Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch
mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies
in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.
Gregory Halpern knows how to hype. Shares of his
publicly held company, Circle Group Holdings, quadrupled in price early last
year amid reports that its new fat substitute, Z-Trim, was being tested by
Nestlé. As the stock spurted from $2 to $8.50, Halpern's 35% stake in the
company he founded rose to $90 million. He put out 56 press releases last
Then the bloggers attacked. A
supposed crusading journalist launched an online campaign long on invective and
wobbly on facts, posting articles on his Web log (blog) calling Halpern
"deceitful,""unethical,""incredibly stupid" and "a pathological liar" who had
misled investors. The author claimed to be Nick Tracy, a London writer who
started his one-man "watchdog" Web site, our-street.com, to expose corporate
fraud.He put out press releases saying he had filed complaints against Circle
with the Securities & Exchange Commission.
Halpern was an easy target. He is a cocky former judo champion
who posts photos of himself online with the famous (including Steve Forbes,
editor-in-chief of this magazine). His company is a weird amalgam of fat
substitute, anthrax detectors and online mattress sales. Soon he was fielding
calls from alarmed investors and assuring them he hadn't been questioned by the
SEC. Eerily similar allegations began popping up in anonymous posts on Yahoo,
but Yahoo refused Halpern's demand to identify the attackers. "The lawyer for
Yahoo basically told me, ‘Ha-ha-ha, you're screwed,'" Halpern says. Meanwhile,
his tormentor sent letters about Halpern to Nestlé, the American Stock Exchange,
the Food & Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission and the
Brookhaven National Laboratory (involved in Circle's anthrax deal).
But it turns out that scribe Nick Tracy of London
was, in fact, a former stockbroker in Oregon named Timothy Miles--and Miles
himself faces SEC charges that he took part in a pump-and-dumpstock scheme in
2000. He was tried in June and awaits a verdict. No matter:Circle Group stock
fell below a dollar in a year of combat with Miles and the anonymous bashers on
Yahoo (and after Nestlé dropped Z-Trim). Halpern's stake is down $75 million,
and he blames Miles and his acolytes; he has sued for defamation. "Some of these
bloggers have just one goal, and that is to do damage. It's evil," he
Blogs started a few years ago as a
simple way for people to keep online diaries. Suddenly they are the ultimate
vehicle for brand-bashing, personal attacks, political extremism and smear
campaigns. It's not easy to fight back: Often a bashing victim can't even figure
out who his attacker is. No target is too mighty, or too obscure, for this new
and virulent strain of oratory. Microsoft has been hammered by bloggers; so have
CBS, CNN and ABC News, two research boutiques that criticized IBM's Notes
software, the maker of Kryptonite bike locks, a Virginia congressman outed as a
homosexual and dozens of other victims--even a right-wing blogger who dared
defend a blog-mob scapegoat.
more of a threat than people realize, and they are only going to get more toxic.
This is the new reality," says Peter Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at
Intelliseek, a Cincinnati firm that sifts through millions of blogs to provide
watch-your-back service to 75 clients, including Procter & Gamble and Ford.
"The potential for brand damage is really high,"says Frank Shaw, executive vice
president at Microsoft's main public relations firm, Waggener Edstrom. "There is
bad information out there in the blog space, and you have only hours to get
ahead of it and cut it off, especially if it's juicy."
Some companies now use blogs as a weapon, unleashing swarms of
critics on their rivals. "I'd say 50% to 60% of attacks are sponsored by
competitors," says Bruce Fischman, a lawyer in Miami for targets of online
abuse. He says he represents a high-tech firm thrashed by blogs that were
secretly funded by a rival; the parties are in talks to settle out of court. One
blog, Groklaw, exists primarily to bash software maker SCOGroup in its Linux
patent lawsuit against IBM, producing laughably biased, pro-IBMcoverage; its
origins are a mystery (see box, p. 136).
The online haters have formidable allies amplifying their
tirades to a potential worldwide audience of 900 million: Google, Yahoo and
Microsoft, plus a raft of other blog hosts. Google is the largest player; its
Blogger.com site attracts 15 million visitors a month, more than each of the Web
sites of the New York Times, USAToday and the Washington
Post. An upstart, Six Apart in SanFrancisco, owns three blogging
services--TypePad, LiveJournal and Movable Type--that together run a strong
second to Google.
