“A growing cultural vulnerability to rumor.”

That’s how The New York Times describes a phenomenon that appears to be engulfing the U.S. The impetus for the article, Rumor’s Reasons, is the ceaseless momentum surrounding the claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim.

The rumor was ignited in 2004 by a vituperative web columnist. While mainstream news sources ignored him, the story took root in blogs, email, message boards and the like. Even after Snopes de-bunked the claim, it rolled on.

There are several plausible conclusions to be drawn from both this situation as well as the Times article – some of which have been discussed previously (Parts 1, 2 and 3) on this blog, as well as www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com :

* The Web lets rumors travel around the world and hang there forever.

* Repeating a claim, even if to refute it, increases its apparent acceptance. It’s the no-win situation of “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” The problem is that sometimes smoke is just smoke.

* A point related to “Where there’s smoke”: when an individual attempts to determine whether or not a statement is true, she will often look to society for signals. Do others believe it’s true? This takes on new import when one realizes that the mechanics of the Web reward volume, not truth. So in the upside-down world of the Internet, more does not mean better/more true. In fact – if the subject strenuously objects – the result may be the opposite. Obama denies being a Muslim: websites write about the denial itself and the story duplicates exponentially. Personally, I think the fact that a story is read on the Web only adds to its petri-dish-like effect. Didn’t our parents always teach us to “get it in writing?” If it’s in writing it must be true…

* Rumors mutate. Remember the game of telephone when you were a kid? A recent version of the Obama-is-a-Muslim story includes the line “I checked this out on Snopes, and it’s true.” This line will satisfy many listeners.

Here are some fresh take-aways on the topics of online rumors and reputation management:

1. Actively manage your online reputation. Consider shortcutting the process by hiring an SEO specialist – some work by the hour and will give you invaluable tips.

2. On the whole, spend your time building positive, truthful content. Work with your SEO specialist to build a plan for improving your search results. Tenure, volume and linkability are what count.

3. I do not discourage people from asking publishers to remove untruthful, damaging content, but keep this effort in perspective – and bear in mind the interests of the opposing party. Consider the possibility that a site passing an online rumor may be pleased to fan the flame by broadcasting your objection. And not to go all new-agey on you, but you’re talking about seriously bad karma. Toxicity. No one needs that.

4. I’ve spent nearly all of my time on this blog counseling you, the reader, on how to build your own/your company’s reputation. And maybe this goes without saying, but – when you are judging others – apply the Golden Rule. A graduate school would do well to put JuicyCampus posts into perspective when considering an applicant. Better still, everyone should ignore them entirely.

Many of us are most likely to study an individual’s online “persona” when we are considering the person for a job. There’s no question that it’s tempting to move on if you see unfavorable (albeit unsubstantiated) online content about a candidate, especially when there are many others from which to choose.

Don’t do it. If the Golden Rule isn’t enough of a deterrent, ask yourself whether it’s worth getting sued. While it’s not illegal to look someone up on the Web, there may be legal liability if you (a) do not give the candidate an opportunity to address the offending content, and subsequently (b) decide not to hire the individual. If you haven’t documented a work-related reason for rejecting the candidate, you may be liable. Read this thought-provoking FinancialWeek article, and note that both the legal and background check communities are beginning to counsel employers to eschew the Web (social networks, in particular) when gathering information on candidates.

Farhad Manjoo, a staff writer at Salon.com who penned Rumor’s Reasons for the New York Times, concludes by saying “There’s an arms race between truth and fiction, and at the moment, the truth doesn’t appear to be winning.”

Let’s decide that this is unacceptable.

And, friends: Check out my new daily blog at www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com, offering shorter takes on news and trends of the day.


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