Jon Ronson was on a conference call with Lindsay Stone and Farukh Rashid—one of Michael Fertik’s employees. Rashid was asking Lindsay about her hobbies in order to help her clean up her internet presence. By creating WordPress blogs, Tumblr and LinkedIn pages, and other sites saturated with friendly pictures of and innocuous information about Lindsey, Rashid would be able to push the photo of Lindsey at Arlington further down in the search results. In the 1990s, search rankings were based on how many times a keyword appeared on a webpage. But now, websites are ranked by popularity, so Rashid needed to create webpages for Lindsey that would take hits away from the many articles about her. By creating a strategic schedule to confuse Google’s algorithm by releasing innocuous content, firms like Fertik’s can control what results people see.
This passage shows what an involved process it is to simply alter the results that come up when a person’s name gets searched on a search engine like Google. Again, this illustrates how powerful contemporary public shamings are and how far-reaching and long-lasting their aftereffects can be. Ronson is encouraging his readers to see that public shamings don’t just last a few hours or a few days—they can alter the courses of people’s lives forever, allowing one misguided moment to define their identity to themselves, their community, and even total strangers.
During a meeting with Fertik, Fertik compared the life changes and PTSD that an online public shaming can create for a person to the kinds of things the Stasi—the East Germans’ secret police force during the Cold War—put people through in the mid-to-late 20th century. The Stasi used both physical and psychological tactics to create one of the most elaborate surveillance networks in the history of the world. By intercepting private communications, the Stasi were able to make sure that no one ever really felt safe or secure, and they did it all through an informant network of volunteers who wanted attention, validation, and the feeling of doing something righteous.
While it might seem overly dramatic to compare the contemporary social media shame machine to the infamous Stasi, Ronson and Fertik assert that it’s a more apt comparison than it might initially appear to be. Both systems have been shown to reward those who play a role in the exposition of someone’s secrets or shame. By rewarding the process of public shaming with political immunity, social clout, or simply positive real-time feedback on the internet, both the Stasi and social media create an environment in which public shamings are actively encouraged.
In October of 2014, Ronson visited Lindsey Stone again. Fertik’s firm had been busy populating the internet with blog posts they’d written about the music Lindsey was listening to and the vacations she was taking. Ronson watched as Lindsey googled herself for the first time in 11 months, and she realized that while there were still scattered instances of her infamous Arlington photo on the internet, they were interspersed with more recent photos—and even photos of other Lindsey Stones. The gambit had worked.
Fertik’s firm was able to transform Lindsey Stone’s life and restore some dignity to her public image. While Lindsey’s story is still out there on the internet—and, now, in Ronson’s own book—this passage illustrates the power of social media to dictate how a person is perceived. By reclaiming her internet presence, Stone was able to reclaim part of her story.