Archives

Rexxfield Founder Michael Roberts Shares His Personal Story of Defamation and Explains How His Company Helps Other Victims Regain Their Good Name

Michael Roberts is the Founder of Rexxfield, a company that assists and supports individuals who have been the victims of online lies, defamation, and privacy invasion by “rendering all reasonable assistance in order to have deceptive materials retracted or hidden from the public domain and the victims’ good name and reputation restored.”

He understands first-hand what being a victim feels like, having been on the receiving end of character assassination and defamatory attacks by his ex-wife, who is now in prison for a murder conviction, and others associated with her case or seeking to capitalize upon it.

CiviliNation: Tell us about your company Rexxfield and what let to its creation.

Michael Roberts: To understand why Rexxfield was created, you first need to understand what happened in my personal life, which is a long, convoluted and incredibly complicated story.

In December 2000, my now ex-wife Tracey Richter murdered 20-year-old Dustin Wehde in what was described by one prosecutor as an execution-style killing . She claimed self-defense, and despite contradictions in her testimony and evidence to the contrary, I believed her – perhaps because at the time I couldn’t emotionally fathom the fact that she actually murdered someone in cold blood. Then in early 2004, after I discovered her affair with another man, she attempted to kill me, first by drugging me and then, when I was semiconscious, by suffocating me. By the grace of God I survived the ordeal but to this day I’m still struggling from the injuries sustained from the attempt on my life. Thankfully, the Iowa Department of Justice, crime victims compensation fund paid for my associated medical expenses.

I finally wised up, saw her for the person she really is, and filed for divorce. But notwithstanding the evidence that she had killed one man and attempted to murder another, the Family Court judge in the subsequent divorce case gave primary care of our children to my ex-wife time and time again. This just goes to show that domestic relations courts are seriously flawed and that some judges make highly questionable decisions that have serious and negative repercussions on innocent lives.

Finally, in the summer of 2011, 10 years after killing Dustin Wehde, Tracey was finally arrested and charged with first-degree murder.  She was convicted unanimously by a jury of 12 on 7 November and is now in prison serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

Fortunately, after her incarceration, I was able to obtain primary custody of our children.

What does all of this have to do with the creation of Rexxfield? Everything, I would say.

Right after I filed for divorce in 2004, my ex-wife began a relentless Internet smear campaign against me, my business, and any individual that offered any kind of support to me, whether financial, emotional, vocational, or otherwise.

My business at the time was mile2, and the relentless attacks on my reputation and, by association, my business, brought mile2, which designed, developed and delivered information security training and information assurance services, to its knees. I was forced to sell for a fraction of what it would’ve otherwise been worth had it not been for these attacks. Even then the flaming aspersions continued until July 30, 2011, the day Tracy was arrested on first-degree murder charges.

She is actually now a 3 times convicted felon; in 2009 she also received felony convictions for both perjury and fraud by trials in Iowa and Nebraska, respectively.

Rexxfield was founded in 2008 in response to understanding what character assassination and unfounded attacks on businesses can do. I had experienced first-hand the devastation that these types of attacks can cause and that, in most cases, neither law enforcement nor the civil authorities and judiciary can relate to this issue.

Instead, what I’ve frequently found is that the very entities that are supposed to help people who have been wronged seem to take the position that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you”. In my case, I had to fully prove that all of these anonymous attacks in fact originated from my ex-wife before anyone would even listen to me. So, in the process of having to convince the legal system to take my situation seriously, I developed some proprietary techniques, technologies, and methods for getting behind the cloak of anonymity in ways that ultimately helped inexorably link Tracey to the poison-penned attacks.

Unfortunately my breakthroughs were too little and too late to prevent the damage to my own name and business, but as I started blogging about my experiences I found myself being inundated with desperate cries for help. These requests ranged from tearful calls from parents of cyber bulling victims to the CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies. Realizing the desperate need for these types of services, Rexxfield was born..

CiviliNation: What kinds of people typically seek Rexxfield’s services?

Michael Roberts: Calls for help are incredibly diverse. Some are relatively simple and yet emotionally devastating because they come from teenaged cyber bullying victims, and others originate from from powerful people in multinational corporations. We also receive many calls from frustrated law-enforcement officials who are trying to investigate serious crimes. I’ve helped law enforcement investigate in cases of rape, robberies and even death threats against police officers who are living in fear despite their station in life. In all of these situations, without exception, the Internet service providers were not willing to reasonably cooperate with the investigations –  I have found Google and Facebook to be quite notorious in this area.

I was recently invited  to teach some of my methods to members of a joint federal and state task force whose mandate is protecting children from exploitation. I showed them some of the techniques we have developed and how the task force can implement those techniques into their own investigations. The group then shared some horror stories with me, including a case involving Facebook where a teenage rape victim was involved in a chat through Facebook less than half-an-hour before the crime took place. In that case it took months before Facebook complied with the requests for the originating IP address, by which time the evidence had perished because the ISP providing the connectivity to the suspect had subsequently purged the log file records. And to think the loss of this information could have been easily avoided with the proper cooperation.

In addition to helping private individuals and businesses, I am also assisting members of State House of Representatives in drafting new laws that will force Internet service providers to retain this perishable evidence for at least 2 years, because currently there are no laws addressing this obvious need. Obviously this needs to be balanced with people’s desire for privacy, so I want to make clear that through these proposed laws we are not asking to give Big Brother the keys to everybody’s Internet activities; on the contrary, we want the Internet service providers to remain the sole custodian of these confidential records and to only provide information in instances of legitimate civil and criminal warrants or subpoenas. In other words, we simply want to help avoid what happened in the rape case I described above.

