There was once a popular fantasy that the online world was a free-
for-all where there were no rules and nobody got hurt. This fantasy re-
lied on a belief that everything that happened online was artificial or
not real” because it all happened through a computer in what seemed
to be a virtual world. As a result, many Internet users thought of the
Internet as the Disney cartoon version of Pinocchios Pleasure Island:
a place where antisocial and forbidden behavior could be carried out
without any consequences. But the fantasy that the “virtual world” does
not affect the real world” is simply not true: the online world is part of
the real” world. Real people and real lives are affected by the Internet
every day. Billions of dollars of commerce moves online. People use the
Internet to make real decisions with real consequences.
Some forms of Internet attack are particularly damaging: hard-
to-disprove allegations that are spread to friends and family can
make a victim feel helpless, sometimes to the point of withdrawing
How to Measure Damage to
Your Internet Reputation
151How to Measure Damage to Your Internet Reputation
from social contact entirely. But, luckily, not all incorrect Internet
content is damaging. Some attacks are never seen by their intended
targets; virtual tumbleweed rolls across the attack sites as they sit
abandoned. And some false content may be found but ignored—if it
is obviously false, appears untrustworthy, or looks like it refers to
someone else.
The following sections walk you through the process that pro-
fessionals use to measure the impact of false online content on your
reputation. Note that the source of the false content (whether the
content was created intentionally or by mistake) does not matter very
much at this stage. To a victim of false online content, it may not
matter whether the content was innocent, accidental, or intentional.
Types of Harm Caused by Online Content
The first step to measuring the harm caused by Internet content is to
determine what types of injuries are being inflicted by the content.
Some types of false Internet content harm personal, social, and pro-
fessional relationships. Some cause social and professional embar-
rassment. Still other types harm business interests. And yet other
types harm privacy interests or damage users right to quiet enjoy-
ment or exploration of the Internet, perhaps causing them to retreat
from social interaction and exploration.
Direct Harms to Reputation
This section discusses some of the most common ways that this type
of content can impact your reputation. Think about the ways that a
piece of false or malicious online content could impact your reputa-
tion; the more categories of damage that it triggers, the worse it is.
Personal Reputation
The most common harm caused by false or misleading online con-
tent is harm to your reputation among friends, colleagues, and oth-
ers. There are always at least two impacts of this type of content.
First, it directly diminishes your standing in the community every
time somebody reads the false content. Second, it indirectly dimin-
ishes your reputation because the false content often prevents people
from finding positive truths about you.
Social Reputation
Your social reputation is your standing among friends, acquain-
tances, and the community at large. False or malicious online content
has damaged your social reputation if it makes your friends whisper
behind your back, your neighbors gossip about you, and acquain-
tances look at you askance. Your social reputation affects your every-
day life in the community. It determines what your closest neighbors
think about you. It determines whether friends and acquaintances
trust you. It determines what social gatherings you are invited to and
what people think of you once you get there.
Often, false rumors spread quickly through communities. One
neighbor tells a friend, who tells another, who tells another, until the
whole network believes the false content (or at least thinks it might
be true). The content itself can be anything that would change the
perception of the victim in the community. It can be a false statement
of fact (“Bob has a DUI conviction or Bob was accused of mo-
lestation or even just Bob wastes electricity”) a false statement
about the victims beliefs (“Saritha is a Republican/Democrat/
Socialist/Nazi/anarchist/etc.”), a false statement about involve-
ment in some controversy (“Jose and his neighbor are feuding like
children”), or anything else. Even things that some people might
think are helpful can be hurtful: Telling the world that Chuck denies
the allegations against him often just draws more attention to the
original allegations.
Professional Reputation
Your professional reputation is your reputation among co-workers,
employers, and professional colleagues. It defines whether people will
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