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In 2012, a woman named Lindsey Stone posted a picture she took as a joke to her Facebook page. A month later, she was under attack from all corners of the internet, out of a job, hounded by the press. The internet had targeted her for a public shaming. Jon Ronson, journalist and author of the new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, walks us through Lindsey’s story and introduces us to the sometimes sketchy world of online reputation management.
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ALEX GOLDMAN: And just before we get started, a quick warning that this episode has some pretty disturbing language in it.
Alright, let’s go. From Gimlet, this is Reply All, a show about the internet. I’m Alex Goldman.
When did you first see the Jon Ronson spambot?
JON RONSON: Well, I accidentally typed my name into Google and discovered this other Jon Ronson with my face and my name. Jon_ronson on Twitter. And as I stared in surprise at its timeline, it tweeted, “Going home. Got to get the recipe of a huge plate of guarana and mussel in a bap with mayonnaise #yummy”. (laughs) So I was like, who are you? And it was like, “Watching Seinfeld. Would love a delicious sour cream kabab with chives. #foodie”
ALEX: Jon Ronson is a journalist, filmmaker, documentarian. He wrote a movie. He’s written a couple books that were best sellers. He’s not Kardashian famous, but people know who he is. And follow him on Twitter. And now there was this twitter bot impersonating him. Saying things like —
JON: “I’m dreaming something about time and cock.” So… and it was being followed by, like, people I knew from real life who are suddenly wondering, “When did Jon Ronson become so candid about dreaming about cock?”
ALEX: Jon was pissed. It wasn’t unreasonable that someone might confuse this bot for the real Jon Ronson. So he decided to find out what this thing was and who was behind it.
ALEX: Who were they?
JON: Academics and intellectuals. There was three of them. And they decided for some academic exercise to create this Jon Ronson spambot. They called it an “infomorph.” They wouldn’t take down the spambot, but they agreed to meet me. They said I could film that encounter and put it on YouTube.
ALEX: The video is pretty awkward. Three white guys in their 20s or 30s, squeezed together on this tiny couch and Jon Ronson is asking them questions from off-camera. It starts off with them complaining about the way that Jon has arranged them on the couch.
JON: Why were you concerned about the setup of the three of you in a row?
MAN: Same thing you’re concerned about — control.
JON: What do you mean?
MAN: Control of the environment. It’s about psychological control, isn’t it?
ALEX: A lot of the video is Jon asking different versions of, “Why are you guys doing this to me?” and them just sort of avoiding the answer.
MAN 2: Well perhaps we should go back to how Jon_Ronson was created. It’s actually come from the Wikipedia page. It’s taken the sum total of what everybody else has written about you on Wikipedia and turned that into a personality.
JON: It said the other day, “Thinking about time and cock.”
MAN 2: Do you ever think about time and cock?
JON: Yeah … do I what?
MAN 2: You said yes.
JON: No, of course I don’t think about time and cock.
ALEX: You’re pretty unhappy with the…
JON: Yeah cause they’d taken my identity and they told me that it wasn’t taking my identity. It was repurposing social media data into an infomorphic aesthetic.
JON: The point is you’re using my my name and my photograph to blare on about wasabi dumplings.
MAN: Oh we’re not doing it. It’s doing it.
JON: So that’s gonna give you a tightness in your chest. And they said that they were annoyed with me. Because what right do I have to be the only Jon Ronson?
ALEX: They sound kinda like assholes.
JON: Yeah they were assholes but then I posted the video on YouTube and I was expecting people to be mocking me because I’d been so screechy. But like everyone was on my side. Everybody. And it went from, you know, this is outrageous, you know, these people are stealing this person’s identity and then laughing at the victim’s hurt and anger. Within a few minutes that had gone to um, “Break them. Destroy them.” That went to, “They’re fucking psychopaths” and that went to, “Gas the cunts.” So it went from naught to 100 miles an hour in like seconds.
ALEX: That’s awful.
JON: I know. Terrible. And I went from being like thrilled that everyone was on my side to feeling like we were just toddlers crawling towards a gun.
