With nearly a decade of experience as a marketing professional working with fortune 500 companies, non-profits, and trade associations to monitor and improve their online presence, I have always been acutely aware of the power of the internet and the permanence of digital information. I know from professional experience that even the most innocuous posts, such as an Amazon review, can live online forever. Once it’s out there, somebody is going to see it. Somebody’s going to share it. And something (i.e., Google) is going to save it.
For this reason, I have always been diligent about setting strict privacy settings on my social media profiles and limiting my digital footprint. Once I had my son, I went above and beyond to protect his images, ensuring that only close friends and family had access to his adorable (and abundant) updates. You can imagine my shock then when a simple Google alert notified me that my name was being slandered across the internet by an individual on a personal mission of vengeance – and they used my son to do it.
THE DIRTY DETAILS
I’d like to point out that I am not in the business of sharing my personal life in too much detail. But having now traveled down the dirty, vicious road of cyberbullying, I feel it’s important to tell my story so others can learn from it. You see, for the past three years, my husband and I have been dealing with non-stop harassment from an ex-partner – constant phone calls and text messages from random numbers, countless emails from dozens of fake accounts – all aimed at disrupting our peaceful, happy life. We did what anyone would do. We changed phone numbers, blocked emails, and went about our lives normally, even welcoming a healthy, happy baby boy to our family!
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT SHOOK US TO OUR CORES
It was an ordinary day at work when a VP-level team member showed me an email he received, demanding he give the ex-partner my contact information. I immediately notified my boss and the HR department of my situation. Fortunately, my company showed compassion and understanding and went above and beyond to protect me. The building security team was alerted and the IT department set up dummy accounts so that any further attempts to contact me would be diverted and monitored. It was mortifying to deal with such personal issues at work, but having everyone rally around me assured me that even this level of bullying could be overcome.
Then it happened. A simple Google alert that I had put in place to monitor mentions of my name showed that they were posting false and denigrating statements about me across a variety of revenge websites. Not only was I being attacked on a personal level, but they were also spreading lies about how I treated my clients. My professional reputation and my very livelihood was at stake. To make matters worse, I saw a photo of my then 4-month old son, plastered on a revenge website with the sole purpose of hurting me where it counts.
THE NEXT FEW DAYS WERE A WHIRLWIND OF DISAPPOINTMENT
Once I realized what was happening, I immediately contacted the websites that were publishing this false information and politely requested that it be removed. After all, I had successfully done this for clients in the past. Easy fix, right? I was shocked and disappointed when they basically laughed in my face and told me to get over it. It turns out that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), which is designed to protect freedom of expression and innovation online, also extends to revenge websites. Because the website isn’t actually writing the information and is simply providing a forum for others to air their grievances, the sites are completely legal.
From there, I tried every other avenue I could think of to have the links removed. I contacted major search engines and was denied again and again because of freedom of expression laws. I even submitted a copyright removal request to Google to take down the photo of my son. Nothing worked. Finally, I sought the advice of an attorney who informed me that legal action would be expensive and unlikely to yield any results. My only course of action was to file a harassment complaint, but there was nothing I could do to have the negative content removed. It will live on forever.
HOW I SURVIVED CYBERBULLYING
While the revenge sites she was posting on have little authority and are regarded as spam by major search engines, they were still showing up in search results because I didn’t have much of an existing online presence. Essentially, the fact that I had been so conscientious about my privacy online was actually working against me. Since I didn’t have any competing content or more valuable links associated with myself, these terrible sites were basically the only thing associated with my name on the internet.
Even though there is little that can be done to prevent someone from saying whatever they want about you online regardless of the truth, the following steps can help you build a positive online presence that will render any revenge sites irrelevant to search results:
• Own your name online – Develop personal websites and/or a blog by registering a domain in your name such as firstnamelastname.com, and using it to highlight who you are. Start a blog and post about anything! Then let SEO work its magic.
• Get social – Create profiles and post on the “big 3” social media platforms, and any others you’re comfortable with.
• Guest blog – Seek out guest blogging opportunities to get your name on reputable websites.
• Let others talk about all the good you’ve done – Collect reviews and testimonials and post them to your website, blog, and social media profiles.
• Do not defend yourself – You didn’t do anything wrong here. Don’t comment on the negative posts. Do not reach out to the person who did it. End all communication. Forever.
• Don’t just survive harassment, PREVAIL – Character is revealed every day through small actions and decisions. The people who matter aren’t swayed by trash talk. Keep being true to yourself and your character will speak for itself.
From my perspective, the best thing I can do is continue to lead a happy life and hold on to my own sense of integrity. Sure, I could litter this post with their name, but then I’d be no better than them. While I know that the people who I care about most know that I am a consummate professional who treats my clients well, I still have to worry about the effect these links have on how potential clients perceive me.
If there is a positive take away from this experience, it’s that I feel more inspired and motivated to work on building my own personal brand. I am making a choice to use this negative experience to take my work to the next level, and am excited to see where these extra efforts may lead. Best of all, I have a wonderful husband and a beautiful baby boy by my side through it all.
This blog was originally written as a guest post for The CyberSmile Foundation. If you are affected by any kind of online negativity, they can help! Visit their Cyberbullying and Digital Abuse Help Center or use their Global Support Service to receive expert help – wherever you are in the world. For more information about The Cybersmile Foundation, please visit https://www.cybersmile.org.