How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life

Lauren’s notes: There have been a lot of write ups about this story. This NYtimes article is probably my favorite so far. It really gets to the human aspect behind this story and leaves you with the very uncomfortable notion of how this could happen to anyone, even you.

CreditPhoto illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Sonia Rentsch.
 

As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate comm

As she made the long journey from New York to South Africa, to visit family during the holidays in 2013, Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the senior director of corporate communications at IAC, began tweeting acerbic little jokes about the indignities of travel. There was one about a fellow passenger on the flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport:

“ ‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’ — Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”

Then, during her layover at Heathrow:

“Chilly — cucumber sandwiches — bad teeth. Back in London!”

And on Dec. 20, before the final leg of her trip to Cape Town:

“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Photo

CreditPhoto illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Sonia Rentsch.

Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.

Then another text: “You need to call me immediately.” It was from her best friend, Hannah. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said.

Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”

The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”

A Twitter user did indeed go to the airport to tweet her arrival. He took her photograph and posted it online. “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”

By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke. Hannah, meanwhile, frantically deleted her friend’s tweet and her account — Sacco didn’t want to look — but it was far too late. “Sorry @JustineSacco,” wrote one Twitter user, “your tweet lives on forever.”

In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it. The journalist A. A. Gill once wrote a column about shooting a baboon on safari in Tanzania: “I’m told they can be tricky to shoot. They run up trees, hang on for grim life. They die hard, baboons. But not this one. A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out.” Gill did the deed because he “wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger.”

I was among the first people to alert social media. (This was because Gill always gave my television documentaries bad reviews, so I tended to keep a vigilant eye on things he could be got for.) Within minutes, it was everywhere. Amid the hundreds of congratulatory messages I received, one stuck out: “Were you a bully at school?”

Still, in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.

Eventually I started to wonder about the recipients of our shamings, the real humans who were the virtual targets of these campaigns. So for the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized.

One person I met was Lindsey Stone, a 32-year-old Massachusetts woman who posed for a photograph while mocking a sign at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns. Stone had stood next to the sign, which asks for “Silence and Respect,” pretending to scream and flip the bird. She and her co-worker Jamie, who posted the picture on Facebook, had a running joke about disobeying signs — smoking in front of No Smoking signs, for example — and documenting it. But shorn of this context, her picture appeared to be a joke not about a sign but about the war dead. Worse, Jamie didn’t realize that her mobile uploads were visible to the public.

Four weeks later, Stone and Jamie were out celebrating Jamie’s birthday when their phones started vibrating repeatedly. Someone had found the photo and brought it to the attention of hordes of online strangers. Soon there was a wildly popular “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page. The next morning, there were news cameras outside her home; when she showed up to her job, at a program for developmentally disabled adults, she was told to hand over her keys. (“After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client,” read one of the thousands of Facebook messages denouncing her. “Woman needs help.”) She barely left home for the year that followed, racked by PTSD, depression and insomnia. “I didn’t want to be seen by anyone,” she told me last March at her home in Plymouth, Mass. “I didn’t want people looking at me.”

Instead, Stone spent her days online, watching others just like her get turned upon. In particular she felt for “that girl at Halloween who dressed as a Boston Marathon victim. I felt so terrible for her.” She meant Alicia Ann Lynch, 22, who posted a photo of herself in her Halloween costume on Twitter. Lynch wore a running outfit and had smeared her face, arms and legs with fake blood. After an actual victim of the Boston Marathon bombing tweeted at her, “You should be ashamed, my mother lost both her legs and I almost died,” people unearthed Lynch’s personal information and sent her and her friends threatening messages. Lynch was reportedly let go from her job as well.

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CreditPhoto illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Sonia Rentsch.

I met a man who, in early 2013, had been sitting at a conference for tech developers in Santa Clara, Calif., when a stupid joke popped into his head. It was about the attachments for computers and mobile devices that are commonly called dongles. He murmured the joke to his friend sitting next to him, he told me. “It was so bad, I don’t remember the exact words,” he said. “Something about a fictitious piece of hardware that has a really big dongle, a ridiculous dongle. . . . It wasn’t even conversation-level volume.”

