The Reputation Mismanagement Industry
The importance of professional ethics.
Washington Post reporter Shawn Boburg wrote a fascinating investigative report about the dark side of the reputation management industry. It peeks beneath the curtain on the operations of Spain-based company Eliminalia, which whitewashed the online reputation of some unsavory characters.
Its U.S. clients included a popular reality-TV personality publicly accused of sexual misconduct and a California biotech entrepreneur who had been convicted of financial fraud and is now fighting charges he hired a hit man to kill a business associate. The leader of a major religious charity in Chicago that faced criticism over its executives’ salaries also turned to Eliminalia, the records show.
Eliminalia did work for an Italian spyware company that had been fined for selling surveillance technology to Syria’s autocratic regime, and for a Swiss bank that had drawn public scrutiny over Venezuelan clients who were suspected of money laundering. It also worked on behalf of a well-known traveling circus clown who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Switzerland.
The article shines a spotlight on some of the tactics used by this firm.
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Eliminalia created hundreds of websites worldwide designed to look like news outlets but through which it published glowing stories about its clients designed to rank highly in search results for those clients’ names.
It sent fraudulent copyright infringement claims to search engines and web hosting companies to get content about its clients removed.
It exploited security flaws in .edu and .gov websites to obtain links pointing to the company’s fake news sites in order to hijack the trust Google places in educational and governmental institutions.
The objective of these efforts is to bury bad news about its clients with positive, fake news, and thereby “clean up” its clients’ online reputation.
Black Hat Tactics
Let’s make one thing clear: The activities of companies like Eliminalia are decidedly not reputation management.
Reputation management is what good companies (and good people) do as a matter of course: Behave ethically and provide value for services at a reasonable price.
Eliminalia was practicing what those of us who do search engine optimization call “black hat” tactics, after the villains in westerns who invariably wore black hats. Black hat tactics are deceptive practices.
Digital Reputation Clean Up
I’ve done my share of reputation clean up work.
I helped another client recover after being unfairly attacked by a Twitter mob.
And I’ve helped several clients deal with the consequences of poor decisions that lead to legal trouble.
In every case, I was helping decent people caught in tough situations, some through no fault of their own and others through their own mistakes. But they weren’t monsters and I believe most people don’t deserve to be defined by a mistake.
It can be ennobling work.
There are plenty of people who do this type of work ethically. If you find yourself in need—perish the thought!—make them explain precisely what they will do and why. If they can’t give you a solid rationale or if they claim they have some “secret sauce,” run away from them.
The article got me thinking about professional ethics.
In each of the cases I worked on above, I had to make an assessment of my prospective client and their situation in order to determine whether I would feel morally comfortable doing the work.
In my cases, I didn’t make a lot of money from the work but as the Post article illustrates, it can be an extremely lucrative line of business.
If you’re willing to lower your standards. The promise of great wealth can do that to a person.
I can think of two instances during my career when I was faced with a decision on whether I would compromise my principles.
The first was early in my career when I had the opportunity to do well-funded, really innovative and exciting work but it would’ve required me to contribute to a cause to which I am opposed.
I seriously entertained it because it would’ve been so cool professionally. I ultimately decided not to persue the opportunity because my principles won out.
It was the right decision but I totally understand the seduction the possibility of doing innovative, exciting work posed.
A perfect example of this professional seductive allure is Christopher Wylie, the data scientist and subsequent whistleblower on Cambridge Analytica. He detailed his experience in his book, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America. I highly recommend it.
The second example came later in my career when the agency I was with was in position to win a large contract that would’ve been a financial game-changer for the firm. But the work would’ve had the effect of helping Donald Trump win a crucial swing state.
I didn’t raise any objections but just hoped that the opportunity would fall through, and it did. But I was prepared to resign had we won the work and I was asked to be part of the client team, which I surely would have.
I would’ve been fine. I could’ve found another job or gone back to freelancing.
But many people don’t have that luxury. Which is why it is important that we individuals uphold our personal and professional ethics; it creates a culture of accountability which can instill confidence in those who have more to lose.