ALEX: The reaction to the video Jon posted was so uniformly vicious that the three academics stopped updating the spambot’s Twitter feed. But Jon was so spooked by that very viciousness — viciousness that at first scanned as righteousness, that it sent him down a rabbit hole into the world of online public shaming. And he didn’t have to look far to find public shamings that literally ruined lives. He actually wrote a book about it which comes out this week, called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which is full of case studies about online shaming, but none so heartbreaking as Lindsey Stone’s.
GUY: OK, rolling…
LINDSEY STONE: (laughs) No pressure, no pressure.
ALEX: That’s Lindsey Stone in an interview Jon did for BBC television.
JON: So, what was your job back then.
LINDSEY: Um… I worked… ah, oh here I go with the ums…
JON: You couldn’t hope for a better human being… works with adults with learning difficulties.
ALEX: Lindsey worked for a Cape Cod based nonprofit called Living Independently Forever and people regularly told her, she had a special knack for working with this population.
LINDSEY: I was in charge of the Friday night activities. So, we would do karaoke, dances. We would take them to baseball games when we could at Fenway. Just anything special that we could do for them.
JON: People really liked her and Jamie where they were working.
ALEX: Jamie was Lindsey’s best friend at work and she played a small but important role in this story, because you see she and Lindsey, they had this running joke —
JON: Of, like, posing in front of signs and doing the opposite of what’s happening in the sign.
LINDSEY: One of our dreams was a sign outside of CVS that said, “No skateboarding, no rollerblading, no loitering,” and it was all on this one sign. And it was our dream to do – to take a picture doing all of those things under that sign.
ALEX: It was just this dumb, goofy thing they did occasionally. One day in 2012, Lindsey and Jaime took their clients on a trip to Washington, D.C.
JON: What did you do?
LINDSEY: Well, we saw… We went everywhere, I feel like. We went to the JFK Museum, We toured the National Mall, um, the Smithsonian, um, and Arlington National Cemetery.
LINDSEY: We had just seen the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We first saw a sign that said keep off the grass, but we didn’t want to get in trouble so we didn’t take that picture.
JON: So instead, she sees a sign that says silence and respect.
LINDSEY: And we thought it might be funny to us to take a picture mocking the sign and doing the opposite of appearing silent and respectful.
ALEX: The picture, taken by Jamie, is Lindsey crouching next to the silence and respect sign, her hand cupped to her mouth like she’s yelling, and she’s flipping the bird. She has sunglasses on and she’s smiling. Clearly proud of herself. Now remember, this is just one in a series of similar pictures she and Jamie had made, so it didn’t seem all that significant. Just a dumb joke. Jamie uploaded it to Facebook, tagged Lindsey in it…
LINDSEY: It just sat there and nobody cared about it.
JON: And then a month later, they were in a restaurant…
LINDSEY: I remember it was a Monday night and we were celebrating Jamie, Jamie’s birthday and mine, we’re a few days apart. And so we were out for dinner and all of a sudden all, both of our phones start vibrating like crazy. We just kind of put our phones on silent and went about the dinner. And then I remember in the car ride on the way home I finally, I got a chance to check my email, and there was an email from the director of our program saying do you know anything about this, and it was, um, it was the picture of me…
ALEX: Someone, and to this day, she has no idea who, took the photo from Jamie’s Facebook page and sent it to a pro-military website. It didn’t take long for her life to unravel. That same day, someone set up a Facebook group called “Fire Lindsey Stone.”
LINDSEY: Seeing it grow from the time we had gotten back from dinner to the time I finally went to bed was insane. Um, I think it was already like 10,000 people.
JON: Did you, um, read the comments about you?
LINDSEY: Oh yeah
JON: Or did you ignore them? Oh no, you read them?
LINDSEY: No, no yeah, I was up all night. I was up until like five in the morning.
LINDSEY: Her address and phone number found their way online, as they have a habit of doing in scenarios like these. TV crews start showing up at her door. And her phone rang nonstop.
JON: Can you remember, like, specific phrases that people were using?
LINDSEY: I don’t, it’s not appropriate to repeat on television.