Moments later, he half-noticed when a woman one row in front of them stood up, turned around and took a photograph. He thought she was taking a crowd shot, so he looked straight ahead, trying to avoid ruining her picture. It’s a little painful to look at the photograph now, knowing what was coming.

The woman had, in fact, overheard the joke. She considered it to be emblematic of the gender imbalance that plagues the tech industry and the toxic, male-dominated corporate culture that arises from it. She tweeted the picture to her 9,209 followers with the caption: “Not cool. Jokes about . . . ‘big’ dongles right behind me.” Ten minutes later, he and his friend were taken into a quiet room at the conference and asked to explain themselves. Two days later, his boss called him into his office, and he was fired.

“I packed up all my stuff in a box,” he told me. (Like Stone and Sacco, he had never before talked on the record about what happened to him. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid further damaging his career.) “I went outside to call my wife. I’m not one to shed tears, but” — he paused — “when I got in the car with my wife I just. . . . I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”

The woman who took the photograph, Adria Richards, soon felt the wrath of the crowd herself. The man responsible for the dongle joke had posted about losing his job on Hacker News, an online forum popular with developers. This led to a backlash from the other end of the political spectrum. So-called men’s rights activists and anonymous trolls bombarded Richards with death threats on Twitter and Facebook. Someone tweeted Richards’s home address along with a photograph of a beheaded woman with duct tape over her mouth. Fearing for her life, she left her home, sleeping on friends’ couches for the remainder of the year.

Next, her employer’s website went down. Someone had launched a DDoS attack, which overwhelms a site’s servers with repeated requests. SendGrid, her employer, was told the attacks would stop if Richards was fired. That same day she was publicly let go.

“I cried a lot during this time, journaled and escaped by watching movies,” she later said to me in an email. “SendGrid threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.”

Late one afternoon last year, I met Justine Sacco in New York, at a restaurant in Chelsea called Cookshop. Dressed in rather chic business attire, Sacco ordered a glass of white wine. Just three weeks had passed since her trip to Africa, and she was still a person of interest to the media. Websites had already ransacked her Twitter feed for more horrors. (For example, “I had a sex dream about an autistic kid last night,” from 2012, was unearthed by BuzzFeed in the article “16 Tweets Justine Sacco Regrets.”) A New York Post photographer had been following her to the gym.

“Only an insane person would think that white people don’t get AIDS,” she told me. It was about the first thing she said to me when we sat down.

Sacco had been three hours or so into her flight when retweets of her joke began to overwhelm my Twitter feed. I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege — on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors. Sacco, like Stone, had been yanked violently out of the context of her small social circle. Right?

“To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she said. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.” (She would later write me an email to elaborate on this point. “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform,” she wrote. “To put it simply, I wasn’t trying to raise awareness of AIDS or piss off the world or ruin my life. Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.”)

I would be the only person she spoke to on the record about what happened to her, she said. It was just too harrowing — and “as a publicist,” inadvisable — but she felt it was necessary, to show how “crazy” her situation was, how her punishment simply didn’t fit the crime.

“I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she told me. “It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.” She released an apology statement and cut short her vacation. Workers were threatening to strike at the hotels she had booked if she showed up. She was told no one could guarantee her safety.

Photo

CreditPhoto illustration by Andrew B. Myers. Prop stylist: Sonia Rentsch.

 

Her extended family in South Africa were African National Congress supporters — the party of Nelson Mandela. They were longtime activists for racial equality. When Justine arrived at the family home from the airport, one of the first things her aunt said to her was: “This is not what our family stands for. And now, by association, you’ve almost tarnished the family.”

As she told me this, Sacco started to cry. I sat looking at her for a moment. Then I tried to improve the mood. I told her that “sometimes, things need to reach a brutal nadir before people see sense.”

“Wow,” she said. She dried her eyes. “Of all the things I could have been in society’s collective consciousness, it never struck me that I’d end up a brutal nadir.”

She glanced at her watch. It was nearly 6 p.m. The reason she wanted to meet me at this restaurant, and that she was wearing her work clothes, was that it was only a few blocks away from her office. At 6, she was due in there to clean out her desk.

“All of a sudden you don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” she said. “If I don’t start making steps to reclaim my identity and remind myself of who I am on a daily basis, then I might lose myself.”

