It was a fairly ordinary day in the office for Zach Jones*, a senior reputation analyst at internet content removal company Internet Removals. Then a phone call came in that sent his entire team to battle stations. “It was a lady, and she was … I’d say she was an emotional wreck,” Zach says, his voice catching with concern. “She essentially said, ‘I can’t deal with these images. I’m going to kill myself.’”
The woman was originally from Thailand. She had moved to Australia to marry a man who almost immediately began raping, abusing and cheating on her. With no money and not even a driver’s licence, she was at the mercy of her husband’s cruelty.
Finally, unable to endure his torture any longer, she told him she planned to leave. “He said to her, ‘If you leave me, I’m going to release these videos I have of us,’” Zach explained. “She had no idea that he’d taken any videos – it turned out he had secret recordings with secret cameras [of the woman naked or having sex]. She left him anyway. And he published 54 videos of her.”
She had no idea that he’d taken any videos – it turned out he had secret recordings with secret cameras.
The woman was distraught, and Zach and his team knew they had to move fast. Within a couple of days, using all the tricks in their arsenal – including contacting Google directly via back channels and contacts that are generally unavailable unless you’re in the know, as well as negotiating with individual web hosts and website administrators using language and persuasion that they knew, from years of practice, had a good chance of getting through – the team had the pictures removed.
Eventually, the man was given a six-month sentence for the crimes he committed against his ex-wife. “But every day for her is still constant anxiety and depression and fear,” Zach says. “She never knew if he would republish them again.”
On Boxing Day 2020, he did. This time, her colleagues at work saw the images and the woman’s nightmare began all over again, until the team managed to remove the images for a second time. “Cases like this are tragic,” says Zach. “The embarrassment, the stress at work. And none of it was her fault.”
Cases like this are tragic… The embarrassment, the stress at work. And none of it was her fault.
Online reputation management – or ORM – is something that most of us probably never think about, at least until we need it. But it’s a huge and growing industry.
Around the world, thousands of ORM agencies and specialists have sprung up to help individuals or brands protect or repair their online image.
Their work ranges from deleting revenge porn or helping ‘Only Fans’ workers erase material that’s been shared beyond the confines of their paid page to requesting the removal of false or malicious Google reviews for multinational corporations.
The online reputation management industry is forecast to be worth $USD410 million by 2025
It’s no wonder the industry is booming. On average, a staggering 93 per cent of people read online reviews before buying a product and 7 in 10 employers check individuals’ social media pages before hiring.
That said, nothing’s guaranteed and there are no secret tricks when it comes to ORM: reputation managers say that it’s all about knowing who to ask about getting content removed and how to ask.
“There’s this perception that we log in to the internet and magically delete comments,” says Zach. “I wish it were that simple. But there’s no hacking, no magic wand. It’s about identifying the relevant legal principles that may be being breached by a particular piece of content, working out what’s false and what isn’t, figuring how many URLs it may be featured on, getting together supporting documents and submitting all that to the relevant platform.”
And hoping for the best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The removal of unauthorised naked photos from the internet is a fairly black-and-white case of ORM as a force for good. But not everything’s so morally clear-cut; often businesses and individuals approach reputation management companies to help whitewash their online image after it’s been tarnished in some way online.
Sarah Barcatta works as a search engine reputation manager at another Australian site, Removify. Her job is to implement something called “Reverse SEO” which involves helping clients mitigate damage from negative reviews or online coverage by “optimising existing positive assets or URLs”.
In other words, she pushes negative information about a client off Google’s front page – so people are less likely to find it – by amplifying positive coverage about them. She does this by making positive content – perhaps an upbeat blog post or their own social media pages – more favourable to Google’s rankings. Her clients? Celebrities and high-profile personalities as well as finance executives and influencers.
Which, of course, leads to inevitable questions over ethics. After all, if justified, negative news stories or reviews serve a valid purpose. Shouldn’t the public have a right to read critical coverage? And can anyone pay to have their reputations cleaned up, no matter what they’ve done?
Sarah says no. A good and reputable ORM company will only take on customers who they’ve vetted thoroughly and who can demonstrate that the information online is false, or at the very least misleading or unfair. “People think there might be some sort of moral grey area, or that we’ll just take on any client if they give us the right price,” Sarah says. “That’s 100 per cent not true. If someone has committed a violent crime, for example, then that’s something that could potentially cause harm to someone else in the future, that’s not someone we’d take on.”
If someone has committed a violent crime, for example, that’s not someone we’d take on.
Like Zach, she’s aware that her industry has a reputation for being shadowy. “People automatically assume there must be bribery or something shifty going on in the background,” she says. “Really it’s just about knowing which avenues to use to contact [various sites and platforms], what kind of language and what arguments to use, to get the best response from them.”
That’s not to say that if you’re willing to pay the right price, that you wouldn’t be able to find someone, somewhere, who could manipulate the internet to your advantage, no matter what you’ve done.
A quick scan of the internet reveals that there are countless online reputation management firms who are more than willing to remove mugshots or information about criminal convictions.
“I know dozens of ways to do things improperly, just through knowing the right way to do it,” says Zach from Internet Removals, adding that he would never use any of these dark arts.
It’s not impossible to submit fraudulent documents to Google, claiming a competitor or disgruntled customer or employee is infringing your copyright, for example, which might be enough evidence for Google to remove a perfectly legitimate review.
Which raises the question of why false or damaging content isn’t better policed in the first place, rather than being left for private companies like Internet Removals and Removify to do the cleanup work.
“It takes 30 seconds to post something that can destroy 30 years of work,” Sarah says. “It would be very hard to police every piece of content that gets posted, from a review to a Facebook post.”
It takes 30 seconds to post something that can destroy 30 years of work
Zach used to hold a very dim view of law enforcement’s inaction when it comes to things like prosecuting revenge porn, but has come to appreciate that the scope of the problem means it’s virtually impossible for police to cope with.
“When you look at what’s happening online it’s like trying to put an octopus back in a box. Every time they get on top of one area, a new problem emerges,” he says. “There is legislation out there, but legislation is only as good as the enforcement mechanism and when you can’t identify who’s posted an image, then all the legislation in the world is irrelevant.”
And this is why Zach and Sarah and their colleagues love what they do. Each of them feels that they’re making a real difference in people’s lives, people who deserve their help.
“People come to us when they’re hurting, when they’ve got a real problem,” says Sarah. “It’s one thing to have [naked photos] posted without your permission. But then to have it posted to your family, your colleagues. It can really destroy people’s lives. It’s a really rewarding area to work in, because you’re doing what you can to alleviate people’s pain.”
People come to us when they’re hurting, when they’ve got a real problem
For Zach, assisting the Thai woman escape her ex-husband’s vicious online attacks was one of his career highs. “I personally view her now as a friend, and there isn’t much I wouldn’t do to help her,” he says. “This is often the case with many victims, where we form a bond through the trauma. Unsure whether that’s good or bad but it increases our personal motivation to protect these individuals and remove the content.
“I have a scarf and a card from her which are two of my most prized possessions, and whenever I’m in her city we have a catch up,” he adds, “It makes the most mundane days possible because – as cliched as this sounds – I know that I’ve helped this one person.”
*some details have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy