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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Digital Assassination’

- - Friday, January 20, 2012

DIGITAL ASSASSINATION: PROTECTING YOUR REPUTATION, BRAND OR BUSINESS AGAINST ONLINE ATTACKS
By Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis
St. Martin's Press, $25.99, 304 pages

The Internet is a boundless universe of information and connections that fuels the economy, enhances world culture and fosters democracy. But it also is home to digital assassins who lurk undetected and lob verbal, visual and technological grenades to ruin reputations - and enlist others via social media to achieve their evil ends more quickly.

That's the ugly reality of online life as painted by Richard Torrenzano and Mark Davis in their new book, "Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand or Business Against Online Attacks." It's a largely accurate portrayal - one that brands, businesspeople and public officials must take seriously if they want to thrive in today's digital age.

Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis at times go overboard in their rhetoric, particularly when it comes to blogs and social media. They also give too much credit to journalists for having kept character assassination in check during the 20th century. The chapter on "truth remix," for example, is based in part on the prejudicial and flawed premise that "traditional media has been replaced by a blogosphere that creates falsities out of truth in order to compete for ratings and clicks."

But the authors are not Luddites. They repeatedly emphasize that we humans are the problem and that modern technology has merely increased our capacity for lies, deceit and uncommon cruelty motivated by greed, jealousy and other character flaws. They identify parallels between character attacks of the low-tech past and the high-tech present to prove the point.

"This power of the new digital assassin to destroy is as powerful as YouTube but as old as civilization," Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis write. Their aim is to illustrate the depth, reach and speed of that amplified power and to teach people how to fight back.

The book opens with one of the most infamous tales of digital assassination - the 2005 Wikipedia attack on journalist John Seigenthaler. Anyone can edit articles on the collaborative encyclopedia, and one man added this bizarrely false accusation against Mr. Seigenthaler: "For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby. Nothing was ever proven."

Detailed further in the "Silent Slashers" chapter, the Seigenthaler episode demonstrates how easy it is for malicious people to libel others anonymously, how quickly the lies can spread online and how difficult it is to combat them if you are unprepared.

Companies are as susceptible as individuals, perhaps more so in an age when unscrupulous critics and competitors willingly smear brands online. Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis provide numerous examples of "evil clones" who impersonate company spokesmen, hijack brand identities on websites and social networks, manipulate Google search results and ruthlessly parody companies they don't like. Some do it for personal reasons; others are motivated by politics or money. But the result is the same - brands fighting to save or restore their reputations.

"Digital Assassination" is an important read for online reputation managers but not always an easy one. The authors coined cutesy phrases to lump every imaginable type of online character attack into broad categories - the "seven swords of digital assassination." But some of them, like "human flesh search engines," may leave readers more baffled than edified.

Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis also delve deeply - more deeply than necessary - into the world of cybersecurity and hackers. Their "Clandestine Combat" chapter is one of the longest in the book, and unlike the other chapters, reads more as if it was written for geeks than a general audience.

The tail end of the book is the most valuable for those interested in building and protecting their brands online, whether professional or personal. While the first 10 chapters define the problem of digital assassination in depressing detail and imagine a frightening future of "reputation war," the last chapter gives readers reason to hope they can win the war.

Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis identify "seven shields" of defense against the "seven swords" of digital assassins. The authors' insistence on forcing a game plan for online reputation management into that framework makes the outline awkward, but their plan is sound.

The process starts with preparation, or, as Mr. Torrenzano and Mr. Davis put it, "Go back to school" to learn the basics of search engines, blogging and social networks. To protect their reputations, brands then need to learn what has been said about them online, take steps to improve perceptions and reality and then diligently manage their digital profiles.

The authors also advise brands how to respond when under attack. Options include everything from calmly seeking a cease-fire to pursuing passive technical solutions or aggressive legal actions. And they conclude with this insightful reminder: "The only strategy that works in your favor 100 percent of the time is the positive approach of creating a reputational cushion" of goodwill by telling your own story early and often.

David All is the chief creative officer of the David All Group, an online communications and branding firm that offers reputation management and other services.