CiviliNation: How have the attacks against you helped positively influence your work at Rexxfield?

Michael Roberts: Had I not gone through this fiery trial, I would’ve been like so many other people and considered the issue of online attacks and character assassination a mere trifle not worthy of serious attention. I would probably have also dismissed the victims who issue anguished cries for help as thin-skinned weaklings, as seems to be the reaction by most people who have not experienced this tragedy firsthand and simply refuse to see what is happening online.

CiviliNation: What is your response to people who claim that online reputation attacks against adults are rare and not something that most people need to worry about?

Michael Roberts: I would encourage such people to take a course in critical thinking, sympathy, empathy, and to open their eyes. I’ve found that until somebody has experienced this issue first-hand, or even second-hand through someone they love, they simply cannot relate to the devastation it causes.

Anonymous free speech is a wonderful privilege and should be preserved. In many cases horrible problems have been avoided by the ability to communicate anonymously, such as in situations involving whistle blowing of white-collar crimes, community awareness of when sexual predators move into the neighborhood, and many other alerts that are of great community benefit.

However, like all good things, anonymity is subject to abuse. There is no such thing as “free speech,” there is always a cost. Sometimes that cost is acceptable, moreover desirable, particularly in the case of positive community awareness. However, often there are many false rumors and libelous attacks, which are motivated only by hatred and vindictive antisocial promptings. More often than not, these serial cyber defamers have some type of antisocial personality disorder. They have nothing better to do than hurt other people and in fact are fueled by other people’s pain. Normal people cannot begin to relate to how these people think, yet they exist and they are out there, spreading their destruction online.

Let me give you a simple example. If a farmer has his livestock destroyed and his barns and fields burned by a vandal, not many people would struggle with the assertion that his livelihood has been utterly decimated. However, if an individual, who relies on his or her reputation to obtain and remain employed comes under attack, through Internet harassment and defamation, most people that have not experienced this firsthand will probably dismiss their anguish and complaints as petty and not worthy of the legal system or our sympathies. Yet, in practice their livelihood may have suffered catastrophic damage. At least the farmer can grow new corn and raise more cows.

CiviliNation: Do you believe that social networking and other websites have any responsibilities to help stem online attacks?

Michael Roberts: The 18th century statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for a few good men to do nothing”. A quick Google search of the many variations of this quote returns approximately half a million occurrences and can be reasonably embraced as one of the benchmarks, insomuch as it is possible, for determining what enables evil. But therein lies our tough philosophical question: “Does doing nothing, constitute doing evil, if evil is a reasonably predicted outcome of inaction?” I would argue strongly that inaction by those Internet service providers that are in a position to act, in these instances is very wrong.

CiviliNation: Why do you think there is a frequent lack of understanding by law enforcement and the legal system about the depth and breadth of the problem of online attacks and cyber-bullying against adults?

Michael Roberts: Well, as I mentioned before, many people don’t relate to this problem unless they’ve personally experienced it or had someone close to them go through it.

With respect to law enforcement, even if officers sensitive and sympathetic to the victim’s plight wish to take action, they often do not know where to start. And if they do find somebody with high-level skills needed to track the attackers down, they are usually so overwhelmed with what they consider to be “more serious” crimes such as fraud and extortion, that the defamation and harassment cases sit in the bottom of the case backlog file. By the time the cases are seriously addressed, the crucial forensic evidence, for example IP address log files, have long since perished.

CiviliNation: What role do you believe the law should play in helping reduce online attacks and adult cyber-bullying?

Michael Roberts: I would like to see a hierarchy of young and technically capable power users within law enforcement put in place, at a minimum to know the basics of evidence preservation and who to call for advice when they are in over their heads. I’m currently working with a few politicians and law enforcement personnel to develop some simple self-study video tutorials on these fundamental gaps in knowledge.

Stanford Symposium Addresses Privacy Rights and Free Speech

The Stanford Technology Law review, in conjunction with The Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, hosted the 2012 Symposium: First Amendment Challenges in the Digital Age on February 10.

The first panel featured a discussion about “Taking Forgetting Seriously,” which covered privacy rights and free speech and addressed the European Commission’s Right To Be Forgotten. The panelists included Franz Werro, professor at Georgetown Law; Dr. Lothar Determann, a partner at Baker & McKenzie; Patrick Ryan, Policy Counsel at Open Internet, Google; and Michael Fertik, founder and CEO of Reputation.com, with James Temple, technology columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle, serving as moderator.

Watch the video or listen to the audio.

 

Personality Disorders and Pathology Expert Sandra Brown, M.A. Talks About the Mental Disorders Related to Cyberstalking and Online Attacks

This is a guest post written by Sandra L. Brown, M.A.

Sandra L. Brown, M.A., is the CEO of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education and holds a Masters Degree in Counseling with a former specialization in personality disorders/pathology.

She is a program development specialist, lecturer, trainer and community educator, and is recognized for her pioneering work on women’s issues related to relational harm with Cluster B/Axis II/Sociopathy/Psychopathy disordered partners. She has taught Pathology Profiling to law enforcement, the judicial system, criminal justice professionals and the mental health/domestic violence fields.

Sandra is an award-winning author of the books Women Who Love Psychopaths: Inside the Relationships of Inevitable Harm with Psychopaths, Sociopaths & Narcissists , How to Spot a Dangerous Man Before You Get Involved and Counseling Victims of Violence: A Handbook for Helping Professionals.

