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A Vast Web of Vengeance: Weaponized social media and the harm it does

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Kashmir Hill reports in the NY Times:

Guy Babcock vividly remembers the chilly Saturday evening when he discovered the stain on his family. It was September 2018. He, his wife and their young son had just returned to their home in Beckley, an English village outside of Oxford. Mr. Babcock still had his coat on when he got a frantic call from his father.

“I don’t want to upset you, but there is some bad stuff on the internet,” Mr. Babcock recalled his father saying. Someone, somewhere, had written terrible things online about Guy Babcock and his brother, and members of their 86-year-old father’s social club had alerted him.

Mr. Babcock, a software engineer, got off the phone and Googled himself. The results were full of posts on strange sites accusing him of being a thief, a fraudster and a pedophile. The posts listed Mr. Babcock’s contact details and employer.

The images were the worst: photos taken from his LinkedIn and Facebook pages that had “pedophile” written across them in red type. Someone had posted the doctored images on Pinterest, and Google’s algorithms apparently liked things from Pinterest, and so the pictures were positioned at the very top of the Google results for “Guy Babcock.”

Mr. Babcock, 59, was not a thief, a fraudster or a pedophile. “I remember being in complete shock,” he said. “Why would someone do this? Who could it possibly be? Who would be so angry?”

Then he Googled his brother’s name. The results were just as bad.

He tried his wife.

His sister.

His brother-in-law.

His teenage nephew.

His cousin.

His aunt.

They had all been hit. The men were branded as child molesters and pedophiles, the women as thieves and scammers. Only his 8-year-old son had been spared.

Guy Babcock was about to discover the power of a lone person to destroy countless reputations, aided by platforms like Google that rarely intervene. He was shocked when he discovered the identity of the assailant, the number of other victims and the duration of the digital violence.

Public smears have been around for centuries. But they are far more effective in the internet age, gliding across platforms that are loath to crack down, said Peter W. Singer, co-author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media.”

The solution, he said, was to identify “super-spreaders” of slander, the people and the websites that wage the most vicious false attacks.

“The way to make the internet a less toxic place is setting limits on super-spreaders or even knocking them offline,” Mr. Singer said. “Instead of policing everyone, we should police those who affect the most people.”

The Babcock family had been targeted by a super-spreader, dragged into an internet cesspool where people’s reputations are held for ransom.

Mr. Babcock was sure there was a way to have lies about him wiped from the internet. Many of the slanderous posts appeared on a website called Ripoff Report, which describes itself as a forum for exposing “complaints, reviews, scams, lawsuits, frauds.” (Its tagline: “consumers educating consumers.”)

He started clicking around and eventually found a part of the site where Ripoff Report offered “arbitration services,” which cost up to $2,000, to get rid of “substantially false” information. That sounded like extortion; Mr. Babcock wasn’t about to pay to have lies removed.

Ripoff Report is one of hundreds of “complaint sites” — others include She’s a Homewrecker, Cheaterbot and Deadbeats Exposed — that let people anonymously expose an unreliable handyman, a cheating ex, a sexual predator.

But there is no fact-checking. The sites often charge money to take down posts, even defamatory ones. And there is limited accountability. Ripoff Report, like the others, notes on its site that, thanks to Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act, it isn’t responsible for what its users post.

If someone posts false information about you on the Ripoff Report, the CDA prohibits you from holding us liable for the statements which others have written. You can always sue the author if you want, but you can’t sue Ripoff Report just because we provide a forum for speech.

With that impunity, Ripoff Report and its ilk are willing to host pure, uncensored vengeance.

Google results are often the first impression a person makes. They help people decide whom to date, to hire, to rent a home to. Mr. Babcock worried that his family’s terrible Google search profiles could have serious repercussions, particularly for his 19-year-old nephew and his 27-year-old cousin, both just starting out in life.

Two weeks after Mr. Babcock discovered the pedophile posts, a friend called: He’d heard about the accusations from another village resident. Someone had spotted them while Googling an ice-cream parlor the Babcock family owned. Mr. Babcock soon installed a home security system; he’d read about vigilantes going after accused child molesters.

