Digital Assassination

Protecting Your Reputation, Brand, or Business Against Online Attacks

Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis

St. Martin's Griffin

Digital Assassination
1:// The Digital Mosh Pit
ON JUNE 5, 1968, for reasons known only to himself, Sirhan Sirhan fired a bullet into the head of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, killing him.
In May 2005, a Nashville man, for reasons known only to himself, used Wikipedia to fire a bullet directly into the reputation of John Seigenthaler, former Kennedy aide, civil rights hero, and newspaper publisher, character assassinating him to the core.
The Wikipedia entry reported that Seigenthaler:
was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's. For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven ... . John Seigenthaler moved to the Soviet Union in 1971, and returned to the United States in 1984.
Was the entry correct? Did it matter?
It did to Seigenthaler. "At age 78," he later wrote in USA Today, "I thought I was beyond surprise or hurt at any negative said about me. I was wrong. One sentence in the biography was true. I was Robert Kennedy's administrative assistant in the early 1960s. I also was his pallbearer."1
Did the entry really harm Seigenthaler?
At that time, one of the authors was asked to pen an introduction of Seigenthaler for a speaker at a charitable event. Though not fooled by the Wikipedia entry, the writer took pause, consuming valuable time and attention to sort out the story in advance of the event. There is no telling how many others linked to John Seigenthaler were similarly perplexed ... or actually believed it.
The entry sat on Wikipedia's page for 132 days, and was picked up uncritically by two widely used information automatons, Reference. com and Answers.com.
For those 132 days, Seigenthaler's character was assassinated--not the man himself, but his reputation, his avatar constructed of words spoken and written. When such an assassination happens, however, more than a shadow self is murdered.
Digital assassination can murder opportunity--carefully cultivated brands or businesses, jobs or job offers, celebrity, and personal relationships. Character assassination has led to heartbreak ... and even death by suicide.
The world witnessed a vivid example of character assassination in the digital arena on September 22, 2010, when Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. Two students had used a webcam to secretly stream on the Internet Clementi's sexual encounter with a man.
"There might be some people who can take that type of treatment and deal with it, and there might be others, as this young man obviously was, who was much more greatly affected by it," New Jersey governor Chris Christie observed in the aftermath of the tragedy.2
Clementi's digital assassination relied on a media that is instantaneous, vivid, works 24/7, has global reach, an eternal memory, and can organize crowds to attack individuals. But we are wrong if we imagine the character attacks the Internet enables are something entirely new.
More than half a century before, in the McCarthy era, a group of Republican senators went to a Democratic colleague, Lester C. Hunt of Wyoming, and suggested that the arrest of Hunt's son in a homosexual prostitution sting could be kept quiet if Hunt were to announce his retirement from the Senate. Days later, Hunt sneaked a rifle under his coat into his Senate office and blew out his brains.3
The malevolent can assassinate character, brand, reputation, celebrity, business, or life with emotional violence.
FOR DECADES, Steve Jobs was not just the cofounder of Apple. To millions, he was Apple, the most successful and visible CEO of our generation.
Years before Jobs took his most recent medical leave of absence in January 2011, equity market short sellers and other financial vultures tried to exploit Apple's stock by spreading rumors about his long struggle against pancreatic cancer, followed by a liver transplant.
Why has Jobs been so important? Apple is a company with a soul, dominating the market by meeting consumer cravings for a fusion of design and functionality--the essence of cool. Jobs and his team certainly know how to excite the 4G spot of millions of technophiles.
"Design," Jobs purportedly said, "is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
The soul of Apple, however, seemed to disappear in the mid-1980s when Steve Jobs was forced to step aside for a soda executive he had recruited. And the soul of Apple, their mojo, reappeared only when Jobs came back.
Will there be an Apple after Jobs? By the second decade of the century, Jobs had been at the helm so long, his DNA so instilled in the corporate culture, the company will almost certainly continue being the Apple we have come to know. For years, however, the best way to damage Apple was to try to digitally assassinate Jobs.