You can find out more about Sandra’s work at Safe Relationships Magazine and the upcoming www.adultcyberstalking.com.

——-

“Who Does That?” Understanding the Mental Disorders Related to Cyberstalking

The challenge to understanding cyberstalking, as well as online defamation and hacking, is getting one’s head around the concept of who does this and why. The lack of understanding of the issues related to cyberstalking, as well as deficiencies in emotional support, legal interventions, and public recognition of the problem, is largely related to the lack of recognizing the disorders of the stalkers. This has been the same problem in acknowledging many other behavioral maladies of our society.

Who abducts children? Who commits repeated acts of domestic violence? Who rapes? Who steals stock options and millions from investors? Who abuses the elderly? Who hurts animals? While these appear to be different behaviors, they are all behaviors often associated with the same types of disorders that are related to stalking, cyber stalking, defamation, and hacking. When we are successful in linking the behaviors with the disorders, it’s easier to understand the motivation behind the behavior. It’s easier to answer the question “Who Does That?” and “Why?

If we stand outside of the disorders associated with cyberstalking, defamation and hacking, we get lost in only viewing the destructive behavior of the extremely disturbed. We miss the ability to link and label the disorder and its normal sequences of behavior. It’s the ability to “link and label” that give us the best chance of understanding what cyberstalking is, what it is generated from, and who is doing it.

Our goal at The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education is to help survivors heal from the aftermath of exposure to pathology that is associated with the disorders that generate the behaviors listed above.  The Institute’s primary earlier focus was related to helping people be able to spot the destructive behaviors in their relationships that are associated with permanent and unrelenting pathology.

However, since our own agency’s issues with victimization from cyberstalking, hacking, and defamation, our outreach has grown to include public pathology education about stalkers and their connections to the same type of pathology as seen in other criminal behaviors such as domestic violence, physical stalking, and abuse. (Our stories and the stories of others will be included on our site soon.)

Overt and Covert Forms of Pathological Behavior

Overt forms of pathological behavior are rarely questioned for the obvious mental health disorders that they are. For instance, few would argue that mothers like Susan Smith or Andrea Yates who drown their children aren’t terribly disordered.  But the covert crimes of  “drowning a reputation or business” on the internet may go totally unrecognized as pathology.

Those that shoot people they don’t know, or commit a drive-by shooting like the “Beltway Snipers” Muhammad and Malvo in the Washington D.C. and Virginia areas, clearly have pathological motives. While snipers shoot people they don’t know, cyberstalkers and defamers can destroy people they never met. Criminal profilers would rush to develop a psychological profile of gun snipers, but rarely are psychological profiles developed of “Internet snipers”.

The mafia which controls how other people run their businesses, who retaliate against witnesses testifying against them or extort money in exchange for non-harm, are monitored by the FBI and State Attorneys as criminals.  But members of the “Internet mafia” which controls how other people run their businesses, who create defamatory websites when witnesses testify against them, and who extort money in exchange for non-harm are not prosecuted or recognized as criminals. There is no witness protection program for cyberstalking and defamation victims.

The deranged that break into homes to beat the elderly for money, like Phillip Garrett who terrorized those in assisted living facilities, have a notable bent of sheer brutality. But that brutality would not be noted in the deranged who cyberstalk or cyberharm the elderly. The elderly victim would be dismissed as “not understanding the internet” or having early dementia for feeling threatened online, and the pathology of the attacker would not be nearly as recognizable in cyberstalking as it would be in a physical assault.

Terrorists who commit the taking of hostages and psychological torture like the infamous Stockholm Bank Robbery (which resulted in the coining of the term Stockholm Syndrome) are identifiable as probable psychopaths, but cyberstalking victims who develop Stockholm Syndrome due to their stalking victimizations are not identified as victims of probable psychopaths.

Who would argue the pathology of  gang members or thugs like James Manley who murdered my father are highly disordered? But gangs of cyberstalkers who stalk together are rarely pegged as the pit of pathology that they are, or recognized for having an online gang mentality.

Serial killers like Ted Bundy who raped and killed at least 36 women leave no doubt that he was the worst-of-the-worst psychopaths. But cyberstalkers and defamers who have ruined the lives of equal numbers of others are often unidentified – or when identified, are not labeled with the diagnosis that helps us identify the swatch of devastation they have left behind.

Cult leaders who lead hundreds to death like Jim Jones remind us of the power and persuasion of pathology. But the power and persuasion of the Internet in the hands of the highly disordered is not recognized for its own version of cult recruiting.

Re-offending domestic violence abusers like O.J. Simpson convince us that not all domestic violence is fixable and that some some abusers’ brutality increases with each crime and are obviously disordered. But re-offending stalkers and defamers’ behaviors are rarely labeled as individuals exhibiting escalating criminal behavior.

The overt forms of pathology through criminality are recognizable by most of society, and many would agree that these people are horribly disordered and possible life-long dangers. Their overt criminality is the guiding definable behavior that points to their probable pathology, but in cyberstalking, hacking, and defaming where criminality is rarely pointed to, pathology flies under the radar along with prosecution and restitution.

Even professionals in the criminal justice and mental health system have difficulty naming the mental health disorders most associated with cyberstalking and online defaming. With little inroads being made into linking and labeling the behaviors with the diagnosis, is it any wonder so little is being done in the legal arena to stop these predators? Without the understanding of how this type of pathology manifests itself, it is unlikely the criminal justice system will have any interest in the long range and repeating behaviors of most cyber stalkers.

