Defamation with SEO
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How SEO is used to spread defamation
Professional people work hard for a living. Everyone has a soft spot. Being called a certain bad name in public could cause damage to a professional person’s reputation, sometimes beyond repair.
Search engine optimisation is often used to spread defamation fast and in an efficient manner. Search engines are used to spread fake news, often in a manner which at first sight appears to be innocent. The discreet manner by which defamation by SEO could be spread, often makes it difficult to identify the defaming party and even to prove an intent to defame. SEO can cause a insignificant fact to appear important and a small detail as big news.
But perhaps the most harmful insult of all was suffered by our client, let’s call him Stuart Granville, was a civil servant, who worked as a social worker for the Children’s Service at a district council in the north of England. Stuart specialised for many years in teaching children with learning difficulties and had achieved a tremendous professional respectability within his county council and beyond. He was shocked to learn one day, from a colleague who searched his name on the internet, that the top three Google search results were news stories about social workers who were convicted and jailed for offences of child pornography!
The news stories were not about Stuart Granville at all, and his name appeared nowhere in them. Nevertheless, they mysteriously appeared at the top of the search pages whenever the search term "Stuart Granville" was entered. As you may imagine, the implications were very detrimental for Stuart. Google search results suggested that he was a sex offender of the worst type but when you clicked through to read the actual articles, there was no connection to or mention of his name. Considering that first impression counts and that most people don’t bother to read news articles in full, the association between Stuart and sex offending was clearly defamatory and damaging to him. Someone who works with children, associated with convicted child molesters?! It was mind-boggling, beyond comprehension. This anomaly was not an accident. Stuart, in fact, had become a victim of online defamation.
Having had his name associated with negative news, at no fault of his own, Stuart immediately became concerned about his career, and later on about his personal reputation and even for his family's safety. Stuart did not have his own website and was not allowed to have one because of the delicate position that he held within the Children’s Service. That left an internet vacuum for his name. The vacuum was filled by someone who wanted to harm his career and knew just how to do it on the internet. Who did it? How was it possible for one individual to cause so much devastation to an innocent and very respectable member of the public?
We will come back to the question of who did it in a moment. Whoever decided to damage Stuart, did this by using a fake news website and something which is called 'tagging'. Think of tagging as providing a description of an item so that search engines can see it. Tagging was developed to allow search engines to associate an articles or products with certain keywords by way of grouping them together. The best way to understand tagging is to forget for a moment about the internet and think instead about a can of Coca Cola. If you were asked to tag (describe) a can of Coca-Cola with the most relevant words that come to mind, you might say "red", "fizzy", "cold", "can", "drink", "refreshing" and so on. The same words could also describe Pepsi Cola.
So tagging is a way of grouping items together, which is why Google loves tagging so much. Now, think about the article that you are currently reading. How would you tag it if you wanted search engines to find it? Or in other words, what would be the best way to describe it in short, simple words? Probably some words that come to mind are "internet law", "tagging", "social worker", "online reputation", "reputation attack", and so on. Are you starting to see how tagging helps search engines associate a word or a phrase with a product or an article? A tag can be added to any article posted on the internet by its publisher, or by someone given permission by its publisher. Tagging, then, is simply a series of keywords that aims to describe an online item, whether it is a product, a service, a news story, or a book - anything, really.
The publisher of the web pages containing the news articles about a social worker convicted of sexual offences against children had tagged each of these articles with a "Stuart Granville" tag, and from that point forward, whenever an internet search was carried out, the search engine made an association between Stuart Granville and the news articles which were tagged with his name. This process of copying a news article and publishing it on the internet with damaging tags can be done in less than 5 minutes. It can destroy someone's career, family, and reputation forever. Simple? Yes. Powerful? Most certainly.
Often the victim of defamation will have some idea of who might be trying to harm their reputation so much. As for the perpetrator of the reputation attack on Stuart, Stuart believed beyond doubt that it was a parent who had had her children taken away from her by Social Services following an allegation of severe abuse. At the time, she promised Stuart, who was in charge of the Social Services Team that intervened and took the child away from his abusive mother, that he would live to regret his actions.
Stuart has never proven the identity of this person. In fact, in this case, this was not necessary after we have taken on his case. We wrote a few letters, and the articles were taken down. We then communicated with Google to make sure that the search results are fixed and that our client’s name does is no longer associated with those defamatory articles. Rather than seek revenge, Stuart just wanted to get on with his life, which is exactly what we helped him achieve.