Corruption Begets Corruption
The thing about corruption is it doesn’t happen with a flip of a switch; it happens gradually, bit by bit, until you’re in so deep that you have nowhere to go but deeper. Once you’re asked to make that initial ethical breach, then the subsequent ethical lines are progressively easier to cross.
Our organizations and institutions, our nonprofits and companies and governments, are only as ethical as the people who run them so it is up to us to keep them from becoming corrupt.
But it’s not easy. Corruption typically starts with leadership; the fish rots from the head, as the saying goes. A lot can be lost from calling out corruption.
Exhibit A is Cassidy Hutchinson, the young woman who testified about Trump’s behavior on January 6, 2021. Wise and brave beyond her years, she abandoned what would’ve likely been a long career in Republican politics and risked her physical safety, to take an ethical stand against corruption.
Look around at any dysfunctional society and the one common denominator they all have is that they are steeped in corruption.
Unchecked corruption does not remain contained within an organization, it spreads like a virus and has real and devastating effects on a society.
You can look no further than Russia to see those effects. Putin’s corruption as a leader resulted:
In the invasion of Ukraine, which has lead to the death of thousands of Russian soldiers,
Has caused many of that country’s brightest young minds to flee,
Has inflicted crushing economic sanctions on Russian citizens at large,
Has turned the country into an international pariah, and,
Because corruption is common throughout Russia’s government, has resulted in a military with hardware that doesn’t work and soldiers that are barely fed.
Professions can create forms of ethical conversation that are impossible between a lonely individual and a distant government. If members of a profession think of themselves as groups with common interests, with norms and rules that oblige them at all times, then they can gain confidence and indeed a certain kind of power. Professional ethics must guide us precisely when we are told that the situation is exceptional. Then there is no such thing as “just following orders.” If members of the profession confuse their specific ethics with the emotions of the moment, however, they can find themselves saying and doing things that they might have previously thought unimaginable.
What I’m Reading
Foreign Affairs - The root causes of Moscow’s disastrous showing are numerous, but several bear the hallmarks of authoritarianism. Graft has rotted the Russian military from within, yielding reports of soldiers selling fuel and weapons on the black market. Russian commanders have taken massive risks with the lives of their soldiers: conscripts arrive at the front having been lied to and manipulated rather than properly trained. To avoid upsetting their superiors, military leaders have supplied overly rosy assessments of their ability to conquer Ukraine, leading one pro-Russian militia commander to call self-deception “the herpes of the Russian army.” My point exactly. This article is a long read but well worth the time in order to understand the degree to which anti-democratic forces are undermining global stability.
Slate - Can the government arrest and jail citizens for criticizing public officials? The answer might seem obvious in light of the First Amendment. In the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, however, it is not. Instead, the court has blessed the detention of one Texas resident for daring to criticize state officials, and may be on the brink of doing so again. This approval of censorship by force should come as no shock from the far-right 5th Circuit. What’s unusual is who has decided to take the strongest stance against it: James Ho, an ultra-conservative Donald Trump nominee. In two recent major cases, Ho has vociferously condemned Texas’ brutal retaliation against critics of the government, condemning the practice as “totalitarian.” It is an ominous sign of the 5th Circuit’s increasingly authoritarian jurisprudence that Ho must beg his colleagues to safeguard the most foundational guarantees of free speech. - But it can’t happen here, right? Right?
Wired - Fearing the company’s new management, researchers frantically completed studies on misinformation and algorithmic bias, then published them online. We’ve seen this movie before. Remember the scramble to save government data before Trump assumed office? Kinda the same thing here.
Google Threat Analysis Group - Russian government-backed attackers have engaged in an aggressive, multi-pronged effort to gain a decisive wartime advantage in cyberspace, often with mixed results. This includes a significant shift in various groups’ focus towards Ukraine, a dramatic increase in the use of destructive attacks on Ukrainian government, military and civilian infrastructure, a spike in spear-phishing activity targeting NATO countries, and an uptick in cyber operations designed to further multiple Russian objectives. For example, we’ve observed threat actors hack-and-leak sensitive information to further a specific narrative. I have been making the argument that the United States has been under attack since at least 2015. We have just failed to acknowledge that cyber attacks from foreign adversaries are an act of war. Those attacks include attempts to destabilize democractic societies.