Core Features

Low empathy is at the core of a cluster of pathological disorders that correlates to “inevitable harm” when it crosses the paths of others.  Low empathy has its roots in reduced conscience, remorse and guilt. Without empathy, pathologicals find pleasure in harming others and enjoy seeing the physical or emotional destruction of others.

Sadistic, absolutely. But often sadistic behind fictitious names, a slew of proxy servers, or a spread sheet of online identities.

Getting On The Same Page About Who They Are

Why aren’t these pathological disorders that cyberstalkers have being better identified?  That is the million dollar question since the main judicial, social, and mental health systems of our society deal with this particular cluster of pathological disorders day-in and day-out. Even if they are never identified as crimes, the fact is that the disorders associated with cyberstalkers and other societal abusers represent the majority of white- and blue-collar crimes that cataclysmically smash in our lives.

Unfortunately the reason society has not cohesively named this cluster of pathological disorders as the center of their focus is that each system has its own view of the specific behavior associated with a pathological’s disorders. Perhaps surprising to some, the pathological disorders are often the same disorders, whether emanating from a cyberstalker or rapist. While it might be assumed that there is a wide margin of behaviors separating cyberstalking from a vicious rape, the disorders that are commonly seen are often the same cluster of disorders in both groups, as well as child abusers, batterers, bank robbers and Wall Street swindlers – disorders that are earmarked by low empathy, pleasure in harming, and often the deviancy of hidden identity.

Consider the different labels that are used to describe attackers and their victims:

– Law enforcement calls them bad guys (if they are even caught)
– Mental health systems call them patients
– Domestic violence organizations call them abusers
– Batterer intervention programs call them perpetrators
– Criminal defense attorneys call them clients
– Sexual Assault centers call them rapists or sexual offenders
– Financial structures call them swindlers
– The online world calls them trolls
– Victims call them predators
– Children and adolescents call them cyberbullies
– The swindled call them con artists  
– The judicial system calls them criminals (or not, if they are never identified)
– The church calls them evil or unredeemed
– The website owners call them hackers
– The defamed call them cyberstalkers
– Parents call them pedophiles
– Jails calls them inmates
– Prisons call them high security risks
– The FBI calls them targets and terrorists

As each system deals with its own view of the specific acts a person has committed, its easy to miss the broad category that these people fall under. We miss the bigger implication of what goes within that category. We miss the fact that those who fall under these pathological disorders normally have far more destructive behaviors than cyberstalking, and that cyberstalkers often straddle the worlds of online and offline deviancy.

But when we ask “WHO does that?”, we immediately become partners. We begin to see the “who” within the act, the disorder that perpetrates these same acts, behaviors, or crimes. It’s the same sub-set of disorders that have different focuses but the same outcome: inevitable harm.

Flying Under the Radar

How convenient for pathologicals that each system is only focused on its identified behavior. Instead of seeing the big picture of pathological disorders in action, the systems are focused on the sub-directory of behaviors associated with their system and one small aspect of the pathologicals destructive nature. For most large systems, cyberstalking and defamation are small potatoes compared to the other behaviors and crimes they are used to seeing, crimes such as domestic violence, pedophilia and child abuse. Cyberstalking victims are often told that what is done to them is small in comparison to other crimes. The systems fail to see that cyberstalkers are just as disordered as child abusers and that if we are concerned about the future behaviors of child abusers, we should be concerned about the future behaviors of their like-disordered sibling, the cyberstalker, because in fact they have the same or similar disorders. But in the end, we’re seeing the same disorder, just with slightly different faces, over and over again.

Who Are They?

The commonalities that these disorders of  “inevitable harm” share is that they often fall within what is called “Personality Disorders.” These disorders consist of three clusters that share overlapping permanent and persistent symptoms related to impulse control, reduced empathy and conscience, emotional regulation disorders, a lack of fear of consequences, pleasure in harming others, and a reduced learning from negative experiences.

These disorders fall under “Cluster B Personality Disorders” which consist of:

Histrionic Personality Disordered * Borderline Personality Disorder * Narcissistic Personality Disorder * Anti-Social Personality Disorder (and associated disorders of Sociopathic and Psychopathic Personalities).

When I teach about Cluster B disorders, I see the moment of  “aha” that comes across the faces of law enforcement, mental health, and judicial professionals when they recognize their own clients. Learning the emotional, physical, psychological, behavioral, financial, sexual and spiritual behaviors of these disorders quickly helps them to affirm what kind of person does that. Looking across the room and seeing law enforcement, judges, therapists, and mediators all nodding in agreement rushes them into the center of reality that we are all dealing with the same disorder in our offices, court rooms, therapy offices and pews. That whether they are a defamer, cyberstalker, repeat domestic violence offender, a financial con artist, or a killer, we are still talking about the Cluster B of disorders.

When asking my audience of sexual offender therapists if any of the pedophiles AREN’T within Cluster B, no one disagrees. When asking batterer intervention programs if the chronic repeaters aren’t Cluster B, no one balks. When asking forensic computer professionals if trolls, cyberstalkers, defamers or bullies are Cluster B, they readily affirm it.  Sexual assault counselors agree that rapists are largely Cluster B. Judges don’t rush to disagree that high conflict cases (those people who file case after case, as many as 60 times to court) aren’t Cluster B. Mediators don’t disagree that those most likely to fail mediation are found within a Cluster B. Custody evaluators affirm that those most likely to tamper with evidence, perpetrate parental alienation and require supervised visitation are Cluster Bs. Stalking programs can easily see that stalking is primarily committed by Cluster Bs. Repeat criminals clogging up jail, probation, parole, and prison programs are often diagnosed within jail as a Cluster B disorder. Terrorists, school shooters, and bombers are easily identified as Cluster B.