In 2008, a teenager on CNN's iReport, its "citizen journalism page," reported that Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack. The result? This teenager's digital attack caused one of the world's best-known brands to lose millions of dollars in stock value within minutes. The traffic of rumors was so thick that Jobs publicly accused hedge funds and short sellers of profiting off Internet rumors about his health.4
"Millions of people, from hard-core computer geeks to high-finance Wall Street martini drinkers, hang on every word related to Apple," observed Tom Krazit of CNET News. "Sometimes that can have consequences." 5
Like losing millions of dollars in a single day.
The greedy can assassinate your brand, reputation, or stock with the lure of pure fiction propelled by the Internet's instant international reach.
WHEN WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE had Julius Caesar opine about the dangers of men with a "lean and hungry look," the Bard could have been describing James Carville, the political operator and organizing genius behind the successful presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Carville, who fires deadly innuendos with a vulpine smile, is a good man to have in a foxhole--provided it's your foxhole and he's your man.
Needless to say, Carville has made his fair share of enemies in Washington, as has his wife, Mary Matalin, an equally acid-tongued Republican who once worked behind the scenes for both presidents named Bush.
Bipartisan couples are not rare in Washington. But pairing two operatives with so many years of back-alley political skulduggery against each other's bosses is exotic, a spectacle as alluring as if Lucrezia Borgia had matched up with Niccolò Machiavelli. Needless to say, the sparks fly between them--sparks of political anger and underlying attraction that makes for great theater. And so Carville and Matalin have become fixtures on television political talk shows.
One day it seemed as if the tension between them had spun out of control. The circuits of the nation's political gossip networks overloaded when it was reported that James Carville was arrested after firing a gun into a sofa, plunging a knife into a wall, and physically abusing Mary at the couple's Rockville, Maryland, home. The online story, under the byline of Lee Canular of the Montgomery County Ledger, was aired on a national radio syndicate and was e-mailed back and forth between every politically connected person in both parties.
A few facts began to surface. The Carvilles lived in Virginia at that time, not in Maryland. There is no Montgomery County Ledger, nor is there a reporter named Lee Canular--the last name is the same as the French word for hoax. Carville had not been arrested by the Rockville police or any other police for anything. And there is no reason to ask James Carville when he quit beating his wife.6
Unknown people use the Internet for unknown reasons to muddy brands and reputations without fear of a reckoning.
DID YOU KNOW that "Roddy Boyd Sucks It Like He's Paying the Rent"? Or that he left Fortune magazine to "slither into his own unique and arrest-warrant-laden world (that's him, just above the child porn guy.)"?7
Roddy Boyd is a journalist whose reporting often appears in Time Warner's Fortune magazine. The person posting this diatribe is not a forty-year-old man in pajamas living in his mother's basement. The man who wrote this message--and many other entries of similar ilk--is Patrick Byrne, former Marshall Scholar (Cambridge), Stanford PhD in philosophy, and CEO of Overstock.com, the Utah-based online retailer represented by the sexy ads with German actress Sabine Ehrenfeld ("It's all about the O"). Overstock is a major player in Internet retail that competes with eBay and Amazon.com.
The arrest reference is in a blog linked to the police log in what appears to be from a Greenwich Post article on January 22, 2009. This item refers to Boyd's arrest over a failure to appear in court after a previous arrest for running a light while under a suspended license and allegedly without auto insurance. The reference to child pornography has nothing to do with Boyd, except that the next case listed in the Connecticut police log concerns a man charged with downloading numerous images of child pornography. This apparently was the worst thing that could be found out about Boyd.