The restaurant’s manager approached our table. She sat down next to Sacco, fixed her with a look and said something in such a low volume I couldn’t hear it, only Sacco’s reply: “Oh, you think I’m going to be grateful for this?”

We agreed to meet again, but not for several months. She was determined to prove that she could turn her life around. “I can’t just sit at home and watch movies every day and cry and feel sorry for myself,” she said. “I’m going to come back.”

After she left, Sacco later told me, she got only as far as the lobby of her office building before she broke down crying.

A few days after meeting Sacco, I took a trip up to the Massachusetts Archives in Boston. I wanted to learn about the last era of American history when public shaming was a common form of punishment, so I was seeking out court transcripts from the 18th and early 19th centuries. I had assumed that the demise of public punishments was caused by the migration from villages to cities. Shame became ineffectual, I thought, because a person in the stocks could just lose himself or herself in the anonymous crowd as soon as the chastisement was over. Modernity had diminished shame’s power to shame — or so I assumed.

I took my seat at a microfilm reader and began to scroll slowly through the archives. For the first hundred years, as far as I could tell, all that happened in America was that various people named Nathaniel had purchased land near rivers. I scrolled faster, finally reaching an account of an early Colonial-era shaming.

On July 15, 1742, a woman named Abigail Gilpin, her husband at sea, had been found “naked in bed with one John Russell.” They were both to be “whipped at the public whipping post 20 stripes each.” Abigail was appealing the ruling, but it wasn’t the whipping itself she wished to avoid. She was begging the judge to let her be whipped early, before the town awoke. “If your honor pleases,” she wrote, “take some pity on me for my dear children who cannot help their unfortunate mother’s failings.”

There was no record as to whether the judge consented to her plea, but I found a number of clips that offered clues as to why she might have requested private punishment. In a sermon, the Rev. Nathan Strong, of Hartford, Conn., entreated his flock to be less exuberant at executions. “Go not to that place of horror with elevated spirits and gay hearts, for death is there! Justice and judgment are there!” Some papers published scathing reviews when public punishments were deemed too lenient by the crowd: “Suppressed remarks . . . were expressed by large numbers,” reported Delaware’s Wilmington Daily Commercial of a disappointing 1873 whipping. “Many were heard to say that the punishment was a farce. . . . Drunken fights and rows followed in rapid succession.”

The movement against public shaming had gained momentum in 1787, when Benjamin Rush, a physician in Philadelphia and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a paper calling for its demise — the stocks, the pillory, the whipping post, the lot. “Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death,” he wrote. “It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error.”

The pillory and whippings were abolished at the federal level in 1839, although Delaware kept the pillory until 1905 and whippings until 1972. An 1867 editorial in The Times excoriated the state for its obstinacy. “If [the convicted person] had previously existing in his bosom a spark of self-respect this exposure to public shame utterly extinguishes it. . . . The boy of 18 who is whipped at New Castle for larceny is in nine cases out of 10 ruined. With his self-respect destroyed and the taunt and sneer of public disgrace branded upon his forehead, he feels himself lost and abandoned by his fellows.”

At the archives, I found no evidence that punitive shaming fell out of fashion as a result of newfound anonymity. But I did find plenty of people from centuries past bemoaning the outsize cruelty of the practice, warning that well-meaning people, in a crowd, often take punishment too far.

It’s possible that Sacco’s fate would have been different had an anonymous tip not led a writer named Sam Biddle to the offending tweet. Biddle was then the editor of Valleywag, Gawker Media’s tech-industry blog. He retweeted it to his 15,000 followers and eventually posted it on Valleywag, accompanied by the headline, “And Now, a Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s P.R. Boss.”

In January 2014, I received an email from Biddle, explaining his reasoning. “The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious,” he wrote. “It’s satisfying to be able to say, ‘O.K., let’s make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.’ And it did. I’d do it again.” Biddle said he was surprised to see how quickly her life was upended, however. “I never wake up and hope I [get someone fired] that day — and certainly never hope to ruin anyone’s life.” Still, he ended his email by saying that he had a feeling she’d be “fine eventually, if not already.”

He added: “Everyone’s attention span is so short. They’ll be mad about something new today.”