Those who stay for years and years in counseling using up mental health resources without ever being able to sustain positive change are Cluster Bs (excluding here the chronic mental illness of schizophrenia or developmental disabilities). Those prematurely discharged from military service are often Cluster B. The overuse and misuse of most major societal services and systems are related to Cluster B. Some of the most brilliantly contrived insider-trading crimes of the century has been planned and executed by Cluster Bs. Are there many murderers that don’t have Cluster B?

WHO does that? If we take all the behaviors listed above (and often crimes from those behaviors), put them in an analyzer funnel and watch the behaviors clink and clunk down the spiral Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders identifier, it would spit them out in a file with Cluster B printed on the front.

Cluster B’s behaviors are generated out of a complex interweaving of emotional, developmental, neuro, biochemical, and even genetic abnormalities. Obviously, this is not a simple disorder or there would be less “inevitable harm” associated with everyone and everything they touch. This complicated group of disorders single-handedly sets society on edge. It keeps us in court, in therapy, in prayer, in the lawyer’s office, in depression, in anxiety, on edge, on the offense and sometimes even willing to end our lives simply to be away from such menacing, yet often normal appearing, deviancy.

Who wreaks more emotional havoc than Cluster B’s? 60 million persons in the United States alone are negatively impacted by someone else’s pathology. In cyberstalking it drives people to therapy, to commit their own petty acts of revenge to avenge their own powerlessness, drives people to drink, to run away,  to get offline and never look back, and sadly leads to uncountable amounts of suicides every year especially for teens being cyberbullied.

These groups of disorders single-handedly cause financial disruptions to the working class who are demoted or go on disability because of attacks they’ve suffered due to too much Cluster B exposure.

Cluster B impacts the legal market. It keeps attorneys in business through never-ending court cases, it employs judges and prison systems, and it keeps forensic computer and forensic accountants frantically busy. This level of pathology also funds domestic violence shelters, rape centers, and children’s therapy programs.

In other words, pathology is big business. It is what our large service systems in almost every field are driven by the need to protect, defend, prosecute, or treat the effects of Cluster Bs.

It employs threat assessment professionals to ward off stalkers and online reputation defenders programs to repair cyberattack damage.

It drives TV, radio and talk shows. Cluster Bs are often the persons on daytime TV and reality shows. Who do the media often want to talk about in the celebrity world? The Cluster Bs. What kinds of crimes does the media flock to? The crimes often perpetrated by Cluster Bs.

It drives the medical field due to stress-related disorders and diseases normal people develop as a reaction to the abnormal pathology of Cluster B behavior.

Surely pharmacology is partially driven by medications for depression and anxiety perpetrated by the no-conscience disorders of Cluster B.

It generates new products every year to track, expose and identify Cluster Bs who are hacking computers, sending viruses, or putting chips on phones and cars to invade others lives.

While clearly pathology generates jobs for many, it is still the single most destructive group of disorders that exist.  And until all the major systems – judicial, legal, and mental health – get on the same page, we will continue to be stuck in this maze of pathologicals flying under the radar, undiagnosed, unrealized and wreaking havoc in millions of people’s lives.

 

 

Review Sites Used For Online Retaliation

Review sites are extremely popular, perhaps because they contain what appears to be real, honest feedback by everyday folks wanting to help others out with their own experiences. People tend to trust the information their peers give them since, at face value at least, there doesn’t seem to be an ulterior motive behind it.

But while the original intent behind these sites may have been well-meaning  – to provide other consumers or members of the public truthful and relevant information to use in making purchasing, healthcare, educational or even dating decisions  – their overall value today is diminishing. A visit to these sites reveals that they’re increasingly infiltrated with submissions by disgruntled people looking for opportunities to retaliate against and hurt a business or individual. Lawsuits are becoming more common (see the example of one physician who is suing for defamation and business disparagement for an anonymously-posted review on RateMDs.com).

There are even sites that specifically cater to consumers who want to vent. Some examples include Pissed Consumer, Ripoff Report and Scambook. Others sites are of a more personal nature, such as LiarsCheatersRUs.com and Don’tDateHimGirl.com. These sites shield themselves from responsibility for the information posted on their platforms. Pissed Consumer, for example, states that:

Q: Does PissedConsumer investigate the postings published on the website?
A: PissedConsumer does not investigate the postings made by users.

Q: What can we do if we believe that someone is slandering our organization on PissedConsumer?
A: It would be advisable for you to speak to legal Professional [sic] about the situation.

Users should be extremely cautious and critical in weighing the information they find on consumer review and other ratings or feedback sites. Some of the questions they should ask themselves include:

  • Does the poster provide their real name and identity?
  • Do the posters list verifiable specifics in their complaint such as dates, times, dollar amounts, images/copies of actual records and so forth?
  • Do the posters use vague yet attacking language such as “scam” or “fraud” or “crook” without providing verifiable information about the situation?
  • Do the posters use overly inflammatory and attacking language?
  • Do the posters describe an overly negative story where everything the company or individual does is supposedly bad?
  • Do the posters reveal that one of the reasons they are writing online is to make sure others know how angry they are?

