Who is trying to ruin our reputation?

A developer came to me when its planned new housing community hit a snag, after years of effort and millions in sunk costs.

An anonymous group of neighbors opposed to the development had launched a website to derail the project. The site posted negative, even false information about the proposed new community as well as officers of the company. The developer knew the names of the people showing up to city council meetings to denounce their plans, but had no idea who specifically was behind the orchestrated effort.

We combed through the website and were able to connect one of the site’s email addresses to a person who spoke at the meetings. After a background investigation, we provided our client with information they needed in order to understand who was opposing them.

Common targets

  • Developers. Whether a residential community or a large public infrastructure project, developers often face resistance from citizen groups. Sometimes, this resistance is organized into faceless attacks.But anonymous websites and social media smear campaigns can also come from a competitor, or someone who holds a personal grudge against the company. It’s important to discover the source, especially if they are spreading misinformation about a project or an individual.
  • Publicly-traded companies vulnerable to short-selling. Sometimes, people say negative things about a company with the goal of bringing down the stock price, either to capitalize on the gains as a short-seller, or simply to hurt the company because of a personal grudge.
  • Companies involved in major litigation, such as a class action suit. Negative online campaigns against companies in situations like this are common. The instigators may not be clear, and their tactics can embarrass company officers and even put their families at risk. Smear websites often provide personal details about a company’s executives, including their salaries and the names of their children.
  • High-profile individuals. A large PR firm client came to me recently, hoping to learn the source of an online negative attack on a wealthy and influential client of theirs. Such attacks can be devastating to a victim, psychologically as well as monetarily.

Getting to the bottom of it

Whether it’s a major investment or a personal reputation at stake, the results of an online attack can be damaging. Perhaps the most frustrating part is that when attacks like this happen, it can be hard to determine the source.

Though people and organizations are allowed to speak their minds and take a position using truthful statements, when these efforts cross the line into anonymous personal attacks or orchestrated misinformation campaigns, it’s time to take action.

Here are a few ways you can go about it:

  • Find the connections. With social media, there are more trails to follow than ever. Sometimes people share the location they’re posting from. Some people use the same fake usernames on multiple platforms. Their friends, their followers, and the people who respond to their posts can provide more clues.
  • Compare the content. Compare what’s written on a negative online website with the writing of someone who is a suspect. Are there any unusual words and phrases or similar grammatical errors?
  • Get technical. We’ll often start out by seeing if an IP address is traceable. It usually isn’t. But what can sometimes be found out is who originally owned the domain, and make inquiries as to who it was sold to.

Shutting it down

With enough information, clients often feel confident in approaching a person or a company’s lawyer and let them know they will consider legal action. In my experience, this tactic is often sufficient to shut off the source of an online rumor mill.

Alternatively, I have seen companies who uncover the source of a negative online campaigns leak their allegations to the press, allowing the public to arrive at its own conclusion.