At a recent debate entitled, “The wild wild web – who polices the internet?” South Africa’s most famous political cartoonist, Jonathan Shapiro (better known as Zapiro) spoke about a racist, right-wing website that had published some of his work.
They had used it out of context in order to support their agenda. His concern was that people would find the site when searching for him and think that he endorsed their beliefs.
Unfortunately the web is pretty wild and we have very little control over what other people put up – even if they say slanderous things against us.
*Leila, a successful financial director, had a problem with an online stalker who mentioned her name on a variety of high-traffic sites, even creating a fake Facebook account and a blog with Leila’s name.
“She was obsessed. I don’t even know what I did to get her attention. She said I’d slept my way to the top and mentioned my company. One of my colleagues came across her blog and told me about it. It was frightening and embarrassing; I felt helpless.”
Of course, sometimes we are our own worst enemy. If you’ve ever made a rash comment or posted an ill-considered blog entry, you know how negatively it can affect your reputation. Even if you remove it, it will still be cached by Google, Yahoo and many other search engines for quite a while.
So what can you do to repair and protect your online reputation?
1. Push harmful messages down the search rankings.
Create and update your own content regularly. This can be done with a webpage, blog, LinkedIn profile, Facebook page and Twitter account. The most frequently updated, visited and (crucially) linked-to sites will move up the search engine rankings the fastest, so make sure you’re communicating online more than a malicious nut-job. People rarely look past the first few pages of results, so casual character assassins won’t get noticed.
2. Delete, delete, delete.
Take a close look at what you have willingly put out there. Untag Facebook photos that may be harmful to you or others. Remove your YouTube account entirely if you posted a video of that stripper at your bachelor party. Even if you don’t control the content, you can request that it be removed on the grounds that it is defamatory, or harmful to your reputation. Most service providers (like Facebook) are willing to remove such content since they prefer to avoid any chance of legal action.
3. Be sensible.
It’s very old advice, but people still forget it – do not volunteer too much personal information. Stalkers can use this in their efforts to discredit you, never mind the more obvious implications of physical safety and harassment. It also reflects poorly on your sense of discretion.
4. Say sorry.
You said something rude or nasty and now you’re being lambasted for your poor judgement. Eat a slice of humble pie and apologise unconditionally for whatever you said or did. A little contrition shows that you are mature enough to admit your mistakes and brave enough to take responsibility for them.
5. Control how others find out.
You’ve done everything you can to protect your online reputation, but negative pages still keep showing up in searches. Take charge by making sure you’re the one who informs friends, family and colleagues about it. This lets you get your side of the story across and assures people that you are trying to put an end to the damage.
It’s worth remembering that malicious gossip, stalking and negative publicity existed long before the internet. And all the same traits we used for those situations – honesty, humility, self-respect and good old-fashioned common sense – are the ones that work online.
If anything, the net gives you more control over your reputation than ever before. So don’t despair, repair. You’d be surprised at how easy it is once you start.