With a camera phone around every corner, and audio recording devices in every pocket your past will cling to you like polyester on a dry day. It sounds scary for those who have something to hide, but the future of image management is less about removing negative online content, and more about casting doubt on its validity. The future is content obfuscation.
I speak to students often, and one thing I say repeatedly is to carefully monitor yourself and use caution when posting anything to the internet. This behavior is vital, because if something negative is posted, and you’re successful in your attempt to remove it, Google Cache or Wayback Machine may have a copy of your deleted data. And don’t forget those who screen captured or snagged your data, holding it for a rainy day.
It’s inevitable. If you do something stupid, it will probably find it’s way into the public eye. And that’s why I firmly believe the future of image management will focus less on how to remove negative online content, instead focusing on how to cast doubt on reality altogether via content obfuscation.
It’s often believed that the best strategy is to simply create more positive content, and while this can work for a short moment, it’s not a long term strategy. All it takes is for one person, or journalist, to figure it out, and Google will remove the content. In an article about scrubbing negative online info the WSJ discovered “Google removed five websites from Google News after The Wall Street Journal inquired about them.”
Consider how criminals have successfully evaded the CIA, FBI, Police and Homeland Security in the last decade. In the aftermath of almost every successful plot, we discover law enforcement possessed information on the evil plot in question but failed to act. The public wonders why and at times blames our law enforcement agencies, but the problem isn’t so simple because they actually have too much data.
“The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle” Representative James Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, told The New Yorker in 2015 when discussing the Patriot Act and intelligence gathering. The problem isn’t acquiring the information, but understanding what is true, valuable, or actionable. Whether by design or by accident, criminals in the past have been able to evade prying eyes even though their actions and plans were known by their adversaries. “If you target everything, there’s no target” explained former N.S.A. executive, Thomas Drake.
Content obfuscation works in the same way, and will become the standard on how to “remove” negative online content. Future generations will control or hide their embarrassing, needle-like past by simply making a bigger haystack.
The problem isn’t acquiring the information, but understanding what is true, valuable, or actionable.
The Disinformation Age
When fictional character Michael Scott, on The Office, broke trust telling a story his employees Jim and Pam wanted to remain a secret, he adopted a form of content obfuscation by telling numerous fake stories in hopes of hiding the true tale in a web of disinformation. Scott failed however when the rumors were traced back to him. With accesible VPNs, 4Chan, Reddit, dark fiber, and telecom alternatives, future generations will find it easier to hide due to the obscurity the internet provides.
Representative Katie Hill‘s leaked naked pictures, foolish statements retweeted by Carson King when he was a child, and the President’s “grab ’em” comments are only the beginning of how the information will come back to bite public figures. As these scenarios become more common with Gen Z moving into political positions and leadership roles, well-crafted disinformation campaigns and content obfuscation will be as valuable, if not more valuable, than real information.
“Disinformation isn’t just a form of bad information. It’s ‘anti-information.’ It’s like pumping static into a room, a low-level buzz that’s just loud enough that you can’t think.” explained Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s Corporate Communications VP on a LinkedIn post. “You can’t absorb new facts. And you can’t make up your mind. Its messengers are digital technology and social media. It’s everywhere. And it feels like it’s getting noisier and noisier.”
Hiding In Plain Sight
Journalists and researchers are already struggling to verify stories hiding in plain sight, lining every corner of the internet. True stories sit idle on private blogs, message boards, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other sources, but due to lack of credibility, the information isn’t readily useable. Moving forward, fake stories will be added to this data heap not to attack adversaries or as click-bait, but to obscure the truth. The worst PR smears against individuals will likely be written by the individuals themselves.
Individuals and even brands will be the ones writing and producing the negative content about themselves, leaking it to the press via fake email accounts or through PR relationships.
Future CEOs will create deep fake videos of themselves saying offensive statements or making projections, so when the real video surfaces it will already be discredited. Politicians will hire photoshop experts to create nude photos of themselves, leaking them on every corner of the internet, so when the real photo from that wild party surfaces, no one will be able to determine what is real and what is fake.
Brands that experience customer service incidents, will flood the internet with false stories, knowing journalists will begin to discredit them one by one, painting them as the victim instead of the perpetrator. If only one negative story is questioned, all are.
Content obfuscation is the future weapon to defeat repulsive information, which means the onus is on our media and trusted sources to be as honest as possible going forward. In the last few years, journalists have experienced many “foot in mouth” moments, fed by their desire to take down antagonists. But soon, negative stories will be generated by the antagonists themselves seeking to hide the truth in a bigger haystack… if they haven’t already.