Four months after we first met, Justine Sacco made good on her promise. We met for lunch at a French bistro downtown. I told her what Biddle had said — about how she was probably fine now. I was sure he wasn’t being deliberately glib, but like everyone who participates in mass online destruction, uninterested in learning that it comes with a cost.

“Well, I’m not fine yet,” Sacco said to me. “I had a great career, and I loved my job, and it was taken away from me, and there was a lot of glory in that. Everybody else was very happy about that.”

Sacco pushed her food around on her plate, and let me in on one of the hidden costs of her experience. “I’m single; so it’s not like I can date, because we Google everyone we might date,” she said. “That’s been taken away from me too.” She was down, but I did notice one positive change in her. When I first met her, she talked about the shame she had brought on her family. But she no longer felt that way. Instead, she said, she just felt personally humiliated.

Biddle was almost right about one thing: Sacco did get a job offer right away. But it was an odd one, from the owner of a Florida yachting company. “He said: ‘I saw what happened to you. I’m fully on your side,’ ” she told me. Sacco knew nothing about yachts, and she questioned his motives. (“Was he a crazy person who thinks white people can’t get AIDS?”) Eventually she turned him down.

After that, she left New York, going as far away as she could, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She flew there alone and got a volunteer job doing P.R. for an NGO working to reduce maternal-mortality rates. “It was fantastic,” she said. She was on her own, and she was working. If she was going to be made to suffer for a joke, she figured she should get something out of it. “I never would have lived in Addis Ababa for a month otherwise,” she told me. She was struck by how different life was there. Rural areas had only intermittent power and no running water or Internet. Even the capital, she said, had few street names or house addresses.

Addis Ababa was great for a month, but she knew going in that she would not be there long. She was a New York City person. Sacco is nervy and sassy and sort of debonair. And so she returned to work at Hot or Not, which had been a popular site for rating strangers’ looks on the pre-social Internet and was reinventing itself as a dating app.

But despite her near invisibility on social media, she was still ridiculed and demonized across the Internet. Biddle wrote a Valleywag post after she returned to the work force: “Sacco, who apparently spent the last month hiding in Ethiopia after infuriating our species with an idiotic AIDS joke, is now a ‘marketing and promotion’ director at Hot or Not.”

“How perfect!” he wrote. “Two lousy has-beens, gunning for a comeback together.”

Sacco felt this couldn’t go on, so six weeks after our lunch, she invited Biddle out for a dinner and drinks. Afterward, she sent me an email. “I think he has some real guilt about the issue,” she wrote. “Not that he’s retracted anything.” (Months later, Biddle would find himself at the wrong end of the Internet shame machine for tweeting a joke of his own: “Bring Back Bullying.” On the one-year anniversary of the Sacco episode, he published a public apology to her on Gawker.)

Recently, I wrote to Sacco to tell her I was putting her story in The Times, and I asked her to meet me one final time to update me on her life. Her response was speedy. “No way.” She explained that she had a new job in communications, though she wouldn’t say where. She said, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”

It was a profound reversal for Sacco. When I first met her, she was desperate to tell the tens of thousands of people who tore her apart how they had wronged her and to repair what remained of her public persona. But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.

By JON RONSON  printed in nytimes.com on Feb

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Jon Ronson is the author of many nonfiction books, including “The Psychopath Test,” “Lost at Sea,” “Them: Adventures With Extremists” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” This article is adapted from the book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” to be published in March from Riverhead

Former CFO Now Unemployed, on Food Stamps After Viral Video

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A former CFO is now on food stamps after a video he posted on YouTube two and half years ago criticizing Chick-Fil-A went viral and destroyed his career.

Adam Smith, 37, was the CFO of a medical device manufacturer in Arizona, until the summer 2012, when he — and thousands of other people — started protesting against Chick-Fil-A for the fast-food chain’s anti-gay stance.

One day, Smith decided to go through the drive-thru at his local Chick-Fil-A, where he ordered a free water — the fast food chain offers customers free water — and videotaped himself telling the drive-thru attendant how much he despised Chick-Fil-A.

“Chick-Fil-A is a hateful corporation,” Smith said, in part, to the drive-thru attendant. “I don’t know how you live with yourself and work here. I don’t understand it. This is a horrible corporation with horrible values. You deserve better.”