"I am one of only two reporters--the other is my former Fortune magazine colleague Bethany McLean--apparently evil enough in his [Byrne's] eyes to warrant a reference to oral sex and ejaculation in his assessment of our ethics and reporting skills," Boyd drolly blogged on a Slate site.8
Byrne has called reporters lapdogs and hedge fund quislings. This CEO accused another reporter of being "on the take, and get[ting] paid off somewhere in order to do hatchet-jobs-to-order."9
Why is Byrne burning up his keyboard? The CEO seems convinced that he and his company are the victims of character assassination by equity short sellers and hedge funds that encourage the spread of negative media stories about his and other corporations, paving the way for quick and dirty profits. And to back it up, Byrne initially funded DeepCap-ture. com, though it is not part of Overstock. It purports to reveal, says its mission statement, "that powerful actors have been able to influenceor take control of not just the regulators, but also law enforcement, elected officials, national media, and the intellectual establishment."10
Who is the assassin here and who is the victim?
Some observers believe Byrne has a point to make against some hedge funds and perhaps some journalists. Overstock did succeed in winning $5 million from one hedge fund, Copper River (formerly Rocker Partners), though the fund characterizes the settlement as a payoff to end years of meritless litigation.11
Opinions will differ about the merits of Byrne's underlying arguments. But it is hard to imagine Byrne's board of directors and shareholders of a NASDAQ-traded company are pleased with his aggressive and unorthodox approach to representing Overstock.
The new social media environment enhances the vulgarization of business culture by airing vituperation among elites.
FINE INDEPENDENT FILMS have been made for less money than some production company's budget for their Oscar campaigns. About $20 million was lavished in 2000 promoting Gladiator, which eventually won five Oscars, including one for Best Picture.12 By 2011, Sony's Oscar campaign for The Social Network had invested $55 million in ads and the re-release of the film in 603 theaters.13
Much more than vanity is at stake. Win an Oscar for Best Picture, and the global and digital rights to a film are worth many times more than the expense of such a campaign. Not surprisingly, some of the money is spent not just on raising the profile of a film, but promoting and spreading some disqualifying dirty linen--often a spun or distorted fact--about a competitor's film.
Was there ever a surer bet for the Academy Award's Best Picture than Steven Spielberg's 1998 Saving Private Ryan? At the time of its summer release by DreamWorks, Saving Private Ryan became an instant classic--managing to shock viewers into tears who considered themselves long since jaded by war-movie violence. When Oscar time came, Ryan's only real competition was Shakespeare in Love, a romp through an Elizabethan comedy of errors.
Cowritten by playwright Tom Stoppard, produced by brash mogul Harvey Weinstein of Miramax, Shakespeare was indeed a good film.But it was a comedy (no comedy had won Best Picture since Annie Hall in 1978), and it was at times more than a little predictable.
"But journalists and critics on both coasts report that they were recipients of negative Miramax spin," Hollywood insider Nikki Finke wrote in New York magazine, "including comments from Weinstein himself, who opined to at least one major critic that Ryan 'peaks in the first twenty minutes.'"14
When Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture in 1999, the Hollywood elite grinned at what they saw as a triumph of publicity and politics over art.
By 2002, Oscar-season disparagement had migrated to the Internet when Universal's A Beautiful Mind came up against Weinstein and Miramax's In the Bedroom. A Beautiful Mind used startling reverses, plot twists, and animation to take us into the schizophrenic mind of John Forbes Nash Jr., a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who lost--and regained--his grip on sanity. It was a tour de force for actor Russell Crowe, more well known for his physicality on screen and his brawling off screen than for his acting skill. Equipped with nothing more than dowdy clothes and a wax pencil on which to frantically scribble formulas on a bay window overlooking the Princeton University campus, Crowe made us believe that he possessed a vast and luminous intelligence that allowed him to peer deeply into the very fabric of reality. Director Ron Howard convinced us that we could follow Crowe as his character's hold on reality shatters and his mental phantoms slither into the full light of day.
