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The Dangers of an Online Character Assassination

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When I was studying law, one of the favorite discussion and essay topics of my tutors was the separation between the state and the individual - between our private selves and what is known about us publicly.

The development of the internet and subsequent exponential growth of social media platforms has in many ways now made this a 'moot point' (as we like to say in the law) - any artificial distinction between what we hold private and what we share publicly is now irrelevant, everything is now shared, everything is now public.

It's probably too early to know what this shift in the way that information is controlled and shared means for many aspects of the way that we live and operate on a daily basis, but one clear area of concern is online reputation management.

If you're feeling a bit self-absorbed, it can be fun to Google yourself to see what shows up in the search results. However this exercise is less fun if what shows up as the public record of your life is not only untrue but maliciously false.

I recently met with professional footballer Azeem Azam. After beginning his career with Nottingham Forest and Leeds United, Azam has been struggling with a series of injuries. In 2011 Azam undertook some rehabilitation therapy in London and a dispute over the cost of the therapy took a surprising turn when the therapist involved mounted an online campaign to destroy Azam's character and reputation.

Despite legal action taken by Azam and his management, it seems that it's relatively easy to set up fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, or use anonymous profiles to post damaging comments on discussion boards or news feeds.

With his injuries now behind him, Azam is moving on (with talk of offers from Palermo and UAE club Al-Ahly), but the online damage remains - a Google search on Azeem Azam still shows the top search return as being from a fake Twitter account making slanderous statements against him.

The strain of this on Azam is obvious: "I have a young family, so you can imagine what they hear and feel. I am being strong for them but it has caused all of us so much grief and distress I could not even begin to explain."

Technology giant Microsoft offers the following guidelines on how to project your online reputation:
  • Act online in a manner that reflects the reputation you want to earn--whether you are building on an existing reputation, discarding an old persona, or creating a new one.
  • Think before you share - before you put anything online, think about what you are posting, who you are sharing it with, and how this will reflect on your reputation. Would you be comfortable if others saw it? Or saw it ten years from now? n When you choose photos and videos, think about how others might perceive them. Talk with your friends about what you do and do not want shared. Ask them to remove anything that you do not want disclosed.
  • Treat others as you would like to be treated - be civil in what you say and show on the web. Respect the reputation and privacy of others when you post anything about them (including pictures) on your own pages or on others' pages or public sites. Remove anything that does not honor this.
  • Stay vigilant about what the Internet is saying about you - sign up for personal alerts. Some search engines will automatically notify you of any new mention of your name or other personal information. From time to time, search for yourself to see what additional information has been catalogued in search engines. Periodically reassess who has access to your pages. Friends change over time; it is okay to remove those who no longer belong.