ALEX: Since we’re not on television, John repeated them for me. But a warning – even though we had a language disclaimer up top, this stuff is pretty disturbing.
JON: Well, as always, within minutes it goes from, “I’m so saddened by this disrespectful photograph,” to, “Die cunt. Cut out her uterus. Rape her.”
ALEX: Oh my god.
JON: Oh yeah.
ALEX: Soon, there weren’t just Facebook groups like “Fire Lindsey Stone,” There were groups with names like “Set Fire to Lindsey Stone.” Lindsey, like everyone, had a social life and friends, hopes, dreams, a job. But to the world she had been reduced to a single moment – this photograph.
Soon after this all blew up, she and Jamie were fired. Lindsey was living with her parents, and she stopped leaving her house. She spent days without sleeping. And against her better judgment, all she wanted to do was see what people were saying about her on the internet.
LINDSEY: for a while I got sucked into that routine of wanting to check up on myself and see what people were saying and it became sort of like an obsession. Unfortunately, but yeah, there were quite a few nights where it was hard to sleep. And even when I wasn’t online checking up on myself, just thinking, you know, worrying about what direction my life was going to take, if I would ever have a job opportunity, um, if I would ever be able to move forward, you know?
ALEX: It took a long time, but she eventually got a job she wanted, working with children with autism. but she didn’t tell her new bosses about the photo. And then she worried all the time about being found out, especially when people said nice things to her. Like when the mother of one of the kids told her she was made for this work…
LINDSEY: I never thought I would hear those words ever again. You know what I mean? I never thought I would work in that field ever again and to have someone say to me, like, that you were made for this, I can tell. Like, what if, what if you see this picture? And you don’t feel the same way about this girl in the picture. You know? That is also me. Um, and it’s, it was, it was terrifying the whole time.
ALEX: So when, when you heard her story you reached out to her. How long did it take for her to get back to you?
JON: Months. I sent her this incredibly passionate letter saying, “I’m completely on your side. I think what’s happened to you is terrible.” And she completely ignored my letter. And then a couple of months later I wrote back to her and said, “Look, I’m really sorry for persevering but I really want to do this, you know. I feel like I have to tell your story and this book could be a bit of a game changer. You know people take my books seriously.” And she ignored my second letter. So then another couple of months passed. And I wrote her again and I said, “Look, please don’t think I’m stalking you. But I’ve got an incentive now. And the incentive is there’s this company who want to offer you hundreds of thousands of dollars of free service to scrub that photograph off the internet.”
ALEX: When we come back, what it takes to clean up your online reputation when thousands of people have dragged it through the mud.
ALEX: Before the break, Jon told us he’d finally gotten Lindsey to talk by dangling this giant carrot — He would help her get her life back by enlisting the services of a company that could disappear this whole terrible, chapter. The company is called Reputation.com, and this is their CEO, Michael Fertik.
MICHAEL FERTIK: Jon sent me a series of extremely urgent messages on Twitter, which I’ve come to understand is pretty much how he operates. And he asked if we could somehow demonstrate in a real life example how someone could help get past his or her digital shaming.
ALEX: That’s what Reputation.com does — they change their clients’ google search results. That might seem impossible, or it might seem sacrilegious. Because of course, for a lot of people, Google is a monolithic, public resource or maybe even, like, the definitive index of reality itself. But Michael disagrees.
MICHAEL: The biggest myth about Google is they’re somehow the First Amendment. They’re somehow the truth and they’re somehow God. That there’s a natural order of things of how Google presents stuff that is inevitable, inexorable and correct and that whatever floats to the top of Google deserves to be there.
ALEX: Michael thinks, as a rule of thumb, Google can work great, but only when you’re talking about people or subjects that have been discussed over a long period of time by many, many people.
MICHAEL: George Bush, Barack Obama, cancer, climate change — Google probably does a pretty good job. For almost every topic under the sun, that is not true.
ALEX: So for Lindsay, someone with almost no online presence, one little mistake defined her. Michael was really drawn to Lindsey’s story.
MICHAEL: You know, this is a civilian, you know what I mean? This is not a celebrity. And she’s just a citizen who did something silly, but it’s the level of silliness that probably every one of us has engaged in.