Smith then posted the video on his personal YouTube channel, but when he got back to work, he received a major shock.

“I got into work and the receptionist, the first thing, big eyes, ‘Adam, what did you do?’ … she said, ‘The voicemail is completely full, and it’s full of bomb threats,'” Smith said in an exclusive interview with ABC News’ “20/20.”

Smith was fired that same day. He said at the time he was earning $200,000 annually and had over $1 million in stock options.

“It was taken when I lost my employment,” he said.

After losing his job, Smith, his wife Amy and their four children also lost their home. They were forced to sell and give away their possessions and move into an RV. A few months later, Smith found a new CFO job in Portland, Oregon. It was the fresh start he needed.

“I felt like, ‘Yeah, I got it. I am back,'” Smith said.

About two weeks later, Smith was fired from that job after his new boss discovered he was the guy from the Chick-Fil-A video. Smith told “20/20” in subsequent job interviews, he was very honest about the video and while prospective employers seemed empathetic and understanding in the end the companies would rescind the offers saying they didn’t want the distraction.

Looking back at the video now, Smith said he was emotional.

“I don’t regret the stand I took, but I regret… the way I talked to her,” he told “20/20.”

He even apologized to the drive-thru attendant he was angry with in another video posted to his YouTube channel, which also went viral. She has forgiven him. But Smith says even people who agreed with his pro-gay opinions won’t hire him.

“I think people are scared,” Smith said. “I think people are scared that it could happen again.”

Kevin O’Leary, an entrepreneur and panelist on the hit ABC show “Shark Tank,” said he always looks up potentially employees online before hiring them.

“Every time I look at hiring somebody, I go and gather their digital footprint from every source I can get,” O’Leary said. “We look at who they are online, and we actually hire them in our minds before we actually ever meet them. And so the interview process is to just prove what we have already assessed online.”

O’Leary warns that all the emails, texts, tweets, selfies and status updates we send out into the world can be career threatening.

Smith, with his spotty digital footprint, is still looking for a job nearly three years later, and has turned to meditation. He has also just written a new memoir, “A Million Dollar Cup of Water,” detailing how his public shaming led him from riches to rags and the intensive soul search for healing.

Smith said he doesn’t know if his viral video will ever go away. “It feels like it just happened,” he said.

By JOSEPH DIAZ and LAUREN EFFRON via 20/20
ABC News’ Nick Watt contributed to this report.

How to Remove a Word from Google AutoComplete

google autocompleteWhen a client asks for help with removing a negative search result, typically it’s just a typical ORM case of pushing up the good results over the one unsavory one. However, what is becoming more common is the discovery that even when unsavory results are long gone, Google, being ever so helpful, would like to remind people that they still might possibly want to see that unsavory result. I’m referring to Google Autocomplete.

You know when you’re typing in a search term and suddenly Google gives you a dropdown list of search terms to choose from? And, admit it, sometimes the suggested term was so bizarre or scandalous you just had to see what would pop up when you clicked it? Yeah, well it’s all fun and games until it happens to your name.

change google autocomplete

 

If you do a search out there on how to get this phenomena to stop happening, you will find a lot of talk but not much action. In other words, there is a lot of posturing on how Google arrives at these results and some theories about how to remove results from the autocomplete, but very little in the way of documented cases.  Since this blog is about helping the average Internet user do ORM for their name, I’ll skip the complex theories and ideas behind Google Autocomplete and try to get the heart of the matter: Removing Results from Autocomplete.

Basically, the idea of manipulating autocomplete will be the same as manipulating the SERPs for regular ORM. In other words, you won’t actually be removing the result so much as pushing it out with other more desirable results.

How many terms do you need?

At one time, Google was supplying as many as 10 autocomplete results for any given word searched. They seem to have cooled their boots a bit, though, and I’ve been hard pressed to find any word that comes up with more than 6 results at a time.  This means you should have at least 6 positive or neutral terms ready that you are wanting to be supplied at the end of your name or brand whenever anyone searches for you.

Match your prospective terms with corresponding content.

Google has to have a reason to supply these terms next to your name. So before you set off on your Autocomplete manipulation campaign, first you must supply some content about yourself to support these terms. If you are still in the infant stages of your ORM campaign consider starting with one the best guides I’ve ever come across for simple ideas on how to get content for your name out there.