As Oscar night approached, Hollywood was ablaze with ugly gossip from the Drudge Report, not about Russell Crowe or Ron Howard, but about the film's subject--the Nobel Prize winner, John Forbes Nash, who was rumored to have been a raving anti-Semite and a sexual weirdo. Matt Drudge reported that three academy members had changed their votes after learning that Nash was guilty of being a "Jew basher." Nash himself took this charge in stride, noting that when he was ill, he had said and done a great many strange things--he once believed he was the emperor of Antarctica. He allowed that he might very well have made some anti-Semitic utterances.15
Questions, fueled by bloggers, kept coming: Why wasn't this in the story? Why did Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman choose toleave out details about Nash's complex sexual life? The answer, of course, is that like all moviemakers, Howard and Goldsman streamlined and skewed history, adapting it to the screen. Somehow, however, a campaign was under way in Hollywood to make this artistic choice seem as if it were some kind of sordid scam, if not an outright cinematic scandal.16
In the end, A Beautiful Mind was too good to be derailed. It won Best Picture. But Hollywood insiders said that the negative campaign from an interested source did real damage to the film's chances.
"This may not be the worst year in Oscar history, but it's pretty low," Pete Hammond, a film historian and consultant for American Movie Classics, told The New York Times. "To accuse the subject of a film of being anti-Semitic when you know that a lot of the people who will be voting on the Oscars are Jewish, well, that's really down and dirty ... . It's getting nastier. It's like a political campaign now. You get these so-called Oscar consultants who go out there thinking, 'What kind of dirt can we dig up?'"17
In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences banned The Hurt Locker producer Nicolas Chartier from attending the Oscars for sending out an e-mail disparaging competitor Avatar, while Hollywood insiders report that the little digs in Chartier's e-mail were mild compared to some of the sponsored attacks they were seeing every day.
Powerful competitors knock worthy projects as easily as a race car can tip an opponent into a tailspin.
Something Old, Something New
Digital assassins gone mad with money, sex, power, and envy will use technology to fire a malicious story to weaken, wound, or kill you. But not all attacks are digital assassinations.
Brands, companies, products, and celebrities can be criticized and subjected to the rough-and-tumble of free speech--a truth made apparent when an Amarillo jury in 1998 found Oprah Winfrey not guilty of libeling the Texas beef industry for airing a show on mad cow disease.
Character assassination is certainly not to be confused with bad publicity based on wicked acts, hypocrisy, incompetence, or lack of due diligence. Representative Anthony Weiner of New York, Tiger Woods, former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards, former South Carolinagovernor Mark Sanford, and former New York governor Eliot Spitzer were not character assassinated. They self-destructed, killing their own reputations.
The same can be said for Toyota in its apparent lack of due diligence in the sudden-acceleration debacle, BP's repeated careless actions leading up to the Gulf oil spill, or the bad odor from the decision by Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain to spend $1,400 on a trash can as part of his million-dollar makeover of his office during the worst recession in seventy years.
These are clear examples of character suicide. So what then is digital character assassination?
 
Digital assassination begins as a willful act by someone who wishes to do harm through the Internet. It unfolds as a deliberate campaign to spread harmful lies that the assassin has concocted about you or as an attempt to take a fact about you grossly out of context or embellish it, making an ordinary shortcoming seem ghastly. Words are then forged into swords to be thrust into the gut.
Digital assassination is most effective when others--as knowing conspirators or unknowing parrots--are incited by social media to thrust swords of their own. The result is multiple slices and stabs, leaving a permanent, searchable Internet record that continues to harm your brand, fan base, business, or reputation among friends, customers, investors, or other media on a 24/7 basis.
 
This power of the new digital assassin to destroy is as powerful as YouTube, but as old as civilization. Character assassination was a weapon in the arsenal of the ancients, from palace intrigues against Jewish advisers to the king of Persia, to the philippics employed in the class struggles and civil warfare that consumed Rome in the time of Cicero and Mark Antony.
Character assassination is deeply woven into the fabric of American political life. America's revolutionary leaders, nostalgically remembered as our Founding Fathers, indulged in endless acrimonious backbiting. They used Latin pseudonyms and pamphlets to attack each other. They hired character assassins and subsidized vituperative partisan presses. The next chapter seeks lessons for the digital age from the savage, covert war Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton waged against each other through various journalistic outlets, flinging taunts that werewell-understood references to each other's personal vulnerabilities in an effort to blackmail and dishearten.