 

(Image from Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

Former Cyberbullying Victim Turned Antibullying Advocate Sue Scheff Talks About What Needs To Change Online

After being the victim of online defamation that destroyed her reputation and career, Sue Scheff sued her attacker and in 2006 won the largest defamation jury award in American legal history, $11.3 million ($1,170,000 in compensatory damages and $2,000,000 in punitive damages). She recounted her amazing story in the book Google Bomb: The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet, co-authored with attorney John W. Dozier, Jr.

Sue is the founder of Parents’ Universal Resource Experts (P.U.R.E.), which she created to help families with at-risk teens. She has been featured on Anderson, ABC News, 20/20, Dr. Phil, CBS Nightly News with Katie Couric, Lifetime, Fox News, CBC, BBC, CNN Headline News, InSession Court TV and noted in USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Miami Herald, Forbes, San Francisco Chronicle, LA Times and others.

A tireless antibullying advocate, Sue agreed to a Q&A with CiviliNation.

CiviliNation: You won the largest American legal verdict for being the victim of Internet defamation. Please tell us briefly about the circumstances surrounding your case and how that lead you to co-author the book Google Bomb.

Sue Scheff: To tell the story briefly is impossible, but I will try to condense it the best I can. I became a target of an online slime campaign that started when one person, this person I ended up suing in court, came after me for work related to Parents’ Universal Resource Expert. They had others join them as part of a “gang mentality” approach (to this day I don’t know who the others were) in a systematic attempt to emotionally destroy me, my organization, my career, my family and anything else that meant something to me. My life was being ruined one keystroke at a time. Initially I didn’t even know why there attacking me or my organization, especially my family. However, as the litigation went on, I soon found out what this really stemmed from.

Bringing this case to trial was not an easy task and was extremely expensive. I had initial asked for the defamatory online posts about me to be removed and for all the negative comments to stop.  But in doing so, it was like a match was thrown into the fire – things went from bad to worse.  The defendant was the instigator that started the fire that brought out additional trolls and minions.

On top of everything else, this person had obtained, through unscrupulous sources, personal and confidential information about me and my family that was in a sealed deposition and wanted to post it online to further embarrass and violate me. The deposition, which had been sealed by the Honorable Judge Cassell in Utah, concerned a case I had won against a youth program that had harmed my daughter, who was a teenager at the time. The youth program wanted to retaliate against me for holding it accountable for the abuse of my child and for defrauding me, and they used the defendant as a pawn…in my court case against them, I was able to prove that the organization cut them a check for their services.

Fast-forward to the jury verdict for damages… After my defamation trial was over, the jury asked permission from the judge to meet with me and my attorney, and they told me they were outraged at the online posts they read (copies of which were all in evidence) and wished me well. They said wanted to make it loud and clear that people can’t make false and unsubstantiated damaging statements about people without being held responsible. A few of the jurors even said they had prayed about the verdict.

After the $11.3M jury verdict for damages I won at the end of my 2-year legal battle, I was asked to write a book about my story. My editors suggested I invite an Internet attorney to co-author and help readers understand how free speech does not condone defamation, and also explain the difficulties of protecting individuals’ reputations in the online environment.

CiviliNation: What is your response to people who claim that only minors can be cyberbullied and that this isn’t something that can happen to adults?

Sue Scheff: I get so infuriated when I hear statements like that.  I’m not diminishing the fact that kids are being cyberbullied and that they are not emotionally mature enough to handle what is happening to them, but when adults gets cyberbullied, cyberstalked, attacked, and harassed, they are at risk of losing their jobs, careers, relationships, spouses, businesses, livelihoods, financial support…

Since writing Google Bomb I have been swamped with emails from people from all walks of life – teachers, principals, nurses, doctors, realtors, dog kennel owners, house cleaners, therapists, dentists, even lawyers, who have had their lives turned upside down by someone with a vendetta – whether a former client, an ex-wife or ex-husband,  former friend, an ex-lover, a former employee or even someone they don’t have a close connection with – and some of these people are still trying to find new jobs can’t because their reputations have been ruined online.

People don’t realize that Google is not God. And most people don’t take the time to properly and carefully search online to determine whether what they’re finding is factual or Internet fiction.  In my situation, for example, if you looked online you would have found the claim that “Sue Scheff Kidnaps Children,” yet people didn’t make the effort to figure out if this was true or false, and the reality is that this crazy statement came from an Avatar name “Fuctard” who had been in several mental institutions.

People live in a fast-paced world and don’t take the time to properly research and determine the source of what they are seeing, which means that individuals’ first Google or Internet search page is what most people believe is an accurate representation of who you are. Things are so bad that if someone is slandering you online and you are looking for a job, you may very well be unemployable because of the damaging information posted about you online by someone with a vendetta.

Considering all of this, I completely disagree that cyberbullying is not important to adults. It is extremely critical to adults. I think it is absurd there isn’t more attention given to adult cyberbullying.

CiviliNation: Do you believe that social networking and other websites have any responsibilities to help stem online attacks?

Sue Scheff: I am not sure we should blame social networking as such – I think it is more about being a responsible online participant. Everyone needs to take responsibility and accountability for what they personally put online, from pictures to silly comments.  Just remember, what goes online – stays online.

However, I do have concerns about things like Facebook’s new Timeline. I think it is a deplorable feature that is a stalkers paradise. Timeline is invasive and gives intruders full entry into a person’s past within seconds.  Though we know people post a lot of information on their Facebook profiles, the fact it would usually take a very long time to to look through everything, but now it just takes an instant..

