This page considers identity pollution.
It covers -
complements the discussion of fakesters
(aka space fakes) in social network services.
Much identity pollution is not concerned with financial
gain and not concerned to airbrush the offender's public
profile. Instead it seeks to erode or destroy a victim's
public reputation and self-esteem. That victim might be
a political opponent, a business competitor, a former
partner, a target of school bullying
or merely a public figure such as a High Court judge who
has attracted the enmity of someone nasty.
That erosion has traditionally featured mechanisms such
as letters and statements that purport to come from a
political or commercial rival, the expectation being that
third parties will mistakenly believe that the falsehood
peddled by the offender comes from the victim and will
accordingly shun the victim.
Identity pollution in recent years has involved 'joe job'
email messages and faxed media releases. It has also involved
fake blogs, wikipedia entries and social network service
profiles (in which, for example, a former lover in the
guise of the victim 'reveals' that he likes to strangle
kittens, engage in stigmatised sexual activities and steal
money from his employer).
Some identity pollution - perhaps the pollution most frequently
encountered by people online - involves using someone
else's identity to persuade a recipient to read (or merely
to receive) an email
or other communication.
It is exemplified by spammers
engaging in the forgery
of email headers in an effort to subvert filtering (eg
network operators often do not block messages that purport
to come from trusted personal contacts or organisations)
and to encourage a recipient to open the message that
has not been filtered out by the network operator or by
personal filter lists.
political dirty tricks
One of the more obscure forms of online identity offences
is an update of traditional political, personal or corporate
smears, which saw an opponent disseminate a letter or
statement supposedly authored by an entity to be discredited.
Such communications in paper formats include -
acknowledgements of sexual or financial impropriety
(eg US presidential candidates 'confessing' to children
out of wedlock or across the colour barrier)
endorsement of unpopular causes
endorsement by unpopular organisations (eg distribution
during the Australian 2007 federal election of leaflets
from a fictitious extremist body that purportedly supported
the ALP candidate in the seat of Lindsay)
attacks on popular causes
association with stigmatised entities such as the Communist
Party (on occasion 'substantiated' through doctored
photographs, such as a 1950 photo of US Senator Millard
Tydings supposedly talking with Communist Party leader
Earl Browder and fake newspaper clips of John Kerry
on stage with Jane Fonda at a 1970s Vietnam War protest).
In the online environment 'joe jobs' as part of the digital
intifada or US 'culture wars' have included email messages
that purport to come from figures such as Noam Chomsky,
Hillary Clinton and Arial Sharon or from entities such
as the Israeli government, Procter & Gamble, the ACLU
or World Bank. In 2005 a fake media release outing
Scottish Executive minister Malcolm Chisholm (supposedly
announcing that he wanted to end "speculation"
about his sexuality and that he was "gay and in love")
was emailed to the media.
In December 2008 the New York Times ineptly published
a fake letter to the editor from Paris mayor Bertrand
Delanoë. The letter gained international attention
for its denunciation of Caroline Kennedy's campaign for
Hillary Clinton's Senate seat. Oops, said the Times
letter was a fake. It should not have been published.
Doing so violated both our standards and our procedures
in publishing signed letters from our readers.
We have already expressed our regrets to Mr. Delanoë's
office and we are now doing the same to you, our readers.
This letter, like most Letters to the Editor these days,
arrived by email. It is Times procedure to verify the
authenticity of every letter. In this case, our staff
sent an edited version of the letter to the sender of
the email and did not hear back. At that point, we should
have contacted Mr. Delanoë's office to verify that
he had, in fact, written to us.
We did not do that. Without that verification, the letter
should never have been printed. We are reviewing our
procedures for verifying letters to avoid such an incident
in the future.
joe jobs have featured in US robocalls
(use of databases to call all/specified numbers with a
recorded message from a political candidate or advocate),
apparently in efforts to misrespresent the supposed caller
or merely to damage that person's reputation by annoy
the recipient after receiving ten or more messages per
The intention of such forgeries is generally to gain media
attention (eg encourage journalists to report a "widely
circulated rumour"), erode a reputation,
reinforce negative perceptions of the subject and provoke
email responses (eg counter messages that flood the real
inbox or result in blacklisting of messages from the owner
of the name).
In 2008 the New York Times breathlessly announced
Obama is in the final stages of putting in place a crack
team of cybernauts that will respond aggressively to
rumours that the presumptive Democratic candidate for
the US presidential election is "unpatriotic and
a Muslim." ... The rapid response internet war
room team will track and respond immediately to online
inaccurate informations about the Illinois senator.
"The only way to run a campaign is to respond immediately
when inaccurate information is put out. They [the e-mails]
are saying he's a Muslim. He's not."
Obama's campaign unveiled a new Web site on which it
listed five sets of rumors about Mr. Obama and his wife,
Michelle, along with responses intended to establish
that they are baseless and false. The Obama campaign
encouraged supporters to read each rumor and the corresponding
facts debunking it, and then to e-mail the entries to
their entire address books. By Thursday evening, more
than 20,000 people had registered at the site, and more
than 18,000 e-mail messages were sent.
social death by SNS
is not restricted to politics.
A 2003 Boston Globe article asked
Looking for revenge on that rotten former boyfriend?
Make a homepage in his name where he brags about being
a liar and ex-con with scabies. Let Google do the rest
people have taken that advice to heart, creating Facebook,
Bebo, MySpace or other social network service (SNS)
profiles in someone else's name, creating a blog in that
person's name or merely appropriating the person's identity
for posts in an online forum.
The intention is to sully the victim's reputation. It
is predicated on some people assuming that the profile
is genuine (and that the 'confession' of drug abuse, professional
malpractice, contempt for clients and colleagues, ingestion
of illicit substances, dishonesty, racism or other attributes
are true). It is also predicated on the more savvy - or
more cautious - viewers recognising that the profile or
post may be bogus but wondering whether there's fire if
Incidents of social death by SNS in Australia have featured
grubby fake profiles of leading judge Michael Kirby and
senior federal MP Stewart McArthur.
Pollution is not restricted to Facebook and its peers
or national figures: one of the landmark defamation cases
discussed elsewhere on this site is that of Zeran
in the US, involving a minor businessman smeared by anonymous
posters in an AOL forum.
Some people have exploited
Wikipedia. Kennedy associate John Seigenthaler Sr. thus
found that he had been defamed in a biography on that
site (and on its numerous clones). He commented that
I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of
"gossip." She held a feather pillow and said,
"If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to
the four winds, and I could never get them back in the
pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things
For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia.
In practice most people encounter identity pollution through
their email inbox.
That is partly a function of the 'attention economy',
in which people allocate time by choosing to open email
from friends, colleagues or other trusted sources such
as government agencies and financial institutions.
That trust provides spammers with an incentive to appropriate
an individual's or organisation's email address.
Much of the email that people get from banks, insurance
companies and entities such as the FBI, United Nations,
Australian Taxation Office or US Treasury Department does
not come from those bodies. 419
scam email similarly often does not come from the
purported author, with scammers sometimes appropriating
the identity of real people.
Some messaging may be designed to cause pain for the purported
author, rather than hide fraud by a scammer. In 2003 for
example a Sydney employee lost her job after a former
boyfriend harassed her by sending 419 scam-style email
(messages which informed recipients that they were the
owner of an unclaimed bank account or beneficiary of a
deceased estate) with her work number as the contact.
Legal remedies for identity pollution essentially depend
on the circumstances: there is no 'silver bullet' solution
that covers all incidents and all jurisdictions.
Potential remedies include -
next page (digital)