This tendency to fling mud and ruin reputations was checked somewhat in the twentieth century by the rise of mainstream media--newspapers, wire services, magazines, radio news, and then television news--that relied on mass subscriptions and advertising to liberate editors and reporters from the tyranny of business and political patrons. The mainstream media had its biases. But it did something no character assassin has ever done. It tried to be fair and often succeeded.
The establishment media at its zenith illuminated all that could be seen. But the sun began to set on such media with the close of the twentieth century.
In this new century, we find ourselves surprisingly close to the nineteenth-century era of barbed commentary, slanted accounts, and subsidized attacks. The migration of these smears from paper pamphlets to screens, however, is about more than the evolution of print into more vivid media.
With the new technology, character assassins have more than a few new platforms from which to attack. Digital technology enables spontaneous groups to emerge instantly, bringing the power of social media to the age-old human tendency to character assassinate.
The Internet empowers a motley collection of anarchists, libertarians, leftists, and hackers known as Anonymous to spontaneously organize hundreds of sites to continue Julian Assange's cyber WikiLeaks campaign against Washington, D.C. Social media lets ordinary people do what tyrants and terrorists could not--make a frontal assault on the U.S. government and win.
Assassins with little effort and little cost can now contact your customers or stakeholders, employees and colleagues, lovers or friends, fans, and even former high school coaches and teachers, to contribute a few keystrokes that can add telling details to form a collective portrait of your monstrosity. Such smears then become a permanent part of your digital reputation--one you can subsume, but not hide from the world.
In the days of the old media, you had obvious ways to counter a bad story. There were ombudsmen, op-eds and letters to the editor, advertising opportunities and plenty of competitors willing to let you tell your side.
Now, when a negative thread appears about you on the Internet,you'll never know for sure who read it, how it was received, or whether a separate targeted campaign was mounted to directly deliver it to your friends, customers, clients, employers, and significant others. Today, in this new media, you may never know how deep the wound is until it manifests itself in the form of murdered opportunity, both personal and financial.
So then, what can be done?
We take an analytical and anecdotal approach to the new phenomenon of digital assassination. This is needed because many books today tend to get lost in technology, as well as its platforms--Twitter, Facebook, Yelp, and the rest--as if the basis of the problem was technology itself.
To be sure, new technology is transformative. And it is overwhelmingly good, improving the way we live, work, shop, educate, and romance. It changes societies with unprecedented transparency.
This technology, however, also has a dark side. We explore how that dark side can threaten your reputation, brand, and business from online attacks.
The first two chapters show how principles of human behavior, not technology, are the driving factors behind this dark side of the Internet. In chapters 3 through 9, we reveal the seven forms of digital attacks, how they can destroy business, career, and life.
In these chapters, we draw on stories from the left, the right, and the center--from ancient times; the American Founding Fathers; our experience working with world leaders, CEOs, and corporate boards; and pulp dramas right out of the tabloids--not to make you feel sorry for the victims, but to create object lessons useful for you.
We will explore what is timeless about the uses of this technology and what is new.
Many victims of digital assassination in these pages might include people whose personalities you find grating or whose politics you find offensive or both.
Never mind.
This is not a political book. It is about understanding the nature of attacks, as a basis to prepare you to act in your defense.
In chapter 11, we arm you with seven strategies, as well as tactics and keystrokes, you need to blunt and reverse attacks. This chapter presents ways to be ready for a surprise onslaught and to monitor yourpresence in cyberspace, and provides a simple game plan and actions to take when an attack occurs.
Whether you are a corporate executive or manager, doctor, lawyer, accountant, consultant with a large group or singular sensation, shopkeeper or restaurateur, model, designer, celebrity, parent, or grandparent, this book will help you understand the nature of these digital attacks and how to prepare for them and respond.
No one is bulletproof in the digital world. Take steps to show a digital assassin you are not an easy mark.
DIGITAL ASSASSINATION. Copyright © 2011 by Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.