An important thing to remember is this: People change, feelings change, views change Should you be bullied or attacked for them?  Of course not.

CiviliNation: Why do you think there is a frequent lack of understanding by law enforcement and the legal system about the depth and breadth of the problem of online attacks and cyberbullying against adults?

Sue Scheff: Is it a sincere lack of understanding or intentional lack of understanding it?  Politicians, the ones who make our laws, are public figures and they are used to a greater level of scrutiny, criticism and attack, so maybe they assume that the average person should be able to deal with it too. In reality, I honestly don’t have an answer for why there seems to be such a disconnect. It truly bewilders me that they don’t take it more seriously. Maybe cyberbullying against adults doesn’t strike the same emotional cord as actions against children or domestic violence victims. However in my opinion, we are victims of a different type of harm – emotional rape.

Let me share a quick story. After my book was published, a nurse contacted me. Without going into the details of her personal situation, I can share that she was physically raped when she was 22 years old, subsequently went through therapy, and recovered from the attack to the best of her ability. She moved on with her life and graduated with a masters degree in nursing, got married and had two children. Her life was fine until the day a colleague in the hospital became jealous of her having received a promotion, and that was the start of a   vicious online smear campaign. This nurse considered herself raped all over again and she said that the online attacks felt worse to her than what she had suffered years before. Today she is struggling with severe depression, has agoraphobia, and lost her job because her sick leave was over before she was well enough to return to work. I looked her name up on Google and what I found was mortifying. And this is someone who actually has an attorney.

I think until something happens to a politician or someone in a higher position, we won’t see any substantial legislative change. I personally have meet with with Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz twice and she seemed sympathetic to the problem, but I believe it will a strong legislative campaign to get serious traction in Congress to help fight adult cyberbullying.

CiviliNation: What role do you believe the law should play in helping reduce online attacks and adult cyberbullying?

Sue Scheff: I firmly believe there should be legal consequences.  If a person can quantify their damages, then of course, that is taken into consideration in a legal case, but as you know, many times it is emotional distress that destroys someone.  When this happened to me I was an emotional wreck, yet didn’t feel I could seek therapy since I feared finding being mocked online with “Sue Scheff Sees Shrink” or something similar. The fear of additional or ongoing attacks is a legitimate concern that victims live with on a daily basis.

As my co-author John Dozier stated in Google Bomb, most of these trolls and bullies are not only morally bankrupt, but financially bankrupt as well.  In other words, you can’t collect a judgement even if you win in court. That’s why I believe that jail time could be a wake-up call for some defenders.

The biggest obstacle is being able to prove who is behind the online attacks. Taking away anonymity and requiring the use of a name doesn’t really resolve much since anyone can claim online they are someone they are not by setting up a fake email address. Obtaining someone’s IP address and finding out who the real identity behind an action is is much harder and can be very time-consuming. I therefore think websites should be more selective about the content they allow on their sites and be more proactive about removing harassing and slanderous content.

On the flip side, it chills me when I think of sites that exploit innocent people and force them to pay them to remove negative content that are either outright lies or twisted truths.  And for the record, sometimes twisted truths are worse than outright lies.  I won’t mention the sites here because I don’t want to give them extra pageviews and help increase their rank in search engines, but we both know the names of these sites and how they contribute to the destruction of businesses, careers and lives.

I am anxiously waiting for the legal system to shift and for people and the media to wake up to the seriousness of ADULT cyberbullying.

 

Rethinking Public Figurehood in a Digital Age

In an article published in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Above the Law founder David Lat and Criminal Justice and Criminology professor Zachary Shemtob discuss what it means, under American defamation law, to be a public figure in today’s digital age.

The authors provide a concise overview of the key U.S. Supreme Court decisions pertaining to public figure status (see pp. 405 – 407 of the article).

Lat and Shemtob’s main focus, however, is examining Rosenbloom v. Metromedia Inc., 403 U.S. 29 (1971), specifically Justice Brennan’s plurality opinion where he “rejected the distinction between public and private figures in the defamation context, expressing the view that the New York Times standard [New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 282 (1964), which held that public officials can’t recover damages for defamation without proof that the statement in question was made with “actual malice”] should apply to all reports of events of ‘public or general concern.’ ”

The authors note that Justice Brennan’s opinion didn’t serve as a definitive position on whether New York Times applies to private individual’s defamation suits, but argue that it holds far greater relevance today than Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), which is the governing law in this area.

When Gertz was decided in 1974, false charges could only be countered through access to a printing press, radio station, or television network—modes of communication that ordinary citizens generally could not tap into. In 2011, however, methods of communication have expanded and changed dramatically. Thanks to the phenomenon of blogging and the rise of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, ordinary citizens have historically unprecedented access to effective communication channels. One can refute false charges not just through newspapers, radio, or television, but through a proliferation of online outlets as well. Aggrieved subjects of media coverage no longer need a newspaper to print retractions of letters to the editor; instead, these subjects can go out and tell their own side of the story on a blog or social networking site.

In further support of their position, they point out that the digital age has significantly eroded the ‘public figure’ versus ‘private figure’ distinction, since we now live in a world with a long tail of minor celebrities and an influx of niche celebrities.

They also accurately point out that technology has led to an erosion of privacy:

In this day and age—of blogs, where our private misadventures can be written about at length; of streaming video and YouTube, where said misadventures can be seen and heard by total strangers; of Facebook, where “friends” can post pictures of us, against our will (maybe we can “de-tag,” but we can’t remove); of full-body scanners at the airport— …. we are more “public” and more interconnected than ever.