Google and other
services operate with government-sanctioned impunity, protected from any
liability for anything posted on the blogs they host. Thus they serve up
vitriolic "content" without bearing any legal responsibility for ensuring it is
fair or accurate; at times they even sell ads alongside the diatribes. "We don't
get involved in adjudicating whether something is libel or slander," says Jason
Goldman, a manager at Google's blogging division. In squabbles between anonymous
bloggers and victims Google sides with the attackers, refusing to turn over any
information unless a judge orders it to open up. "We'll do it if we believe we
are required to by law," he says.
blogs are but a sliver of the rapidly expanding blogosphere. A hundred thousand
new blogs are created every day, more than one new blog per second, says
Technorati, a firm in San Francisco that tracks the content of 20 million active
blogs. Some big blogs attract millions of readers. Weblogs Inc., a Santa Monica,
Calif. outfit that just got bought by America Online for a reported $25 million,
publishes 90 blogs and could bring in $2 million in ad sales this year, says
cofounder Jason McCabe Calacanis.
Bash-the-company Web sites emerged in the 1990s; Untied,
founded in 1997 to carp at United Airlines, was one of the first. But blogs are
more virulent; they spread farther and build on one another's allegations. The
first blog is said to have gone up on Dec. 17, 1997 from a techie who wanted to
log cool sites on the Web. By 1998 there were 23 known blogs. In 1999 the first
tools to automate a site's design came out, making blogging easy for anyone. In
2003 the word "blog" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary.
The combination of massive reach and legal
invulnerability makes corporate character assassination easy to carry out. Dry
treatises on patent law and trade policy don't drive traffic (or ad sales) for
bloggers and hosts; blood sport does. Last year consultant Sara Radicati
published a negative report about IBM's Notes e-mail product. That led to
organized outrage from bloggers who, it turns out, are consultants who make
money installing Notes. She says her firm, the Radicati Group in Palo Alto,
Calif., was deluged with obscene phone calls and e-mails, a common element when
blogs go negative. "They were trying to disable my business," she says. "It was
obscene, vile, abusive, offensive stuff. These are a bunch of sickos."
The anti-Radicati bloggers got an endorsement of
sorts from an executive at IBM. Ed Brill, an IBMer who works on Notes marketing
and publishes his own blog (edbrill.com), responded on July 23 last year to
Radicati's bearish Notes report. He questioned whether she had ties to Microsoft
and referred readers to two other blogs with far blunter assertions.
Within days bloggers had posted "investigative"
articles "exposing" her as corrupt and unethical, claiming she was a "shill"who
took bribes from Microsoft.One blogger said she was doing something shady by
operating a group that helps small companies find venture funding. Bloggers
linked to one another's sites and posted on Brill's blog and elsewhere, creating
an echo chamber in which, through repetition, the scandal began to seem genuine.
Six days after the attacks began, a Notes consultant in the U.K. gloated on
Brill's blog:"The Radicati Group?Their analysis is now meaningless …. Their name
has been blackened, their reputation in tatters."
Radicati fought back by responding on her own Web site, but the
smear job hovers online, appearing when you Google her name or start with
Brill's mostly diplomatic site and then work your way through its links. One
step away is IBM itself, which has a Notes site that once linked into Brill's.
That link has since been taken down. Radicati says IBMignored her pleas to stop
Brill from linking to the hate sites. IBM says it has nothing to do with Brill's
A week after that flap IBMer Brill
fired up the swarm again, issuing a call to arms against research firm Meta
Group for similar sins. "Y'all did such a good job on the last report … " his
blog entry began. Sure enough, soon Meta was being "investigated" by bloggers
and "exposed" as Radicati was. Gartner, which now owns Meta, declined to
No wonder companies now live in
fear of blogs. "A blogger can go out and make any statement about anybody, and
you can't control it. That's a difficult thing,"says Steven Down, general
manager of bike lock maker Kryptonite, owned by Ingersoll-Rand and based in
Last year bloggers posted
videos showing how to break open a Kryptonite lock using a ballpoint pen.That
much was true. But they also spread bogus information--that all
Kryptonite models could be cracked with a pen; that it is the only brand
with this vulnerability; and that Kryptonite knew about the problem and covered
it up.None of these claims is true, but a year later Kryptonite still struggles
to set the record straight, while spending millions to replace locks.