CNN - A letter has finally been delivered to its destination – more than a century after it was written. Sent in February 1916, the correspondence arrived at its intended address in Hamlet Road, south London, much to the bewilderment of the current occupants. Can you imagine?!?
Vox - this free model of social media — subsidized by advertising — is under pressure. Social media companies can’t make as much money off their free users as they used to. A weaker advertising market, privacy restrictions imposed by Apple that make it harder to track users and their preferences, and the perpetual threat of regulation have made it harder for social media apps to sell ads. Which is why we’re seeing the beginnings of what might be a new era of social media: pay-to-play. First, what a very sympathetic view of social media platforms! Poor thangs can’t make any money. Now they want us to pony up a monthly subscription fee? Right. How many monthly subscription fees to do you already pay for? Cable TV, your local newspaper (a profoundly wise investment, by the way), Netflix?, Apple TV?, Hulu?, Disney+?, Paramount+?, MGM+ fer God sakes?, magazines (again, journalism is worth it)? At least my Substack you can have your employer subsidize. There is most definitely a limit to our subscription budgets. If Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Freaking Musk come calling begging for their monthly pittance, are you really gonna pay up for the pleasure of a meaningless blue checkmark next to your name? I don’t see it. This is late stage enshittification, if I’ve ever seen it.
Reuters - Microsoft has started discussing with ad agencies how it plans to make money from its revamped Bing search engine powered by generative artificial intelligence as the tech company seeks to battle Google's dominance. In a meeting with a major ad agency this week, Microsoft showed off a demo of the new Bing and said it plans to allow paid links within responses to search results, said an ad executive, who spoke about the private meeting on the condition of anonymity. I mean, okay, that’s fine; as a digital marketer, I’m not going to complain about another tool to reach targeted audience on behalf of my clients. But if the Googles and Bings of the world are going to hoover up all the content online and then regurgitate a summary of it to search users, they sure as shit had better include prominent citations of and links to the content they are summarizing. I refer you to the “enshittification” comment above.
- - This article is for people how want to level-up knowledge about state-of-the-art products and research in the field of Generative AI (genAI). Whether you’re just starting to learn about this transformative field—or you’re ready to learn the science and math behind it—this is for you. - A very nice, fairly comprehensive list of articles to get you up to speed.
- - The APIs, of course, were always the point. ChatGPT and Bing’s chatbot were never the end product. They were demos meant to sell other companies on tools they could use to build their own. And it worked. Now, the war to build the leading generative AI platform is underway. Alex Kantrowitz nails it. This is exactly the play. Generative AI will be embedded into everything.
What I’m Watching
In my Elon Musk's Own Personal Reputation Algorithm post, I included a couple of links to stories about the Bing chatbot going off the rails. This episode of This Week In Google features a great discussion between, Stacey Higginbotham, and Leo Leporte about ChatGPT. It’s a more informed take on why Bing went all creepy.
What I’m listening To
This Old Marketing - AI content is changing the business model for creators and the fight for search. Does this open a real opportunity for those who have audiences? Is AI content just a race to the bottom? Maybe. We’ll see. This only goes to prove what I have been preaching all along: Own your audience. AND: A deep dive into ChatGPT and marketing AI in this discussion with Paul Roetzer, the world's foremost expert on marketing and AI content. Really fascinating conversation and another interesting take on what the future may hold with regard to AI. The best part for me was the same thought I’ve been having: That AI may make obviously human delievered/created media more valuable—things like video and podcasts, these types of newsletters, in-person events—because humans just feel inherently more trustworthy.
Songs from the 60s and 70s era when the moon landing fascinated society with the concept of space travel.
What songs am I missing?