They counter the criticism of adopting the Rosenbloom rule of applying the “actual malice” standard to private individuals as long as the subject matter is of public or general concern with the following:

  •  The few U.S. states that have adopted Rosenbloom haven’t proven that the rule is unworkable or resulted in excessive defamatory speech
  • Where Rosenbloom results in a more favorable environment for publishers and speakers, it’s a reflection of the law’s already existing accommodation of  technological advances (e.g. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which replaced the tort law doctrine of republication liability)
  • Adoption of the Rosenbloom rule is not the most extreme pro-media/pro free-speech position one could take

 

Although controversial, Lat and Shemtob’ article is recommended reading for those interested in free speech and defamation law.

Facebook and Twitter Help Double the Number of U.K. Online Libel Claims

One of the dangers of online hostility isn’t just the damage that can be inflicted by the communications’ specific content, but the fact that these communications, even when they are factually incorrect or defamatory, are, by virtue of being published online, instantaneously disseminated around the world without possibility of retraction.

According to legal information firm Sweet and Maxwell, over double the number of libel claimants in the U.K. cited material published on the internet in their legal actions compared to the number of cases from the previous year.

Media barrister Korieh Duodu says that the problem stems in part from the fact that  “much material on the internet is written by non-professionals without any of the fact-checking in traditional media organisations.”

He warns that:

“People who find themselves damaged on social media sites can often find it time-consuming and difficult to have the offending material removed, because many platform providers do not accept responsibility for their users’ content.

Such is the speed at which information travels through social networks that one unchecked comment can spread into the mainstream media within minutes, which can cause irreparable damage to the subject who has been wronged.”

 

There Are Good Reasons to Both Protect and Oppose Online Anonymity

There are important reasons to support online anonymity and equally good reasons to oppose it.

Facebook’s marketing director Randi Zuckerberg spoke out against online anonymity at a social media panel hosted by Marie Claire magazine last week:

“I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away. People behave a lot better when they have their real names down. … I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Zuckerberg’s observation is correct, people DO hide behind anonymity to say and do all sorts of nefarious things.

On the other hand, privacy and free speech advocates are correct when they argue that anonymity is necessary to protect certain individuals like whistleblowers and those living in unsafe conditions or politically repressive regimes.

Certain groups are particularly vulnerable to online hostility and attacks, such as children, GLBT, victims of domestic abuse, people from a persecuted religious or cultural minority, and others. The question of whether to support or oppose online anonymity is context-specific — it depends on the particular facts and situation involved — and the issue should’t be approached with a overly simplistic either/or stance.

At CiviliNation, we strongly believe that anonymity as an option needs to be preserved to help protect certain vulnerable and at-risk members of society, but that many people engaging online anonymously or under pseudonyms do so for less-than-honorable reasons in order to avoid responsibility and accountability for their hurtful actions. It’s the latter group that should not be allowed to misuse anonymity and pseudonymity for hateful, socially unacceptable, or legally actionable purposes.

 

 

Daniel Solove and The Future of Reputation

Last year I meet with law professor Daniel Solove in Washington D.C. to talk about cybercivility and the law. Solove, who teaches at George Washington University Law School, is the author of the book, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (Yale 2007), which won the 2007 McGannon Award.

What compelled Solove to write The Future of Reputation? According to the preface:

“The idea for this book came to me soon after I began blogging in May 2005. I found blogging to be enthralling and invigorating. I was fascinated by the thrill of expressing my thoughts to a broad audience yet acutely aware of how people could be hurt by gossip and rumors spreading over the Internet…. When it comes to gossip and rumor on the Internet, however, the culprit is ourselves. We’re invading each other’s privacy, and we’re also even invading our own privacy by exposures of information we later come to regret. Individual rights are implicated on both sides of the equation. Protecting privacy can come into tension with safeguarding free speech, and I cherish both values.”

Solove argues that the current legal system doesn’t adequately address the challenges people face in an online environment, and proposes suggestions for change. It should be noted that he isn’t the only legal scholar to examine this issue – more recently others, notably Danielle Keats Citron, as well as Ann Bartow, Mary Ann Franks and Nancy S. Kim, have written about this as well. Yet outside traditional legal circles, Solove’s book is arguably perhaps the best known work on this topic.

In examining the role the law might take in addressing issues of reputation and privacy, Solove takes issue with both the purely libertarian and authoritarian approaches, proposing instead (see chapter 5) a “middle ground approach” that “would be to help shape the norms that govern the circulation of information. As people are discovering the profound power to disseminate information across the planet, they often continue with gossip as if there were no difference between real-space and cyberspace. The law should ensure that people better understand the dramatic difference between gossip offline and online.”

He regards the law as a critical component in stemming online hostility, noting that:

The law should expand its protection against irresponsible Internet postings, but only after disputes have been proven insoluble via informal means or alternative dispute resolution. In other words, the law should cast a wider net, yet have a less painful bite.

The primary goal of the law should be imparting a sense of responsibility on those who post online, deterring the spread of gossip and rumors in cyberspace, and creating incentives for parties to resolve their disputes informally.

This seminal book, comprised of chapters such as How the Free Flow of Information Liberates and Constrains Us, Gossip and the Virtues of Knowing Less, Shaming and the Digital Scarlet Letter, The Role of Law, Free Speech, Anonymity, and Accountability, and Privacy in an Overexposed World, is an important resource for anyone interested in participating in a discussion of cybercivility and the law’s role in resolving online conflicts.