Even mighty Microsoft, for all its billions,
dares not defy the blogosphere. In April gay bloggers attacked Microsoft over
its failure to support a gay-rights bill in Washington State (the company is
based near Seattle). "Dear Microsoft, You messed with the wrong faggots,"wrote
John Aravosis, publisher of AmericaBlog, which threatened to oppose Microsoft's
plans for a big campus expansion unless the company caved in. Microsoft reversed
itself two weeks later, saying it supports gay-rights legislation after all. It
says pressure from its own employees, not from bloggers, caused the change of
Microsoft's p.r. people have added
blog-monitoring to their list of duties. The company also fields its own blog
posse. Some 2,000 Microsofties publish individual blogs, adding a Microsoft
voice to the town square. The company also treats some bloggers like bona fide
journalists, giving Gizmodo.com and Engadget.com interviews with
But if blogging is journalism,
then some of its practitioners seem to have learned the trade from Jayson Blair.
Many repeat things without bothering to check on whether they are true, a
penchant political operatives have been quick to exploit. "Campaigns understand
that there are some stories that regular reporters won't print. So they'll give
those stories to the blogs," says Christian Grantham, a Democratic consultant in
Washington who also blogs. He cites the phony John Kerry/secret girlfriend story
spread by bloggers in the 2004 primaries. The story was bogus, but no blogger
got fired for printing the lie. "It's not like journalism, where your reputation
is ruined if you get something wrong. In the blogosphere people just move on.
It's scurrilous," Grantham says.
though they have First Amendment protection and posture as patriotic muckrakers
in the solemn pursuit of truth, the blog mob isn't democratic at all. They are
inclined to crush dissent with the "delete" key. When consultant Nick Wreden
criticized credit card banking giant MBNA on his blog, a reader responded in
support of MBNA. Wreden zapped the comment. "I just thought: ‘This has to be a
plant,'" he says.
"It almost takes on the
feeling of a crusade," says Jeffrey Schneider, a vice president at Walt Disney
Co.'s ABCnetwork. "They put out a call to arms:‘We're going to take these guys
down, and we won't stop blogging until someone loses their head.'" ABC News
correspondent Linda Douglass came under attack from rampaging bloggers last
March in covering the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case. She had cited a
controversial memo written by a Republican staffer. Right-wing bloggers using
such pen names as Right Pundit and Mr. Right (the latter hosted by Google)
claimed she had fallen for a fake; the memo was real.
In that case the bloggers slinked away. In the case of a CNN
executive they didn't stop until they had claimed a casualty. Eason Jordan,
chief news executive at CNN, noted at an off-the-record conference in January
that journalists had been killed by U.S. troops. He used a touchy
word:"targeted." A blogger present, Rony Abovitz, ignored the off-the-record
ground rule and posted an account. Other bloggers soon piled on. One created a
site solely devoted to the topic, easongate.com.
Jordan instantly and repeatedly denied the assertions, but the
blog hordes kept wailing away. Jordan resigned in February, engulfed by a
concocted controversy. Blogger Michelle Malkin crowed online, praising nine
other bloggers and "legions of smaller" ones in the hunt. She wrote that the
mainstream media "calls it a lynch mob. I call it a truth squad" and included a
warning:"Cue the Carpenters music: ‘We've OnlyJust Begun.'"
Even some bloggers see the harm they can pose. "Some people in
the blogosphere are too smug about free speech. They'll say it's okay if people
get slandered or if people make up fake stuff because in the end the truth wins
out," says John Hinderaker, a lawyer in Minneapolis, Minn. who helps run a
right-wing blog, Power Line, which hounded CNN's Jordan and CBS anchor Dan
Rather. "But I don't think that excuses it."
When Hinderaker published an item saying left-wing bloggers
should stop assaulting a White House reporter alleged to have worked as a gay
prostitute, his blog brethren went on the assault, publishing his phone number
at work and prompting a deluge of harassing phone calls and e-mails. "My
secretary was crying" because callers kept swearing at her, he says. "Then we
started getting calls at the house. My wife wanted to hire a bodyguard."
Google and other carriers shut down purveyors of
child porn, spam and viruses, and they help police track down offenders.So why
don't they delete material that defames individuals? Why don't they help victims
identify their attackers? Because they are protected by the Communications
Decency Act of 1996, which frees a neutral carrier of Internet content from any
liability for anything said online.
