Web hunches past court bans

reputational_damageEver have a hunch?

You suspect (or feel you know) something that you don’t really have a solid basis to ‘know’. A conclusion that your mind has come to all on its own that ‘feels correct’ but you can’t show a logical chain of deduction to arrive at.

Generally we believe that at some level we’ve collected enough data that some part of our mind can make an ‘educated guess’ at an answer to whatever the question might be. What causes something, who did something, why something happened – whatever the question du jour might be.

Well now we find that the web has hunches too . . . and that’s bad for a number of reasons.

A few years back I wrote a one page Christmas story for a community newspaper. In that story the early warning system protecting us from ballistic missile attack is given a way of tapping into the subconscious feelings of the population. A way of listening to the hunches of millions of people in the hopes that this might give it an edge on detecting any sneak attack happening before it gets too real to stop. And in that story the people tasked with being on guard are so close focused on the task at hand that they don’t realize that the missile tracks it shows are actually Santa heading out of the North Pole to millions of sleeping households on Christmas. And we come close to making a terrible mistake.

Recently I read a news article that shows something similar is happening. Sort of.

Here in Canada the news media can be banned from reporting on certain things for periods of time. We’d rather not have voters on the west coast know what voters in the east chose before the west has closed the voting booths. And courts regularly impose bans to protect the innocent from exposure and the trial process from being corrupted. Even after a court case is done the ban may stay in place if it might expose a child / youth victim to unfair public scrutiny.

Apparently that’s now not good enough anymore.

If enough people suspect someone of being involved and they go to their favorite search engine and type that person’s name and the crime into the search box then the search algorithm will take that into account in the results it provides to later searchers. And those search results will then show the crime reports in the search results for that person’s name.

Let’s say there’s a child molestation case involving a primary school. A popular teacher is being charged with sexual interference with a number of children. Let’s say their name is X. Because of the children the court will ban reporting X’s name and possibly the name of the school as well.

Let’s say the news story breaks on the weekend, a Saturday. Only those directly involved know the particulars. Some parents might tell other parents, friends and relatives what they know but they aren’t media outlets publishing anything that violates the ban. But word gets around and curious people more removed from the case are getting rumors. And being curious they go to the web to find out more.

Initially a search of X’s name alone won’t yield results that link to the crime but by Monday a lot of people are searching for news reports using the crime and X’s name. After many thousands of searches like that the search engine has noticed that these two items are linked together. So by the end of the week someone searching using just X’s name will see reports of the crime appearing in the result lists. Even though none of the news reports linked to will not have X’s name anywhere in them.

The news report I read regarding this comes from the Ottawa Citizen. There’s a follow up from a few days later.

As the report points out the same linkage can also take place for the names of victims if enough search attempts linking them are fed into the search engine.

Whether this is a fixable problem is debatable. In Europe they forced Google to alter it’s search results to ‘forget’ about someone’s past. There are other ramifications as well . . .

There is a small industry out there that makes a living helping people recover their ‘good name’ after some reputational damage.

Let’s say you were X in the above case. Furthermore let’s say you were found to be innocent but because you had been charged and the search engines are associating your name with the case your reputation is damaged badly. What can you do?

If you can afford it you can hire one these firms to help repair that. They will go through a process of flooding the web with ‘good things’ about you. Eventually these instances of good will push the instances of bad way down the list of results so that they won’t appear in the first few pages. And since most people don’t keep digging past page 3 or 4 that works more or less.

It’s almost the same process that put X’s name in the results to begin with but in reverse. Then again if you wanted to destroy someone that same process can be used to damage a reputation as well. The more well known the target the more likely that salacious, speculative, rumors will result in this kind of damage. New tech makes for new opportunities and not all of them are desirable.


About xamble

Most things I do involve computers. Nowadays that sounds stupid to hear because everyone uses computers. Except I was saying that before the IBM PC came on the scene. (hint: my first programs were entered on punch cards in an IBM-29) Now I mostly use them. Mostly to provide a community service in my small town. Because I could when it was asked and still can. And I'm a wannabe writer. Various books in various states of incompleteness. A few short stories. Might do more of that.
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