I've learned a couple of things in my three-plus decades on this planet. First, no matter how hard you try, you're going to piss people off. It's unavoidable, so you're best off not bothering trying to avoid it. Second, people who are pissed off about you are going to talk about it, including on the internet. It's un-quashable, so you're best off not bothering to quash it. Third, the internet may forgive, but it never forgets. You can't force amnesia on the internet, so you're best off not even trying. And, finally, if you're the type of person who likes to ignore those first three lessons, particularly the last, the world is going to be a place of recursive ass-biting. Why can't people, particularly those in the public spotlight who should know better, keep themselves from trying to erase stuff they don't like from the interwebz? Members of government, professional sports tycoons, service companies; the list goes on and on. I'm begging you, all of you, please stop doing this. Because every time you do, I have to sit down at my computer and show the entire world how silly you look. My only motivation for doing so is that maybe, just maybe, I'll write up that single story that finally breaks the dam and from that point on everybody will understand the Streisand Effect and stop behaving so insipidly.
Here to demonstrate why that hasn't happened yet is a big fat list of people who decided that secretively engaging, what New York Magazine calls "black-ops reputation management" firms to scrub their public embarrassments from the web, would be a good idea, ostensibly never foreseeing the day when what they were up to would be reported. It began with one reporter's interest in Samuel "Phin" Upham, a man indicted for cheating the IRS out of taxes by hiding money in Zurich, accused of conspiring with his mother who set up a fake nonprofit entity, and supposedly surreptitiously ferreting money all around the world. Graeme Wood, who had gone to college breifly with Upham, set up a Google alert for his name, since Google searches were already rife with unflattering information. That's when the strangeness began.
Every alert email Wood received seemed to be glowingly positive, from reports of employment appointments, to articles on philosophy, to tales of Upham's philanthropic works. When Wood dug a bit deeper, cracks in this facade of positive news emerged.
But something was wrong with these sites, which in every case looked flimsy and temporary, especially when you got beyond the first page. Venture Cap Monthly listed a number of prominent writers as "authors," including the Financial Times columnist Christopher Caldwell, Fast Company journalist Danielle Sacks, and Slate critic-at-large Stephen Metcalf. Caldwell and Sacks write about business, so I could imagine—barely—that by contributing to an obscure site, they might be slumming for a paycheck. But I couldn't make any sense of the presence of Metcalf, who had written a scintillating essay about the films of Tom Cruise, I remembered, but nothing that would interest a venture capitalist.
Now each ping made me a little more suspicious. None of the articles by or about Phin mentioned donations, which I expected would be a major aspect of philanthropic work for someone who came from a family rich enough to hide $11 million from the Feds. And when I looked at Charity News Forum (another curiously bare site, more like a derelict blog), I saw that Phin's name was listed as a contributor alongside a few semi-prominent voices in philanthropy, as well as … the journalist Ron Rosenbaum? That seemed odd, given that Rosenbaum doesn't write regularly about philanthropy and is best known for a book about Hitler.
What Wood ended up with after further digging was a list of 33 websites that had been almost certainly created only to funnel good news about certain individuals into search engine results. It was a sham Upham's mother would have been proud of, the creation of fake entities for likely fraudulent purposes. Still not satisfied, Wood dug into the HTML code for the sites, looking for an author. He couldn't find one there, but the metadata did reveal more names alongside Upham's.
I noticed other names thrown in incongruously: Joe Ricketts, Helen Lee Schifter, Irena Briganti, Antonio Weiss, and Luke Weil. I also noticed the same Wikipedia editor, Belkin555, had tidied the entries of several of them. A few were powerful people with no apparent scandals to cover up: Joe Ricketts was the founder of TD Ameritrade, and Antonio Weiss runs investment banking for Lazard. Others, judging by the unforgiving kliegs of a Google search, had left much messier trails on the web.
For reference, if I had to guess, I'd suppose any interest Ricketts might have in internet-scrubbing would be related to either the slight controversy surrounding his PAC against President Obama in the last election cycle, or perhaps his staunch position against tax money going to private entities while his children were asking for exactly that as owners of the Chicago Cubs and the Wrigley Field renovation project. Neither being big deals, in my estimation, but I can understand his discomfort. Schifter has been the subject of some unflattering reports on her personal life
. Irena Briganti is a PR flack for Fox News with something of an online reputation
. Luke Weil sued a filmmaker over a documentary
on children of very wealthy families and has also been accused of assaulting a music producer and his girlfriend, spending time in jail for the latter.
Now, none of the above is, as I mentioned, the kind of damning information that would normally get my trousers off. Add a little attempted cover up to the mix, however, and suddenly intrigue is introduced and everyone comes out looking slimy. That all of this positive online press appeared to be coming from a single source, an unknown entity called "Xander Fields", made it all the more intriguing. Which, of course, sent Wood digging further. He eventually found a company called Metal Rabbit Media and Bryce Tom, the man behind the company. Tom informed Wood of how the service worked, filling search engines with white noise releases to cover up his clients' dark pasts, all for upwards of $10k per month.
And the point is that five-figures per month is a great deal of money to pay for something that most likely won't work, is dishonest, and will ultimately making you look far worse in the end. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating: the cover up is always worse than the crime. Some of the folks listed above did some things that will make some people mad. Not horrible things, but perhaps they are unflattering. Still, most people don't care
. Try to cover those things up, however, and now you have a great many people who will think that's shifty and will wonder what else you're trying to hide, assuming the attempted cover up comes to light. Which it almost certainly will, on a long enough timeline.
So, please, again, stop trying to game the internet. It won't work and I'm tired of writing these stories.