Monday, January 19, 2015

(Series Piece 10) Anna Kavanaugh - Syndicated Columnist. Column - Cyber Abuse: The Virtual Violent Crime

Written by: Anna Kavanaugh, Syndicated Columnist
Published for syndication by: The Global Institute for Cyber Safety and Standards

If you are in the business of information, you had better get it right.

Search engines. We use them every day. Google, Bing, Dogpile, Yahoo, and all the others, give us immediate access to infinite amounts of organized data that we can use to learn something we did not know, keep up with world events, connect and communicate with others, or simply feed the insatiable and voyeuristic curiosities so many people somehow find time to indulge themselves in. The immense index that serves as the roadmap for our individual online experience in navigating the World Wide Web is now such a seamless part of daily life that most of us would feel lost or anxious without it. By way of gradual conditioning, the subconscious notion has been ingrained in us that tangible resources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, and other general reference materials, have become less reliable and far more cumbersome sources of information. That is both a sad and incredibly frightening reality.

We tend to believe, without question, that search engines are the most authoritative voice we should turn to when seeking knowledge. However, as with all things dominative, there is an inherent danger that has emerged in tandem with such online search prevalency. Trusting search engines with implicit faith is a risky venture when it comes to placing our reliance on, or building our convictions upon, the results returned or suggested to us. Even when there is little hazard to the individual conducting a specific search, the online exchange between user and search engine response can simultaneously create enormous damage to the subject source, when that source is another individual. The issue here is the deliberate exploitation of the public domain leading to search engines readily returning gross inaccuracies, maliciously planted false realities, and downright blatant lies, in their results… or worse yet, offering them up as “auto-suggestions” for unsuspecting users not even looking for them but then who internalize assumptions based on what they have been provided, and who then further disseminate them. This is a common and easily available weapon of virtual warfare exploited by cyber-abusers. They count on search engines to help carry out the mass propagation of defamation and abuse campaigns designed to assassinate the reputation and credibility of their target, and to ultimately maximize the trauma, public humiliation, and the long term sustaining of damages deliberately inflicted on their victim.

As we ask the same question to social media providers, such as Facebook and Twitter, who allow their platforms to be exploited and used in the virtual violent crime of cyber-abuse, we must also ask why search engines are allowing their indexes to propagate, perpetuate, and essentially assist cyber-abusers in the execution of victim “kill” campaigns. Search engines have already been successfully sued over auto-complete results returning defamatory and unsubstantiated terms such as “fraud” or other libelous descriptors linked to an individual. Even still, many have made no changes to their search system that would rectify and limit damages to victims of cyber-abuse. This means that victims must file a lawsuit to have the terms removed. For most, the legal costs involved are far too prohibitive to pursue litigation, subsequent justice, and relief. The perpetual presence of blatantly defamatory terms in the auto-suggestions of search engines plays a significant role in the trauma inflicted on targets of malicious cyber-abuse campaigns and is also an undeniable contributing factor in the resulting suicides fulfilled by victims.

People are heavily influenced, if not driven by, subconscious perception and societal programming. The motivational influences of our impression formation and the characteristic “pack” or “herd” mentality exhibited in human beings have been studied. We are intrinsically geared to identify the leader we are to follow. When in doubt as to who that may be, where we are to go, or what we are to do, we just follow everyone else. In the world of online information the leadership role translates to the specific search engine providing data results and is perceived to be from an authoritative voice. When search engines arbitrarily present auto-suggestions to users, which may not have even been part of the original search query, they do so with dangerous implications. Users subliminally interpret those suggestions as sound and trustworthy guidance where in effect the search engine is saying, “this is most relevant to the individual you are searching,” or “this is what you need to know above all else,” or “this must be what you are looking for.” Search companies want to return accurate results based on complex algorithms consisting of stats on collective input behaviors. But when cyber-abusers and their malicious “kill” campaigns exploit such framework services in the public domain by deliberately planting false realities, blatant lies, and unsubstantiated claims into the vast expanse of the internet, those results can create catastrophic consequences that propagate and perpetuate ongoing damage indefinitely in the lives of online victims. This is too easy and convenient a method for virtual vandals to plant the proliferation of malevolent gossip and falsehoods about the targets they wish to destroy.

If the owners of these companies, or someone they loved, were to type in their name expecting to see results directing others to their work, accomplishments, and activities, but were instead to find only humiliating inferences, defamatory terms, blatant lies, or false claims, associated with their names, those results would be promptly removed. Similarly, as we have seen in precedent setting court cases, if an online victim of cyber-abuse has the financial means to sustain the staggering legal expense of litigation, they will likely win a judgment forcing search engines to disassociate the reputation-destroying terms that have been linked to their names based on input search popularity.

What happens to a victim not personally so favored? What happens to a victim who cannot bear the often prohibitive legal costs of litigation? They suffer. They continue to sustain damages. They are effectively stripped of their identity, credibility, reputation, and equal opportunities. That’s what happens. They suffer until they either find a way to live with the injustice of the maliciously contrived public shame inflicted upon them or until they can no longer live with the ongoing trauma of that injustice and fulfill suicide to bring an end to their emotional agony.

Search engines want to own and organize information. If you are in the business of marketing information and presenting yourself to be an authoritative source in providing it, you have a basic responsibility to the public. Presenting arbitrary auto-suggestions that directly link private citizens to defamatory and unsubstantiated claims is nothing short of reckless. When we are talking about people’s personal lives, relationships, reputations, careers, and livelihoods, there must be a fundamental degree of common sense and good judgment applied to any online service, whether it be social media sites or search engines. If you can’t get it right, at least don’t get it so wrong.

Something is badly broken when the lives of cyber-abuse victims depend on preferential justice, remedy, or relief. But then, no court mandate could ever repair all the damage done to a victim. Such is the way of malevolent gossip and those cruel enough to seed it. I am reminded of an exceptionally potent scene from the film, “Doubt,” starring the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman and the venerable Meryl Streep. The script is a superb and intentionally unresolved examination of the ruinous and unrestrained nature behind the proliferative spreading of unsubstantiated claims.

In the film, Hoffman portrays a Catholic priest, Father Flynn, who is scrutinized by school principal, Sister Aloysius, played by Streep. Hoffman delivers the following sermon:

“A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream. A great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing.

‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’

‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have borne false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’

So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness.

‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’

So, the woman went home. She took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed.
‘Did you gut the pillow with a knife?’ he says.

‘Yes, Father.’

‘And what were the results?’

‘Feathers,’ she said.

‘Feathers?’ he repeated.

‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’

‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind.’

‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’

‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’"


  1. Well you've hit the mark again dead center.The quote analagy you used to drive it home at the end is perfect. Great job!

  2. Solid read, strong points. Will share.

  3. I think you bring up a VERY good point if this happened to Google or Facebook's people they'd get prompt attention and help. Every victim should get that kind of special treatment! What gets me is how these companies are american but they're doing more for victims in other countries than here. The cyber abuses problems makes me think of a pie with several pieces. The number one scum are the criminals who do all this to try to ruin lives of other people but we have to be realistic. The social media and search engine spots are to blame in some way. They have to work together to make it hard as impossible for these criminals to do this instead of making it so easy.