Finding and Identifying Perpetrators of Online Defamation
Overview of the problems, and a recommendation for a company that solves them.
August 15, 2011; updated July 29, 2013
Positively identifying (and/or proving) the person or people who are defaming you on the Internet is one of the most difficult parts of fighting online slander (or libel, more accurately).
It's also one of the most useful and perhaps the most important elements in stopping online defamation, because online slanderers rely heavily on staying anonymous. When they get a cease-and-desist letter arriving through snailmail at their physical address, they get scared. With good reason, because now they are the hunted, not the hunter.
However in an online world filled with trolls, energy creatures, and sockpuppets [definitions below], it is insanely difficult to track the slanderer back to their true identity. Even if you know who it is, it can still be near-impossible to prove.
Many "reputation defender" or online "reputation management" firms use a combination of vague legal threats and appeals for decent behavior. These rarely work as long as the slanderer is shielded by barriers like ISPs, web sites with bulletin boards where they can post anonymously, or social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace.
Nor does a victim of online defamation have much recourse against third-party website owners themselves, because of the ridiculously broad protections Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) gives website owners protection against hosting defamation posted by someone else. (I think the U.S. Supreme Court will eventually limit or strike down Sec. 230, but for now it's open season for cyber-kooks to run loose.)
I can't help you myself and that is despite having 30 years programming and computer systems experience, most of it with the Internet, and much of it with web analytics and search engine optimization (SEO). Tracing emails back to their origin and extracting forensic information from social media sites is a specialized form of online detective work, and my work is in analyzing patterns of Internet activity.
However I can recommend one firm that specializes in tracking down online slanderers, a company called Rexxfield, run by a man called Michael Roberts. Mr. Roberts approached me over a year ago, asking for a recommendation on this website. I'm somewhat sheepish that it's taken me so long, because he was forthcoming on how his company works, in two ways:
1. He provided me with names and phone numbers of several of his customers (with their permission). I called them all, and they were all satisfied or better. Then I went online into website archives (stuff the public never sees) to make sure they weren't exaggerating the defamation. They weren't; it was some pretty nasty defamation and it could no longer be found by using search engines.
2. He volunteered to demonstrate. Since our company had received some threatening emails, I turned them over to Rexxfield for tracking. They almost did too good a job in 24 hours they were getting so close to identifying the exact senders by name and location that I had to call him and yell "Stop! They haven't been sending them lately! Let that dog lie!" (It was still nice to have my suspicions confirmed about who had been sending them.)
Rexxfield also does (reverse) search engine optimization for Internet reputation management, communicates with responsible social media sites and news websites when trolls and stalkers are violating the website's own "terms of service" (rules of behavior), and acts as a legal expert witness if a lawsuit ever goes to a court trial.
However their main service is the one I regard as crucial, because it's not only the first smart step, sometimes it ends the problem: identify the perp.
www.Rexxfield.com is the first recommendation I made for a legal service in 20 years of writing about law and consumer advocacy in books and major newspapers. I had never before given any law firm or legal-related services firm a referral, despite hundreds of requests, and I still rarely do. Reason: I usually have no way to keep tabs on them, and many times I am not sure what service they are selling.
The reasons I am mentioning Rexxfield favorably: 1. They work on the Internet, and that I can track. 2. I understand what they do, and the service makes sense to me: they identify the slanderer, deliver the proof (when possible), and you decide what to do about it. 3. Their charges are based on results; unlike a lawyer, they don't charge you big bucks for losing a lawsuit.
I'm the author of Fighting Slander, Law of the Blog, and Dancing with Lawyers (all of which which are on the shelves of law libraries at eminent law schools.) This is a brief writing and legal biography, and a brief technical biography can be read here.
Update July 29, 2013: I've tried recommending other forensic online investigation firms there are very few but they seem more interested in Fortune 500 companies than individuals and small or privately held businesses, and require potential clients to fill out forms before they will talk to them. Rexxfield, by contrast, answers the phone, or responds to voicemail or email promptly.
(Meanwhile the number of "reputation defender" companies has grown, and are now known as Online Reputation Management companies, or "ORM." However, they're still limited to trying to add positive pages about you to the Web, in the hope of pushing down the negative mentions. That can't hurt, but may not solve your problems; it's a bit useless to build a nice big positive Facebook page for you, when your problem is negative comments turning up in Google search.)
Definitions: Most online defamation used to come from trolls and energy creatures. The origin of "trolls" is uncertain whether it is about physical trolls who hide under bridges and attack passerbys, or comes from "trolling" for fish. In either case trolls are people who put out inflammatory posts to infuriate people. "Energy creature" has a clear origin, from the Star Trek TV series; these are trolls-to-the-max, and the more you fight back, the more they love it as they "absorb" your energy. Your anger is their strength.
However that was the early 1990s, when most users were technically savvy and knew how to track down trolls; when free (and anonymous) email accounts didn't exist; and there were no wireless connections, so a troll couldn't conveniently go to a coffee shop and libel you anonymously.
So today we also have have online sockpuppets, relatively non-technical people who still know enough to set up ten free email accounts, and log in from different fake user accounts to post libel about you. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sockpuppet_%28Internet%29)
Today "online" is a broad term the defamation could begin online at in private or school or church discussion groups, professional discussion groups, a homeowners association or the workplace, then propagate to the WWW through websites, Facebook or Twitter, blogs, Ebay ratings or Amazon reviews, or even the old Internet standby of Usenet. It all comes to the same thing; when the defamation is propagated electronically, it can spread fast, and go beyond embarrassment to do you real harm.