ALEX: So Reputation.com agreed to take on Lindsey’s case pro bono — which is huge, because normally a case like this would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems crazy, but it turns out that rewriting someone’s online story is a ridiculously complex process.
LINDSEY: I had an online reputation manager. I could call and text him, email him, any, all hours of day and night. Like, he spent a lot of time interviewing me and getting to know my likes and dislikes.
ALEX: So Lindsey’s reputation manager had to learn everything about her, all the things you don’t get from a Google search. Because when you’re trying to repair a person’s online reputation, you aren’t deleting bad stuff off the internet, you’re burying it under a pile of neutral or even good information. For example, there’s this —
At the bottom of the first page is the Lindseymstone.com promoting autism awareness website, and I just want to read the first paragraph of this. It says, “Lindsey Stone’s website. Welcome. On this site you’ll find a wide range of information on autism spectrum disorders.
My goal is to promote awareness of autism spectrum disorders and support the research and outreach efforts…”
This goes on for a while.
“… of domestic and international organizations. Only by better …”
This is a website that reputation.com built for Lindsey Stone. She didn’t put this up on her own. And it’s not the only website that they built for her. There was the “Travels Through North America” blog, Lindsey Stone’s favorite books and movies blog, a website about music, her love for Iggy Azalea, her resume.
LINDSEY: They would generate this content for me, like they would create blogs and posts and social media to try to bolster my online presence, because I didn’t really have one. You know?
JON: And lots of, like, photographs of you doing like kind of normal nice things and not…
LINDSEY: Yeah, I sent, yeah, I sent them a lot of photographs of, like, me on trips and just things, like doing normal things.
ALEX: They take all these sites and link them to one another, all in an attempt to manipulate the Google algorithm. Because with Google, the more people who link to these pages, the higher they appear in the search returns.
JON: And the idea is for them to get high page ranks and will push the negative judgments down to that page two or three of Google which is where only crazy people look.
ALEX: Right. I can count myself among those crazy people.
JON: I also consider myself one of the crazy people.
ALEX: The “Fire Lindsey Stone” page, the other mean stuff…it started dropping when you searched her name. So all these new, bland, innocuous Lindsey Stone pages linked together, they started to create a smokescreen, a haze under which Lindsey Stone’s one stupid mistake began to disappear.
ALEX: So how successful was Reputation.com with Lindsey Stone?
JON: I’d say, I mean, they said to me this is the hardest job we have ever taken on. So, they knew that, you know, it was tough.
ALEX: I’m gonna go ahead and do a Google search on Lindsey Stone right now while I’ve got you here.
JON: It’s gotten a little bit worse because my book’s just come out.
ALEX: (laughs) Right, well one of the things that I’ve noticed is there are stories that relate to the photograph on the first page but stories that are in her defense tend to be up at the top.
JON: Yes. There were discussions actually between reputation.com and Lindsey about that. Like, they said to Lindsey, look, how would you feel if we try and leave up there those kinds of articles? I think even Gawker wrote a pro Lindsey article saying you know, “Happy now? This good employee’s been fired over a joke.” And I think Lindsey was like, “Sure.” So, the photograph is still there but it’s now interspersed with lots and lots of other photographs of Lindsey doing other things than flipping off military cemeteries.
ALEX: When you search her name on Google today, the “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page is nowhere to be found, but another Facebook page, called “Hire Lindsey Stone,” is the second result. So, after many months of work, Lindsey got her life back, which is great. But what if it’s not a loveable caretaker of disabled children that wants their reputation cleaned up? Jon told me the story of a guy named named Phineas Upham, who was arrested along with his mother on tax evasion charges in 2010.
JON: They tried to hide 11 million dollars from the American government and, um, sneak the cash back into America. This case went very quickly. Phineas’ mother plead guilty and she was fined 5 million dollars, and then Phineas, all the charges were dropped, and that was it. It was over.
ALEX: And for a while, that was the main thing on Google about Phineas Upham. But then, something odd started happening. And John learned about all this from a fellow journalist, a guy named Graeme Wood. Graeme had gone to school with Phineas, and so had been following the case pretty closely.