Using Crowdsoucring to Manipulate Google Autocomplete.

As I said, there are many different factors on how the Autocomplete result populate.  A sizable contributing factor is the amount of independent searches for a term logged into a search query:

A Google spokesman…said that the Google Suggest function simply reflected the most common terms used in the past with words entered, so it was not Google itself that was making the suggestions.

Therefore, to play the game, you have to figure out ways to get crowds of people to search for the terms you want.  There are definitely some creative ideas out there when it comes to handling this, but for my case study, I chose to do it the American way: I paid for it… and I did it for 7 cents a click.

How to Manipulate Google Autocomplete with Mechanical Turk.

If you’re not yet familiar with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, it is the leading marketplace for crowdsourcing tasks that are too intelligent to demand from computers but are too massive or, in my opinion, too menial to demand all from one person.  So, if you want something done en masse, why not get thousands of people from all over the world to do your task in 30 seconds?

I had a lot of fun setting up my experiment with Mturk. I spent all day tweaking my task copy to get more and more participants. (You have to find a balance between being the highest bidder and finding the most alluring headline to draw them into your task). Here are some tips to help you along if you’re just staring out with Mturk.

Google Autocomplete Manipulation Case Study Setup:

Using my own name for the case study seemed like the wisest route, but I still had to come up with a term. I would suggest if you are doing this for your own name, you come up with terms surrounding your niche or Internet persona. I could have very well done that here, but I really wanted to come out of left field to make sure there wasn’t already a Google bias going on. In other words, Google already has data for me in certain niches, like location, or reputation management, so I wanted to start fresh with this experiment. Remembering that Google needs to have some content to correlate to the term, I decided to start with a term from my previous post: Charity.

On 2/12 (roughly 3 weeks ago) when my name was searched, these were the autocomplete results that were shown:

lauren starling autocomplete

As you can see, these are the only results that pop up. Nothing related to charity. Infact none of these results have anything to do with me …time to change that!

Next, I headed over to Mturk to set up my project. Now remember, the key is we want people to search for a specific term.  Mturk has some guidelines on what they will and won’t allow so be sure to make your project a little more in depth than just “searh xyz plz”.  Plus, you want to be sure the workers are actually doing what they’re supposed to and not just saying they are. Also, you want them to click through on the content you previously provided to make sure Google starts to associate the your new term with your content.

The instructions for the workers form looked like this:

 

removing autocomplete

 

After submitting the project a few different times with varying pay outs, I settled on one that cost me $ 0.07  per worker/task. I was getting an about 25-35 task completed per day. I set the campaign to stop at 15 dollars (150 tasks).

Results:

I checked the SERPs every day for a while to see if there was any change. After about 2 weeks I got distracted ( and stopped checking) only to remember yesterday and discover:

removing autocomplete results

So somewhere in the second to third week of this campaign, Google updated their autocomplete to reflect the sudden influx of searches for this term.

Take Away:

  • ‘Lauren Starling’ is not a very heavily searched keyword. However, I’m assuming, neither is your name. Therefore, you should be able to accomplish the same type of results using roughly the same methods. If not, step it up a bit with more searches for a longer period of time.
  • Remember, in ORM in order to “remove” a result you have to overcome and push out the negative results with positive ones. Obviously, I only did one term, you will need to try this with at least 4- 6 (maybe throw in a few more for good measure) to knock off whatever it is you’re trying to eradicate.  I have no idea what these extra variables will do to the equation, if anything.  Sidenote: Interestingly enough, I did knock out a term (compare before and after pics) and seemed to have replaced it with the new one. So perhaps for lower search volume terms the max Autocomplete is 4.
  • I have no idea how long this search term will last in Autocomplete, now that no one is searching for it (although this article could serve as a self fulfilling prophesy and could sustain results indefinitely). You may want to think about extending the mturk campaign for as long as possible, perhaps with max tasks per day.

 

Charity Case

 Using Online Reputation Management for Good.

