I came across Monica Lewinsky's TED talk recently, in which she speaks incredibly eloquently and with great candour about the negative impact of the internet in ensuring that scandal never goes away.
As she puts it, she was 'Patient Zero' for this disease - for disease it certainly is.
I feel her pain because I've also been personally affected by information on the internet just staying there, never to be washed away, like Lady Macbeth's damned spot. When my publishing company failed, as publishing companies often do, some of the authors and clients I was working with told their tale to a national newspaper, albeit a national newspaper in a very small country. They exaggerated and told some fibs, and even where they weren't exactly lies, they were massive distortions and omissions of the truth. The articles made it sound as though I'd skipped town with the family silver, and stolen some charity money along the way to fuel my hedonistic lifestyle.
Nothing could have been further from fact, but at the time I didn't respond because of a number of assumptions and decisions I made. That anyone who knew me at all would know it wasn't the truth, and would acknowledge that my intentions throughout had always been pure. That despite it not being exactly as these individuals claimed, I had actually let them down, I had made mistakes and they did have the right to be angry. Even that these authors were doing exactly what I'd told them to do in PR terms during their six month intensive training programme with me, and had bagged themselves some national editorial coverage!
And lastly - and most dangerously and naively of all - that this would very quickly become yesterday's news.
Because I hadn't factored in the ongoing power of the internet to deliver old, fallacious 'news' as if it's current. And while the people who actually knew me personally were clear that it wasn't true, I hadn't accounted for the many people accessing the internet who don't know me at all.
I hadn't accounted for the way that everyone who hears you're an author immediately Googles you, and the first thing that pops up, even for young readers who hold you in high esteem, is a horror story impugning your most personal qualities.
I hadn't imagined that for every job I ever went for after this, I would get to final interview on the strength of my CV and meetings in person, shake hands across the table about the role I'd be doing once HR had sorted the paperwork out, and then suddenly never hear from them again.
I never imagined that my elderly parents, who had to piece me together again bit-by-sobbing-bit after all this, would be harangued by distant relatives and acquaintances who don't actually know me to talk to, or that my teenage daughter who already had enough problems of her own would be personally and horrendously attacked by know-nothing, ignorant associates for my alleged misdemeanours.
I never supposed for a second,either, that I would lose clients, fans and publishers as one, little realising (until a relative and an employer told me at the same time) that 'my' Wiki page had been created and doctored with libelous claims about copyright infringement. Or that - as I discovered by accident very recently - an online campaign of hate had been mounted such that someone had gone through my books on Amazon, adding terrible, factually incorrect one-star reviews to shred my four and five star scores into tatters and so directly affect sales.
(And just btw, this probably says a lot about authors' reliance on reviews, stars and indeed on Amazon for their success - which may be another blog piece later!)
So why didn't I do anything about it? I hear you cry.
Well, partly it was because I was pretty broken by the whole experience and the subsequent and simultaneous loss of several careers. I'm a highly qualified and competent person with a number of varied skill-sets, and this shouldn't have brought any of those into question - but somehow it did, even within myself. If I'd failed in business so completely, at what else was I now a failure? I just didn't have the heart to fight, or any confidence that I or my loved ones would even survive another skirmish. Instead, I lived on the charity of some wonderful friends, got a job in a shop (which I absolutely loved!) and quietly wrote half a dozen books while hoping that one day the clouds would lift.
(They didn't, of course. This is the internet.)
The other reason I didn't act is that it's very difficult to just get rid of this stuff. When I spoke with lawyers about getting the information removed, there was much sucking of teeth and non-committal oohing and aahing as they explained the cost involved because of the intricacy of internet legalities. For a free option, there is a European law allowing for the right to remain private on Google, but it doesn't actually remove the offending information and simply makes it inaccessible to searches. Then at the bottom of the search page it states 'removed under European law' which still makes it sound as though you have something to hide - and there's only about a 40% chance of your claim being accepted anyway. A social media expert encouraged me to create so much content that it would eventually be buried into page 10 of a Google search, but as I was trying to avoid cyber-bullying for my daughter and me, being more 'out there' online with even more "content" just didn't seem like the way to go.
And so, the conundrum. Unless you find a way to remove it, it stays forever - but attempts to remove it might create more online content that means, you know, it stays forever.
By way of example, while looking into this topic I recently Googled a guy I dated two decades ago. Not long before we met, he'd made a mistake - not a terrible one, but a mistake. He'd paid incredibly highly for it in personal terms, and that should have been that. Instead, the story of his error of judgement is still the first thing that comes up about him if you Google his name. Furthermore, the news report was filed by a journalist who has since become a very famous novelist, so it's possible there are now other routes to seeing this one misguided moment in a man's life being held up online for all eternity. It was over twenty years ago. Two whole decades! And while it in no way represents the totality of the person, it's still all that strangers will know about him.
That makes me sad.
It makes me sad for anyone who ever has terrible things written about them on the internet, which must be every second or third teenager on social media. My daughter has certainly been viciously cyber-bullied on more than one occasion, and now I've been cyber-bullied and harassed online, as have some of the stalwart friends, fans and clients who stood by me.
It has to stop. There must be limits to contain the endlessness. In her Ted talk, Lewinsky states that she's talking about this now because it's time. Cyber-bullying and online harrassment are out of control, and the moment has come to tackle it.
It's time now for me, too. I'm not just hoping for clear skies any longer. I'm creating the clarity. I'm talking about it. I'm incorporating the challenges into my books for my characters to deal with, and hopefully help others do the same. I'm discussing it with people up front, and warning people there is gossip about me on the internet. Yes, the 'news' is still there online. You can go and look at it right now, if you like.
Because the fact is now, I really don't care. I know it's not me. I know it's not the truth. I know who I am and what I stand for, and while I always felt this deep-down in my psyche, I'm no longer shaken from my self-worth by strangers who choose the scurrilous and the scandalous over the truth. As Brene Brown famously puts it in 'Daring Greatly', unless you're in the arena getting bloodied with me, then I'm not interested in your opinion.
And so you can see it from the source, here's Monica Lewinsky's Ted talk. Enjoy.