You probably remember the story of Lindsey Stone.
Stone posted a photo on Facebook in 2012 that showed her joking around at a war memorial. A sign at Arlington National Cemetery in the US asked for silence, and Stone pretended to shout for the camera. The post went viral around the web, and she became a target of hate from war veterans and their supporters.
Stone was sacked from her job.
Most people don’t know much else about the story, however, which is a shame because once you hear it — the amount of suffering Stone went through because of that photo — you’ll sympathise with Stone and probably think twice about piling on to the next idiot who tweets something unfortunate and generates headlines as a result.
Journalist Jon Ronson’s new book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” looks at a series of incidents in which individuals became the centre of internet shaming firestorms. Like the guys who were fired in the #Donglegate incident: they made a sexist joke about dongles at a tech conference which was tweeted around the world, instantly becoming the poster boys for tech’s problem with women.
Or Justine Sacco, who tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before getting on a plane: she became a global sensation before the plane landed.
What’s great about the book is how it picks up the story of what happened to the people after the media attention disappeared. Frequently, their lives were ruined. They lost their jobs. They became paranoid or depressed. They were punished out of all proportion to their “crimes.”
Stone was a health charity worker who had a long-running private joke with a friend. They would photograph themselves standing next to signs, doing the opposite of what the signs said. She wasn’t really trying to be disrespectful of the war dead. They posted the pics on each other’s Facebook’s walls.
The Arlington photo wasn’t meant to be seen by everyone — Stone didn’t even know how to adjust her privacy settings properly.
That didn’t matter. Many who saw the photo took it literally. She lost her job. She got death threats. She found it hard to leave the house or have a social life. She couldn’t get a new job because every time an employer googled her name, the photo came up.
Her entire life had been reduced to a misinterpretation of a private joke between friends.
While exploring the online saga that engulfed Stone, Ronson stumbled upon the business of online reputation management. For a great deal of money (usually hundreds of thousands of pounds), these companies will help rebuild reputations on the internet.
Michael Fertik of reputation.com, agreed to take Stone on for free at Ronson’s request. Ronson writes that Stone’s case was perfect. “All she wanted was to work with autistic children and not feel the terror,” he explains.
Ronson told Stone that Fertik could help make the photograph disappear — “practically vanish” — from Google.
“That would be unbelievable,” was her response. “Or if it just disappeared two pages down Google. Only creepy people check past the second page.”
Ronson doesn’t go into detail about how exactly Fertik changed Google’s results for Stone’s name. Put simply, though, reputation management is an entire industry dedicated to making bad things on the internet quietly go away.
It’s big bucks: High profile companies can earn $US5,000 upwards per month, per client.
The crux of the work is to trick search engines into downgrading bad results by piling good news on top of it. Reputation managers write positive articles and promote them, create false reviews, edit biased Wikipedia articles, and add comments and links on blogs and other sites.
Politicians, lawyers, and tech giants all do it.
When you search for Stone on the web today, articles relating to Ronson’s book now feature most heavily. Behind that you’ll find a Facebook page campaigning to hire her, and a personal blog that promotes autism awareness.
Stone’s life is gradually getting back to normal. She’s managed to get a new job (though is fearful of losing it) working for another charity.
It’s not a fairytale ending, but overall, a positive one. According to the Mail, Google isn’t plastered with negativity any more and she can begin to lead a more normal life again.
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