Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: How an accused tax fraud changed his online reputation

Patrick Stafford /

The rise of social media has led to the invention of a new breed of work: online reputation management. The idea being companies or consultants control your online communications so you don’t make an idiot out of yourself.

But there’s a dark side to this practice, as New York Magazine has pointed out. Reputation management that goes beyond just making a few tweets.

This particular story chronicles the downfall of a man who was arrested over tax-related issues in 2010. The man in question paid penalties and received a three-year suspended sentence.

Of course, Google searches for his name resulted in autocompletes like ‘[name] arrested’ and ‘[name] tax’. Not particularly pleasant.

But New York Magazine writer Graeme Wood writes that in 2011, the man’s luck started to change. He was named the Charity News Philanthropist of the Month and started writing essays for the Philanthropy Chronicle.

But a quick look into multiple websites mentioning the man revealed something strange: they were clearly constructed to praise him.

Wood writes: “All of these pop-up websites had a few things in common … They listed him among other distinguished figures; and, in naming them, seriously overshot the mark.

“One economic site listed him with Nobel laureate Alvin Roth and another with Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Phin shared the marquee on a philosophy site with the late Stephen Jay Gould. And the site that boasted that Phin would be promoting philosophy education in developing countries claimed New Yorker editor David Remnick as an ‘author’.”

Social media reputation management is serious business. As the piece points out, the industry is worth $5 billion, but work like this goes much further. It’s creating or fabricating mentions in order to hide any searches for wrongdoing.

Wood’s search leads to the head of a reputation management service, who charges huge amounts of money to keep wealthy people looking good online.

Wood writes: “Many of his clients had dark pasts, Tom said, and would come to him to get rid of the problem. He said he began by managing expectations: ‘The name of the game really isn’t completely getting rid of it’, he said. ‘But if it’s just a stupid incident, there are ways that you sort of push it down so it’s not the first thing people see when they Google you.’

“He called the possibility that someone might notice the manipulation “our nightmare scenario” and told me “the ultimate success for us is cleaning up the bad stuff without anybody noticing.”

Reputation management goes far beyond a few tweets. This is a must-read story to see how far people go to look good online.

Jimmy Wales is not rich

Jimmy Wales, the founder of online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, is not a rich man. In fact, as this piece in the New York Times points out, he’s quite forthcoming in revealing how much money he has (his total worth is just over $1 million).

This seems odd for someone who founded one of the most popular websites on the internet, but he spends most of his time travelling the world and giving talks on internet freedom.

But as the piece points out, Wales’ life is slightly strange. He’s connected enough to famous people that they feel comfortable in asking him to change information on their entries ⁠— something the community doesn’t care for.

The New York Times states: “That kind of proximity to famous people doesn’t sit well with some members of the Wikipedia community who assert that Wales’s new life is, in some ways, contradictory to the egalitarian online world he created.

“Several contributors protested that Wales had used a firsthand, unsourced experience to change Will.i.am’s entry. A user called Fram said Wales had violated Wikipedia protocol, which requires factual information be attributed to published materials.”

While Wales isn’t involved in the day-to-day of Wikipedia anymore, he’s still one of the internet’s most fascinating characters. This is definitely worth a read.

The Google graveyard

Google killed off one of its most beloved products this week: Google Reader. Although it’s been announced for a while, Reader-lovers haven’t taken the news kindly.

Of course, Google has killed plenty of products before, as this infographic over at Forbes shows. The internet giant isn’t shy about killing off its darlings.

Editor’s note: this article was amended on September 6, 2019.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.