On Fighting Slander and False Information Online
In general, people accept that not everything on the internet is true. We understand that anyone can write anything online, so there’s a lot of room for error, misinformation and disinformation. But many, including myself for several years, lack the skills or care that is needed to distinguish what’s real and what’s not. For example, if we google a topic, we know that the search engine will deliver what it believes to the most authoritative material about it. We assume that, at least what’s on the first few pages, is accurate.
However, Google and other search engines are not detectives. They use inventive algorithms to sift through troves of data, aiming to give users the best possible information. They employ top-grade computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians and software engineers to perfect their technologies. But, like most other things, those technologies are imperfect. Sometimes, they direct readers to bad information.
Internet users should exercise an independent analysis of whatever they discover online. We cannot blindly trust gatekeepers, like Google. At the very least, we should consider both the source and the motive for publication (more on that later). One of the downsides of Google’s success is that we have allowed our skepticism of source to atrophy.
In truth, this was never a topic of concern to me until I became a target of online slander, myself. Until recently, I was like most internet users: if I had a question, then I would search for answers on Google. I assumed that whatever is on the front page of the search results had some degree of credibility.
But that changed when a group of fraudsters began defaming me online to protect their enterprise. In May of 2017, I wrote a blog post about a company that was (and still is) offering an investment opportunity. Its website and marketing material were professional and compelling, and it was an alternative asset that I had never before considered. So, I decided to research it and write a review.
Note: I have chosen to keep the company’s details private as I don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to it here.
I have not published a lot of investment reviews because it’s not the most exciting subject matter. But most of what I have written has either been positive or neutral. I think I’ve produced a total of two negative posts — and only because I believed that the offering was criminal.
That was the case with my May 2017 review. I characterized the company as either highly unprofessional or something more nefarious. I included facts, evidence and data. I found that they are operating from Asia and are likely breaking laws across North America and Europe by soliciting investments there.
My review of the company in question shot up to the top of Google’s search results. Whenever a search is conducted for it, my article appears within the first few slots. Dozens of victims subsequently gathered on my website, posting comment after comment about losing their investment and being scammed.
Shortly thereafter, anonymous blogs, websites and comments about me on consumer complaint platforms began to appear. They claimed that I’m a scam artist and a “get rich quick” conman. Some of them conveniently recommended that readers invest in the very company that I had reviewed. Entire sites were built about me, like alexis-assadi.com. In fact, two or three of these articles were posted on Medium.com, although its staff quickly removed them for violating their content policies.
After a bit of digging, I discovered that the company had hired a negative public relations agency in Ontario to build these websites. Obviously, my article had hampered its ability to con new investors. To protect its “business,” it needed to discredit what I had written. Instead of addressing my concerns, which I invited its management to do, the company chose to attack me personally.
As such, one of my lawyers sent the PR firm a letter and the sites were taken down. That cost me $2,000. But then, a few months later, they started to pop up again.
Unfortunately, there’s little that I can do about this. I don’t have the resources to file a lawsuit in Asia. And for every negative PR company that my lawyers halt, there will always be another willing to write hit pieces for money. It’s a never-ending game of “whack-a-mole.”
Now, I have been blogging since 2014. Not a single negative site about me existed until I published that article 3 years later. To be fair, some of my earlier posts were a bit cheesy and arrogant. But I have never written “get rich quick” material. I have never scammed anyone. And for years, my blog readers and podcast listeners have known that I discuss granular financial material.
For example, tomorrow’s episode is about a company that used a limited partnership to acquire a 3-acre parcel of raw land. I assess the division of profits between the limited partners and the general partner. I also enjoy posting about building businesses and networking — subjects of interest to entrepreneurs.
All of this is a far cry from the stuff of a “get rich quick” con artist.
Since I am not a famous person, there is limited content about me online. I have a personal blog, I run a few private businesses and there’s one article about me written by Ozy Media. For that reason, when you search for me on Google, you are also presented with the various defamatory websites. Right now, Alexis-Assadi.com is listed as the second search result.
A person with no knowledge of who I am would likely assume that I am, indeed, a sketchy character. After all, why else would these websites exist? Who would dedicate all of this time to create this kind of material about me? It’s embarrassing in front of my readers, listeners, friends and any new people that I meet.
This experience has, to me, highlighted our dependence on Google and other search engines to deliver accurate content to its users. However, it is not their responsibility to separate fact from fiction. Search engines try to produce the most relevant content. It is up to us to discern what’s authentic.
The first method of diligence should be to review the source. Is the writer anonymous? Does she use a pseudonym? Can we verify who the person is in real life? In most cases, one should not be afraid to reveal their identity if what they write is true and done in good faith. In legal terms, defamation is “any intentional false communication…that harms a person’s reputation.”
Second, we should consider intent. Why did the writer expend time and energy to produce the content? Does she gain anything from it? For example, many websites that review network marketing opportunities are compensated to provide links to alternative companies. They pose as independent sources, but they are in fact paid. The more scrupulous ones will disclose this in the fine-print.
Third, we should assess credibility. Does the author have actual experience or knowledge about the subject matter? Can this be verified?
Each day, there are about 4 billion searches performed via Google and other companies. In my view, given society’s reliance on those services, critical internet analysis skills should be taught as part of schools’ curricula. This is no different than learning to navigate a library in elementary school or to write scholarly articles in university. The way we acquire information has changed and our academic institutions should adapt accordingly.
I began using the internet when I was about 13 — mostly at school where I had a fast connection. Our dial-up system at home was slow and noisy, so I waited until recess to use the computers. Thus, I was often supervised by adults. The internet was a fraction of its current size. There was no such thing as Facebook. The only social media I used was Myspace to listen to music.
Today, children as young as 8 years-old have smartphones and tablets, and can go online. While parents and teachers may try to restrict their access to adult websites, it is crucial to educate them to absorb accurate content, too. I believe that emphasizing this in school is ultimately the solution. Children need to learn this from their authority figures, not from journalists and bloggers. Otherwise, we may end up with a generation of adults who literally believe everything they read.
Obviously, my interest in this subject was heightened by my own experience. However, it dovetails with a larger, more pervasive issue in the modern age: the degradation of the walls that separate fact from fiction; the introduction of “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
For instance, as you likely know, the United States intelligence community has confirmed that the Russian government attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election by spreading false news stories. For example, it created a Facebook page called Blacktivist, which aimed to stoke racial tensions among Americans and further divide the electorate. Such stories were shared over 340 million times. Similar attempts have been made around the world, including in France, the UK, Germany and Canada. Websites like Infowars have generated exorbitant revenues by promulgating false information to mass, attentive audiences.
10 years ago, conspiratorial websites were entertaining. Today, they are a threat to pillars of democracy, like real journalism and access to good information.
The internet can be a wonderful place. Personally, I spend hours each week “liking” memes on Instagram, watching fail videos on YouTube, browsing through Wikipedia and reading the news. But we, as a society, must revive our critical analysis skills and apply them online. We cannot merely accept, in general terms, that not everything on the internet is real. We cannot rely on gatekeepers like search engines and social media platforms to pull out the weeds. We have to take responsibility for what we read and regard as truth, ourselves. And our parents, teachers and respected authority figures need to lead the charge at an early stage.