JON: Graeme never bothered to cancel his Google news alert and that’s how he began to notice that Phineas Upham was getting all these really weird accolades, so like he was appointed head finance curator of Venture Cap Monthly, whatever that meant, and something called Charity News Forum voted him Philanthropist Of The Month, and he started writing for a magazine called Philanthropy Chronicle and he published a collection of essays.
So suddenly Phineas Upham had become this sort of glorious human, so Graeme felt a bit suspicious and started looking at all these accolades and saw that the websites where these accolades were appearing were all very flimsy. They looked kind of amateurish and kind of temporary and there was nothing past the first page. And so he went to the address of the Philanthropy Chronicle and discovered that Philanthropy Chronicle didn’t exist. Phineas had paid this mysterious company called Metal Rabbit some presumably great sum of money to make up shit about him online.
ALEX: To be clear, Michael Fertik and Reputation.com will not make stuff up in order to improve a client’s standing on the internet. And also, unlike a lot of shadier reputation management companies, they don’t work with convicted felons, fraudsters, or sex offenders. But, all the same, out of their two million clients — two million — you gotta figure, there are maybe a handful as wholesome as Lindsey Stone.
ALEX: Maybe this is like asking a defense lawyer how many of their clients they think are guilty but do you feel as personally bad for most of your clients as you do for Lindsey Stone?
MICHAEL: For a lot of em, yeah. For a lot of em, yeah. I mean, I understand why there is an instinct of skepticism that if someone is saying really nasty things about you, that must be, you know, it must be true. As in all things, there is usually a grain of truth, right? Lindsey Stone did take the photograph.
MICHAEL: She did pose for it. But the response was just so overboard. It was just so destructive to a human being with real flesh and blood, right? I have not had the fortune of reviewing our individual clients for some years but I used to look at a lot of our stuff and I was always amazed at how, underneath the hood, almost nobody is Voldemort, even though the internet might think they are.
ALEX: So, that’s the world we live in now. If the internet thinks you’re Voldemort, it costs a ton of money to fix it. And unfortunately, the internet is on a perpetual hunt for new Voldemorts. And a lot of time, the people cast in the role of Voldemort don’t have that money. One way to think of the internet is as a great flattening. Everyone’s part of the media and everyone’s a potential celebrity.
JON: You know I had a big lesson when I was young and just starting out in journalism. I was writing a weekly column for Time Out Magazine in London. And it was Christmas and I was like desperate to go home. You know, I had to get the train to visit my family, and I was writing a column, and I was like a sentence short, and there was like a space where I needed to write one more sentence. And so I wrote that this was the year that Paul McCartney’s “Rupert Bear and the Frog Chorus” song was everywhere
[song starts, Jon hums]
Yeah, I don’t know if you remember that song. It’s not a great song. Anyway, so I wrote, “Oh my god, that Paul McCartney Rupert Bear song,” you know, “I’m so sick of it. Mark Chapman shot the wrong Beatle.”
ALEX: Oh my god.
JON: So, then I got a letter a couple weeks later from Linda McCartney saying “Are you telling me that my husband and father of my children should be murdered by the man who killed his best friend?” I wrote back, you know, apologetically and said, “I thought you lived in Icon-land.” And she wrote back saying “You know, I understand, no worries,” and that was it. But, ever since then, that’s always hovered over me as like, you know, everybody’s human.
ALEX: Jon Ronson is the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which comes out this week.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. If you want to check out a written version of this story, which features — among other things — the notorious photograph of Lindsey Stone, go to digg.com/tag/reply-all.
We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, and edited by Alex Blumberg.
Matt Lieber is a catharsis that you only reach after years of therapy. After you’ve almost given up on yourself.
Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore.
Special thanks this week to the BBC, Sylvie Douglis, Kelly Prime, and Starlee Kine.
Our theme music is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can find us at iTunes.com/replyall or replyall.limo, which was designed in partnership with Athletics.
We’re also hiring an intern for this summer. So, if you’re interested, check out the details on our website and apply.
Thanks for listening, we’ll see you next week.