area of your home; that is great advice, but I believe that in reality, the Internet is all over, whether they are at the library, on an iPhone or Blackberry, at a neighbor's home, or an Internet Cafe's. So your child needs to know about the dangers that lurk online whether they are at home or elsewhere. I also believe that they need to learn about not engaging in cyberbullying, sexting, or other harmful, hurtful acts online. If they are being attacked, they need to understand they have to tell an adult immediately. They should not engage in it or forward it on. Education is the key to safety online. Cybersafety should start at home and parents need to be part of it.
Ernest: You also took the issue of internet defamation to the Congress. What did you ask for in this regard and what became of it?
Sue: Unfortunately, legislation for Internet Defamation and Invasion of Privacy is dragging. As the Congresswoman said, she completely understands the issue, and worked diligently on the Protect our Children Act (HR 3845) Against Internet Sexual Predators in 2007. Sadly, I don't see much happening in the area of protecting adults and businesses that are being ruined by a few keystrokes and clicks of the mouse. With more cases being addressed in the headlines, such as Google having to disclose the name/IP address of a perpetrator is definitely a start. I do believe that eventually there will be laws in place, but for now, it can be costly to defend yourself.
Ernest: You know that Google is still the top ranked search engine with respect to online traffic. What advice would you offer the potential victims of Google bombing?
Sue: The most important piece of advice anyone should take, once they realize they are being attacked is “don't feed it or fuel it!” Never engage, never respond! Many people think that if they can explain their side, or counter their attacker, that the readers will see there are two sides to the story. What you are not realizing is that you are only feeding the attacker and he/she will always come back, and usually worse; as hard as it is for you not to defend yourself, don't. If it is on a public forum that has Terms of Service (TOS), review them; see if they are violating any of them; and kindly write a professional letter how the post has violated their TOS and ask for it to be removed. If they are threatening in nature, always be sure to print them out, and speak with law authorities about it. Hopefully you can file a police report. If it reaches a point that it is escalating and effecting your business or life, you may want to consult an attorney.
Ernest: Thank you very much Sue for your precious time. Any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers?
Sue: I always tell people to learn from my mistakes, and I have made a lot of them. You need to be proactive in maintaining your virtual image, because if you don't, you never know who will. It can be time-consuming; however, it is worth it when you think of the consequences. If you can hire an online reputation management company, that can make it easier, but you can also do it yourself with a bit of time and energy. Remember there are a lot of free services out there that can help you get started. On page 206 in Google Bomb, you will see 10 steps you can use to get started.
More about Sue and her work can be found online at [url=http://www.suescheff.com/]http://www.suescheff.com.