"Blogging is still in its infancy. Imposing regulations would
create a chilling effect," says Annalee Newitz, until recently a policy analyst
at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends anonymous
attackers. The anonymous assault has a long tradition in American political
discourse, recognized by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McIntyre v. Ohio
Elections Commission in 1995 and in a recent decision by the Delaware Supreme
Court refusing to force an Internet service provider to disclose who called a
small-town politician inept.
But even the
Constitution doesn't give a citizen the right to unjustly call his neighbor a
child molester. Google and the like argue they bear no more responsibility for
content than a phone company does for slander over its wires. But Google's blog
business looks less like a phone company and more like a mix of reality TV and
an online magazine. Bloggers provide the fare, and Google maintains it for them
free of charge, sometimes selling ads.
Google says ad revenue isn't the point. The real aim is "to let
users embrace the Web as a medium of self-expression," a spokesman says. Google
lets them run wild. Yet Google edits and censors blog content all the time--to
protect its own interests. The company, whose portentous corporate ethos
includes the mantra "Don't be evil," snuffs out blogs that engage in "phishing"
(tricking people into revealing confidential information) and "spam blogs" that
skew Google's search results. Bloggers who sign up for its ad program (Google
passes along 79% of sales, on average) must follow firm Google guidelines that
limit references to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling and even "excessive
Once blogger attacks begin,
victims can resort to libel and defamation lawsuits, but "filing a libel
lawsuit, the way you would against a newspaper, is like using 18th-century
battlefield tactics to counter guerrilla warfare," says David Potts, a Toronto
lawyer who is writing a book on cyberlibel. "You'll accomplish nothing and just
get more ridicule." He tells clients to find a third party to bash the
Gregory Halpern at Circle Group,
in Mundelein, Ill., used this approach against his nemesis, Nick Tracy, a.k.a.
Timothy Miles. After the first attack Halpern contacted the blogger's lawyer but
got nowhere. He demanded a correction, only to get mocked:Miles posted on his
blog an audio file of a perturbed message Halpern had left on his voice
Halpern had better luck, however,
when he allied with Gayle Essary, who runs the FinancialWire online news service
and had tangled with Miles, too. Halpern dug up details on Miles (his photo and
Oregon driver's license; his links to a litany of questionable companies; his
claim to be an ordained minister; his Web site that describes a mysterious
crystal that contains a message from God) and fed them to Essary. Essary did 15
articles on Miles without citing Halpern as a source, and when Halpern heard
from people asking about Miles' allegations against Circle Group, he referred
them to FinancialWire, saying it had "exposed this guy a long time ago."
Halpern also used a new law, the Digital
MillenniumCopyright Act, which requires hosts to take down copyrighted material
used without permission. He confronted Miles' service provider and threatened to
sue for copyright infringement and libel; the ISP pulled the plug. But
our-street.com emerged days later at a second service. In three months Halpern
pursued Miles through nine ISPs, finally giving up and filing a libel suit in
state circuit court in Cook County, Ill. in June 2004. He accuses the blogger of
orchestrating a short-seller scheme to send Circle stock plunging. Miles insists
he never sold short or acted on behalf of short-sellers.
Miles, who says he misrepresented himself as Nick Tracy because
"I wanted to be discreet," has abandoned our-street.com and moved from Oregon to
Slovenia. He claims he is outside the Illinois court's jurisdiction. The judge
disagrees. Miles says he plans to appeal. He has set up a new site,
scamspotting.com, and insists he is a bona fide investigative journalist: "I
tell the truth, and it's never pretty." This drives Halpern nuts:"It's amazing
that an anonymous guy can put out a report full of lies and then be so
After anonymous attacks
spread to Yahoo, Halpern moved in court to force Yahoo to reveal who was behind
the sniping. In September a state judge in Illinois ordered Yahoo to reveal the
names. A lawyer for the secret posters is trying to settle without turning over
their names, Halpern says. Yahoo declines to comment on the case, but Halpern
argues that Yahoo and other carriers should step up: "They make money selling
ads on these message boards, and the controversial material generates the most
traffic. So they're benefiting from this garbage. I think they should take
responsibility for it."
Halpern has had
less luck getting anyone inCongress to listen to his plaint. He says that may
change if a few politicians get a taste of what he has gone through. "Wait until
the next election rolls around and these bloggers start smearing people who are
up for reelection,"Halpern says. "Maybe then things will start to happen."