In the mid-2000s, Matt Earle was an internet marketer for an offshore bank in Bermuda, helping draw in new customers. Impressed with his skills, corporate clients hired him to boost their profiles online. But Earle soon realized that they would also pay to bury bad news—scandals, lawsuits, or run-ins with financial regulators. He returned to Toronto in 2010 and, the next year, launched Reputation.ca, a company that provides digital makeovers, helping people regain control over how they appear on the internet.
Earle became what is called a reputation fixer, joining an industry today worth, according to one estimate, $240 million (US) annually. Reputation fixers run the spectrum from high-profile PR firms—such as Toronto-based Navigator, which former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi first turned to in 2014, when he was embroiled in assault accusations—to smaller, scrappier services like Earle’s. Many Reputation.ca clients are businesses worried about the effect of scathing customer reviews or social media rants from disgruntled ex-employees. (One 2020 survey found that negative feedback on public forums like Yelp or Facebook can drive away 92 percent of consumers.) But Earle and his competitors also hear from individuals: students humiliated by an explicit photo on a revenge-porn website, professionals desperate to expunge trash talk from a former client’s blog, or CEOs who can’t shake outdated news stories that keep popping up on Google. The internet has a long memory.
Cleaning up your image, however, is not cheap. A serious campaign can cost between $10,000 and $20,000 or more and will usually run for at least four to eight months. Earle’s twenty-four staff members deploy a suite of tactics to dilute or outright remove unwanted content. They have methods for contacting satisfied customers and encouraging them to leave positive reviews to bump up star-rated averages. They are also able to tweak Wikipedia entries in ways that pass muster with the website’s volunteer editors, who can be relentless about deleting puffery. Appeals can be filed to major internet players like Facebook, Google, and Twitter in order to hide a damaging link or critical comments. If it’s an unflattering story in the mainstream press, staff might provide the publication with research that prompts a correction or clarification. If that’s not enough, there’s the nuclear option: disappearing the content entirely.
“Almost all credible newspapers have a no-removal policy,” says Earle. It’s sometimes different with blogs, independent news, or review websites. Since they don’t necessarily follow journalistic codes of conduct, they can be nagged, paid off, coerced, or threatened with lawyers’ letters into deleting material. “We do whatever we can to get content removed,” says Earle.
But the help that reputation fixers provide the shamed and the bullied—and the profits they extract from them—may also be incentivizing the shamers and the bullies. This is the dark side of online reputation management: websites can make money by removing the hurtful material they encouraged others to post in the first place. These publishers are often based outside North America and can be part of larger networks that share content widely. They may operate for a few months before disappearing, only to have their posts appear on another site with a different name. Whether they target businesses or individuals, call themselves consumer-advocacy sites or gossip sites, the content is never fact-checked, universally negative, and almost always designed to harm.
In the same way that paying hostage takers can inadvertently create a market for hostage taking, the booming market for reputation fixing appears to be encouraging more online defamation and an ecosystem to manage it. Do reputation fixers put everybody’s reputation at risk?
“This man not only has a major drug issue, he made me do crazy sexual things that I wasn’t comfortable with. He cheated on me with another guy,” reads a now-deleted recent post on The Dirty, published, as is typical, under a heading that includes the name and photo of the subject.
Founded in 2007, The Dirty publishes anonymous “tips” about average people, including Canadians, on a platform that resembles a celebrity news site. Users can browse stories by city, scrolling through seemingly endless allegations of cheating, fraud, sexually transmitted diseases, and general lasciviousness. Though The Dirty has a list of prohibited content—including “false, defamatory” material, hate speech, pornography, revenge porn, and images of minors—a visitor might be shocked by what does get posted. “We are not the Truth Police,” reads their legal FAQ. “We cannot resolve factual disputes between strangers. Therefore, we will not remove posts simply because one party makes an unproven claim that a post contains false information.”
Still, the posts on many of these sites can be removed for a price. Some, such as badgirlreports.date or cheaters.news, run sidebar ads for reputation-fixer services. The website Ripoff Report openly charges businesses to monitor and control what’s said about them on its pages. Others, like The Dirty, have co-operative relationships with reputation fixers that allow those companies to boast a “100% removal rate.” According to court documents, between 2016 and 2017, Brandon Rook, a Vancouver-based geological and business consultant, was called a drunk, a cheater, and a liar in almost 100 posts on social media and websites including The Dirty. The court awarded Rook $200,000 in damages plus costs against his ex-girlfriend. (Rook had hired an expert to link the false comments to an IP address associated with her home Wi-Fi.) But, even before his case was completed, he gave $29,870 (US) to reputation consultants. Rook’s successful court case now fills up most of the search results for his name—it’s hard to find a single unpleasant item about him.
Seeing sites profit from the very slander they were created to peddle can feel like a shakedown. Herman Tumurcuoglu says he won’t work with them. He co-founded Montreal-based Searchreputation.net in 2015, when he realized he could build a business around reverse SEO, or suppression. SEO—search engine optimization—refers to the practice of improving a website’s ranking in search results. Most people never look past the first page of a Google search—over 90 percent of clicks go to a top-ten result. Good SEO makes sure that, when specific keywords are used, consumers can find you. But that process can also be inverted. By overwhelming negative search results with positive ones, you can sink unflattering content deeper into the listings, making it harder to find. That embarrassing video you fear prospective employers are running across? It now appears on page five as opposed to surfacing right away. The video still exists but is effectively out of sight.
