Since the age of antiquity, it has been well understood that one’s reputation is a thing of inestimable worth. Like our other valuable possessions, we seek to defend, protect, insure and cultivate our good name. But unlike most tangible goods, the value of our reputation is most keenly felt when it is lost. This is particularly true in today’s digital environment. Whether one is seeking gainful employment, a professional or social connection or a role in the life of the community, the success of those efforts is highly dependent on the readily available statements and opinions of others, as published on the Internet.
Reputation – the esteem in which others hold us - is entirely a function of the opinions of others, whether or not these are justified, well considered or well informed. Steven Colbert introduced the term “truthiness” into the popular culture, meaning an assumed truth “made from the gut” or just because “it feels right” and without regard to evidence, logical examination or facts. What “feels right” is often what accords with popular opinion. All too frequently, good reputations are lost by false claims masquerading as truth, particularly in the Internet age, when access and reach assume the guise of authority and when such claims are made against an unregulated and largely unexamined landscape. Compounding the problem today is the ease and relative lack of impunity with which personal grievances can be aired – explicitly or implicitly – on the Internet. Whether an angry spouse, business associate, customer or employee, it is simple enough to settle a score by placing disparaging content into the public domain, where it becomes indelible. The good reputation developed over a lifetime can be destroyed with a single click.
There is surely a public benefit to bringing substantial wrongdoing to light, both as a punishment and as a deterrent to others. This is one of the proper functions of a free, responsible and legitimate press. Yet, as competitive pressures on mainstream and more specialized news organizations continue to mount, it has become increasingly difficult for some to maintain the journalistic ethical standards that historically have justified their power and prestige. Slimmer staffs may result in less robust fact checking; less experienced reporters may be tempted to overreach; what would never have counted for a newsworthy item in the past is often published today.
Ideally, the law would provide sufficient protections against irresponsible reputational harm, but this is often not the case. Our legal system is imperfect and expensive. On the one hand, reputational harm often arises from reporting the mere existence of a legal action brought against an individual (for example, alleging malpractice, negligence or fraud). Defendants in such cases are often unable to support the high cost of a defense; they may be encouraged or forced to settle despite their innocence, while the outcomes of cases that do go to trial are not always reflective of the truth.
On the other hand, U. S. courts set an exceedingly high bar for a successful defamation action; it is often difficult to establish actual damages; the statute of limitations is woefully short (in twenty-eight states, only one year) in relation to the enduring nature of Internet content and the persistent harm it can create. Defamatory statements not legally challenged in time may persist indefinitely on the web. In addition, the defaming party may be impossible to identify, beyond reach or without the financial means of satisfying court ordered restitution.
When the social institutions we might otherwise rely upon for fair treatment - the professional press and the law - fail to provide sufficient protections or remedies for irresponsible reputational harm, social justice requires that some other means of redress be available. In Fairness Review seeks to fill this void by providing a credible and authoritative platform for individuals to present their side of the story and, perhaps, restore their good reputation.
Given the ease with which reputations can be damaged on the Internet, it is unsurprising that a thriving industry has emerged to help people manage their digital profiles. In most cases, it is impossible to actually remove disparaging content from the Internet. Recognizing this, reputation management companies do not even try to erase it; rather, they seek to “accentuate the positive” and “eliminate the negative” - at least, from ready public view. The premise of most reputation management services is that people will generally not push further than the first page of search engine results, or possibly the second, in their quest for relevant information. Accordingly, reputation management companies generally employ a two-part strategy:
Curate new, positive content intended to entirely populate Page One results. Optimize search engine results to push existing and newly created positive content up, effectively “burying” negative content within subsequent pages that most people will never view.
What is most wanting in this strategy is Page One content that is meaningful, credible and authoritative. Our own premise is that people will push further than Page One if what they find there is obvious self-promotion or mere fluff. While we believe many reputation management companies provide a valuable and much needed service, the negative content they aim to obscure will continue to persist and, if left unaddressed, remains a virtual landmine threatening to shatter even the best executed optimization strategy.
In Fairness Review provides an altogether different approach, one most of us were taught as children: don’t run from your problems; tackle them head-on. Where reputation management seeks to bury negative content, In Fairness Review sheds a light on it, along with an alternative view endorsed as more than credible and worthy of serious consideration. Not only is this potentially a more effective strategy, it seeks to empower the subject of disparaging content with its aim of restoring not only one’s reputation, but one’s pride.