When you’re considering a way to get your name or brand out there in a positive light, one of my favorite methods is donating to charity. Not only will this associate the warm and fuzzies with your brand but it can be easily incorporated into your online reputation management regimen. Here are some ideas to get your philanthropic juices flowing:WebGiving B&W

1.Go big. Consider dedicating an entire website to your charitable efforts. Many of the larger companies are doing just this.  Domains are cheap, though, so if you have a tech department on call or the ability to do it yourself, I would definitely consider grabbing up a firstnamelastnamegives.com domain and building out a site solely for your causes. Remember, anything positive to fill the SERPs is plus. If you have a large budget consider going all out: Continuously update the site with your multiple causes and get others involved. Use pages on the site dedicated to employees or friends and their causes. Really, the ideas for content for this site would be limitless.

2. Use Social Media. People on Facebook and Twitter are quick to click when it comes to something tugging at the heartstrings. Create a post on Facebook (or even better, a Facebook event or page) stating that for every share or like this post receives, you will donate a dollar. Make sure to set a cap and, in the interest full disclosure, publicly state that the donation will only be up to a certain amount. The beauty of this is: People will continue to share and tweet (increasing public awareness for your cause and your brand) long after you’ve reached your financial goal, because they either don’t realize there was a cap or don’t care. Just be sure to read up about the laws in your area regarding contests and fundraising.

3. Give some dough, get a link. Find non-profits that will give you online recognition for your donations. This is actually one of my favorite techniques. Sometimes you can donate to a cause and the non-profit will list you on their site, many times for very little cost to you.  Your local NPR station is a great example of a way to get a high authority site to link to you. It doesn’t even necessary need to be a non profit organization doing the linking. There are smart folks with causes all over the place that know the benefit of a link. For example, for as little as 10 dollars mike is offering you a link to support a cause that’s dear to him.

Hat Trick: Add all of these tips together for a grand slam (mixing sport metaphors alert) charitable ORM campaign. Establish up your site dedicated to your cause(s).  Set up your facebook page or twitter account, with events, pictures and info about your cause, linking back to your donation site. Start researching other non profits that will link to your site. Get a few press releases going for good measure. And soon you will have a well oiled philanthropic machine. And at the end of the day, you’ll feel better know that it really is for a good cause.

Disclosure Time:  I had been contemplating writing an article about ORM and charitable givings for a while. Recently, my friend Jack hit me up for a link to the non-profit site he does SEO for: The Daya Project. This was the kick in the pants I needed in order to get the ball rolling.  While discussing this article, I mentioned to Jack that if he wants to increase donorship he should consider a membership or “friends” page much like what was mentioned in #3.  He seemed to think it was a good idea. So I propose a symbiotic project between my readers and Jack. If you’re here reading this, chances are you or someone you know needs a little SERP love for your name or brand. If Jack jumps on this idea to link to their donors, consider starting there.

How to Remove a Site from Google

It can be very shocking to Google your name or your company’s name and have results pop up that are negative, misleading or flat out wrong. We’ve all heard the cautionary adage, “Once it’s on the internet, it’s on the Internet forever”.  But is it true?

It doesn’t have to be. Here is is a rundown of the best ways to remove a site from Google and take back control of your online reputation.

First and foremost, you should try and contact the webmaster. Sometimes these things can be worked out right away, before you spend too much time and/or money on the problem.

Mama always said: You catch more flies with honey.

Contact the owner through their whois info or a contact form on their site.  Be polite. “Hi, my name is Lauren. You may not be aware of this, but that picture you have on your website is a picture of me and I would appreciate it if you take it down, please.”   It may be as simple as that. Most webmasters like to stay under the radar. When they’re called out in a non threatening matter like this, sometimes they’ll hussle just to make it all go away so they can go back to dominating the internet.

Daddy always said: That’s what the flyswatter is for.

Sweet-as-pie not working? Perhaps nice isn’t your style and you want to show them you mean business from the start. Contact the owner and inform them what they are saying is defamation and that your next step will be to send them a C&D, file a DMCA complaint with their host to have their site shut down immediately or just skip all that and get Google to deindex their site forever.   (We’ll be getting to how to do all this in a moment.) Just be warned about the “Guns Blazing” method: Webmasters are notorious for their keyboard warrior mentality. Any big internet legal terms you throw at them, may result in a “Come at me bro” response, so be prepared to follow through with your threats.

Neither of these options worked? Maybe you couldn’t even find contact information for the elusive webmaster.

What now?

Remove Personal Information from Google

If you are staring at the search engine results wondering, “How do I remove my name from Google?” At first glance you may think you won’t get much help from Google themselves. In fact, Google has always been adamant about maintaining a position of neutrality:

Google doesn’t own the Internet, and we don’t control the content of unrelated sites that appear in our search results. Our search results simply reflect what’s already out there on the web.

However, Google will make a few exceptions (assuming attempts with site owner has failed) with regards to your attempts to remove personal information from Google:

How to Remove a Website from the Internet

You may have decided that in order to delete a site on Google your best course of action is Legal action. You should know going into it you may be fighting a battle, at least in the States. The US constitution allows for alot of leeway with regards to freedom of speech. So far, cases tend to be either dismissed outright or ruled in favor of the defendant for this very reason.  That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless, especially with  regards to specific complaints that the constitution does not protect.

Shutting down the Domain.  While difficult, getting a domain shut down is not impossible.  Typically, domains are shut down for one or more reasons surrounding:

There are ways to go about addressing these issues yourself, including filing a complaint with ICANN but it can be very convoluted and is recommended that you hire good intellectual property or domain name attorney.

Bringing down the site.  Removing a site from the internet via the site’s hosting tends to be a little less hassle than bringing down a domain.  Many times all it takes is a simple complaint to the Host:

  1. Go to whois.net to find out the name of the hosting company that hosts the site.
  2. Type into to Google the name of the host and “TOS” (Terms of Service)
  3. Review the TOS  and how it pertains to the offending website. Can you find a violation? Some of the TOS contracts are so all inclusive you’re bound to find some violation.
  4. Contact the host to inform them of the violation. The best way to do this is to go back to Google and type in the host name again followed by “DMCA” (The Digital Millennium Copyright ACT) The first result will usually lead you to finding the proper procedure for filing a complaint with that particular host.

The matter is usually addressed within 48-72 hours. Either they will contact the owner to remove the specific material or sometimes they will just shut it down completely, at least until the material in question is removed.

Remember, after you’ve accomplished a site removal through either the host or domain removal options mentioned above, in order to then remove a page from google search results, you will need to use the URL removal tool.

How to Remove a Website From Google

So lets say you want to skip all this headache and go straight to the source. You want to remove a site from Google. Assuming your issue doesn’t include personal information like a SS number or a credit card number then it can’t be done, yes? We already went over the fact that Google tries to stay more neutral than Switzerland, so it’s a dead end right? Not necessarily.

All of these trademark violations and copyright violations and every other violations aren’t just concerns for a hosting company; Google takes these matters very seriously as well.  In fact, Searchengineland.com did a fantastic article about how to remove a result from Google completely. And not just any result, RipOff Reports results! Rip off reports are known to be a bear to deal with in the ORM industry and while they can certainly be pushed down by reputation management experts, they’re nearly impossible to get removed from the source (ripoffreport.com). Until now.  According to the article:

  1. File a defamation lawsuit against the original author of the report (not ripoffreport.com and not Google. Otherwise, you’re probably just burning money)
  2. Obtain the court issued document declaring the material to be false and/or defamatory.
  3. Submit the declaration to Google.

Note that the Google form doesn’t even ask for court issued documentation.  Honestly, if I wanted to remove a site from Google, before I went though the hassle of suing, I would see just where submitting a this complaint form to Google takes me.  Supposedly, Google removes more than a million search results a month, so it’s a process they are quite familiar with. At best, Google removes the site right away. At worst, Google asks you for more documentation which then you can follow the procedure outlined above.

TL;DR 

Here’s your Too Long; Didn’t Read sum up: If you want to remove a site from Google,

  1. Figure out your best plan of action. Can you report it to the host for TOS or DMCA violation?  Can you go after the domain for trademark violation? Is it the simple fact that the site is posting personal information about you?
  2. Once you’ve figured out the specific problem,  follow through with the appropriate tools and laws already at your disposal.
  3. If you’ve exhausted all of the above options, then be sure to find a good online reputation manager. Because really, in the end,  if it’s not on the 1st or 2nd page of Google, it might as well not be there at all.