He and members of his extended family reported the online harassment to police in England and Canada, where most of them lived. Only the British authorities appeared to take the report seriously; a 1988 law prohibits communications that intentionally cause distress. An officer with the local Thames Valley police told Mr. Babcock to gather the evidence, so he and his brother-in-law, Luc Groleau, who lives outside of Montreal, started cataloging the posts in a Google document. It grew to more than 100 pages.

In October 2018, while scrolling through items deep in his Google results, Mr. Babcock came across a blog where a commenter falsely called him “a former janitor” who was “masquerading as an IT consultant.” It was similar to attacks elsewhere, but this one had an author photo attached: a woman with long, reddish hair, wearing a black blazer and chunky earrings.

Mr. Babcock stared at the photo in shock. He hadn’t seen it in decades, but he recognized it instantly. The woman’s name was Nadire Atas; this was her official work portrait from 1990, when she worked in a Re/Max real estate office the Babcock family owned outside Toronto. She had initially been a star employee, but her performance deteriorated, and in 1993 Mr. Babcock’s father had fired her. Afterward, she had threatened his father, according to an affidavit filed in a Canadian court.

Mr. Babcock felt lightheaded. A memory came back to him: When his mother died in 1999, the family had received vulgar, anonymous letters celebrating her death. A neighbor received a typed letter stating that Mr. Babcock’s father “has been seen roaming the neighbourhood late at night and masturbating behind the bushes.” The Babcocks had suspected Ms. Atas, who was the only person who had ever threatened them. (Ms. Atas denied making threats or writing the letters.)

Decades later, it appeared that she was still harboring her grudge — and had updated her methods for the digital age.

Mr. Babcock searched Ms. Atas’s name online and found a blog written by a Canadian lawyer, Christina Wallis. It was the first in a trail of clues that would eventually reveal the breadth of Ms. Atas’s online campaign.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” wrote Ms. Wallis, borrowing a quote often attributed to Mark Twain. She described how Ms. Atas had waged an online campaign against her, her colleagues and her family, including branding them pedophiles.

Mr. Babcock got goose bumps.

His brother-in-law, Mr. Groleau, contacted Ms. Wallis. She had represented a bank that foreclosed on two properties Ms. Atas owned in the early 2000s. Dozens of people had come under online attack: employees of the bank, lawyers who represented the bank, lawyers who represented those lawyers, relatives of those people and on and on. The attacks seemed engineered to perform well in search engines, and they included the victims’ names, addresses, contact information and employers. (Ms. Atas denies being the author of many of these posts.)

For years, Ms. Wallis and her colleagues had been pursuing lawsuits and contacting the sites and technology platforms that hosted the material. Nothing had worked. The smears remained public, and the consequences became real.

A relative of one lawyer said she spent months applying for jobs in 2019 without getting any offers. The woman, who asked not to be named because she feared Ms. Atas, said her bills piled up. She worried she might lose her home.

Then she decided to apply for jobs using her maiden name, under which she hadn’t been attacked. She quickly lined up three interviews and two offers.

These situations — where one angry person targets a large group of perceived enemies — are not uncommon. Maanit Zemel, a lawyer who specializes in online defamation, represents a group of 53 people who have filed a lawsuit saying they were attacked online by Tanvir Farid after he failed to get jobs at their companies. (Mr. Farid’s lawyer declined to comment.)

For victims, these sorts of attacks “can literally end their life and their career and everything,” Ms. Zemel said.

The victims in the Atas case live in Canada, Britain and the United States. In June 2020, Matthew Hefler, 32, the brother-in-law of a colleague of Ms. Wallis, became one of the latest targets. Mr. Hefler, who lives in Nova Scotia, is a historian who recently completed his Ph.D. in war studies. He is trying to find a teaching job. But anyone who searches for him online will encounter posts and images tarring him as a pedophile and “pervert freak.”

Until recently, Mr. Hefler had never heard of Ms. Atas. He had no clue why she was attacking him. “You discover that someone you’ve never met, across the country, is running a one-man troll farm against you,” Mr. Hefler said. “It’s a nightmare scenario.”

In October 2018, . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Something must be done. Section 230 requires substantial revision.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 January 2021 at 10:50 am

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