The company charges between $1,500 and $2,500 (US) a month to keep unwanted results down—and to track, police, and repair reputation eruptions—on behalf of clients around the world. The monitoring can be tricky: because Google ties results to the geographic location of the person doing the search, its algorithm might deliver an unwanted result abroad but not in a client’s hometown. At the start, Searchreputation.net considered offering comprehensive “full-on removal” services, but Tumurcuoglu quickly abandoned this side of the business. Pushing down unwanted results is less ethically painful and will satisfy most customers, who just want to limit the damage and know that, in the Wild West of the internet, they can’t totally eradicate it.
“There has been all kinds of shady stuff going on to achieve a full removal. We didn’t want to get involved with anything of the sort,” he says. Some fixers subcontract work to freelancers who may use no-questions-asked tactics to get material removed. One prospective client came to Tumurcuoglu after he had hired a removal firm and had started getting letters from publishers threatening legal action because of the firm’s aggressive methods. “What started off as a little problem became a big problem,” says Tumurcuoglu, who did not take on the client.
Maanit Zemel, a commercial litigator and internet lawyer who teaches at Ryerson University, says that some reputation-fixing services—not those previously mentioned—have connections to extortion sites. Businesses may discover a negative review only after a removal service points it out and offers help. On other occasions, personal details shared with a reputation fixer have even shown up on these sites. “The victims fall victim to these good Samaritans: they enter into a contract with them, they pay them a lot of money,” she says. “The URL disappears. Then, a week later, new URLs appear with the exact same content. Then the victim falls prey again and pays them more money.”
Many of Zemel’s clients come to her after spending tens of thousands of dollars on reputation-management services that ultimately fail to get rid of stories about their supposed promiscuity or pedophilia. Yet she admits that the legal process, as painful and expensive as it is, often does no better. Suing somebody, whether for defamation or invasion of privacy, doesn’t always fix the problem—the information can remain out there. Worse, legal action can exacerbate the damage. You’re putting into a public document and filing with the court the very allegations you don’t want exposed.
There’s also little the law can do to dissuade someone who is determined. In 2018, fifty-two businesses and individuals were involved in a civil action against Nadire Atas, a Hamilton-area real estate agent who had been fired from her job in the 1990s. The court determined that, over almost two decades, Atas had posted an extraordinary amount of false material—almost 13,000 defamatory statements—about people (and people connected to people) she believed had wronged her. In January 2021, the Ontario Superior Court ruled in favour of the complainants. The following month, Atas was arrested for harassment and libel. She was let out on bail under the condition she not contact the individuals or their associates directly or indirectly. She was also banned from using any device capable of connecting to the internet. According to the New York Times, some plaintiffs hired reputation fixers to deal with the offending material and moved on.
But Atas, it seems, kept at it. Luc Groleau is an IT professional whose online detective work was instrumental in building the case against her. (He had married the daughter of the man who fired Atas, which was enough for the real estate agent to call Groleau’s child a pedophile.) In March, he discovered that Atas may have picked up right where she left off, targeting four new victims, including the daughter of a New York Times editor Atas had attacked last year after he refused to kill an article about her case. Tracking Atas’s relentlessness, Groleau says, “has consumed me to the core.”
For the moment, solutions are scarce. The ease and simplicity that has made online life convenient and empowering has also been convenient and empowering for those acting out of malice and for those who see financial opportunity in those urges. This bizarre online reputation economy exists primarily because of Section 230 of the US Communications Decency Act. Passed in 1996, it protects internet companies—whether Google or shesahomewrecker.com—from liability when something illegal is posted by others on their sites. Without that law, platforms would be overwhelmed by the need to vet the vast quantity of user-generated content they depend on. Because so many of these websites are hosted in the US, and because borders mean so little on the internet, and because it’s hard to get one country’s law enforced in another, Section 230 has had a global impact.
By contrast, the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, does compel websites to act on copyrighted material users publish, and as a result, most mainstream platforms have a process for removing it. In fact, some people trying to get certain kinds of unwanted content removed—say, a photo of them with “pedophile” superimposed on it—will claim copyright infringement rather than defamation because the removal process is more clear cut.
According to Zemel, Google will obey American court orders to deindex sites—that is, to delete them from search results—based on copyright infringement but, until recently, has only “voluntarily” deindexed material that’s allegedly defamatory. The results depend on which of the company’s moderators is handling the request. HONR Network, a Florida-based nonprofit founded to protect people from online abuse, has had success persuading Google to deindex pages on behalf of the victims it represents. (HONR volunteers helped get close to 2,000 pieces of content about Groleau’s family removed.) In June, Google announced changes to its algorithm so that people slandered on multiple websites will have search results automatically suppressed.
None of it, however, is particularly easy for an ordinary person worried what an employer will see during a Google search, never mind a bullied teenager. Emily Laidlaw, an associate professor at the University of Calgary’s faculty of law who has written about online harm, has proposed legislative reform to allow online tribunals to solve defamation and harassment disputes before they end up in the courtroom. Such tribunals, she argues, can specialize in ways traditional courts can’t, providing a greater range of tools to fix reputational harm, such as outside experts to scrub content from search results.
“The narrative that was out there for a long time was, ‘If you don’t like what’s going on, don’t go online, don’t participate online.’ That’s no longer a supportable view. We’re all online in our personal and professional lives,” says Laidlaw. While Earle has built a multimillion-dollar business on saving people and companies from embarrassment, he agrees that it’s become too easy to defame people. “You can sit there and cause $50,000 worth of reputation damage in an afternoon.”