A year ago, I stated that the Ashley Madison hacking scandal was not over, and that is proven yet again. A member of the Electoral College has now had his reputation attacked online using details from the Ashley Madison data and other apparent details from his life, because he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times declaring his intention to not cast his vote for Donald Trump for president.
The Texas elector in question, Christopher Suprun, wrote a piece on December 5th, “Why I Will Not Cast My Electoral Vote for Donald Trump“, where he described how he had decided not to cast his Electoral College vote for Trump based on his principles. An elector that opts not to vote for the presidential or vice-presidential candidate for which he or she has pledged to vote is called a “faithless elector”, and is something of a rarity. Since the beginning of the United States, there have only been about 179 faithless electors out of over 20,000 total electors — so, less than 1% of electors have ever turned rogue.
Following Suprun’s published intention to not cast his electoral vote as pledged, there was a lot of online recriminations against him. He’s been insulted, castigated and threatened. But, perhaps even more harmfully, Suprun has now been targeted by the conservative-leaning yellow press site, GotNews.com, which is the brain-child of Charles C. Johnson, who was declared by Gawker to be “The Web’s Worst Journalist“.
On December 12th, Got News published a tawdry slam-piece that claims that Christopher Suprun was a client of the Ashley Madison website (a dating website set up for people desiring to cheat on their spouses), that he had filed for bankruptcy, and that he’d operated a “payday loan scam site” (headline: “EXPOSED: Anti-Trump Faithless Elector @TheChrisSuprun Paid For Ashley Madison While Bankrupt & Married w/ 3 Kids”).
The Got News expose-style story was apparently motivated by a few things:
Unfortunately, it has become terribly common for people to use online reputation attacks to harass, humiliate, bully, and extort individuals. While there is greater legal latitude in what may be allowed to be said about prominent public figures and politicians versus general members of the public, it is not altogether clear as to how Christopher Suprun would be designated if he were to sue Got News for defamation, libel, or perhaps even invasion of privacy. Is an elector necessarily a “politician”? Certainly, Suprun’s wife who is also specifically targeted by the piece (she is specifically keyword-tagged in the article) should not be considered fair game under laws that limit speech.
If one is expressing opinion, then one might be able to say almost anything about another person to some extent. But, when one is making factual assertions about another, then one becomes liable if what is said is a lie and damaging. Even politicians can be protected by that, although it seems in recent history that fewer politicians ever seek redress for factually untrue things said about them. For instance, Melania Trump, who is most definitely more of a public figure if not politician at this point, is suing The Daily Mail and Webster G. Tarpley for publishing claims that she had worked as an escort in the past.
Regardless of how one feels about the election, it is absolutely terrible for electors to be targeted by muckraking in order to bully them into passively bowing to the will of people who disagree with them. Seriously, how would you feel if you were threatened by an attack on your reputation that was focused upon either making you vote in a certain way, or revoking your right to vote? Christopher Suprun is apparently expressing and acting upon his principles.
The entire existence of the Electoral College was not intended to revoke free will. Electors that have pledged to vote for a party candidate are already strongly predisposed to vote for their candidates, and some states even have fines assessed for electors that might decide to go rogue. However, the founders did not intend for it to be entirely a slam-dunk that excludes the possibility of flipping to vote opposite, or choosing to abstain from voting — else, it would be decided merely by math.
Ultimately, the Got News expose piece should not be allowed to influence anything about the elector, and really shouldn’t have been done in the first place. It has come to a point when journalists ought to uniformly decide that the contents of hacking — which the Ashley Madison data represents — needs to be treated as “fruit from the poisonous tree” — that is, it is the product of criminal actions and should be avoided, at least in instances involving private individuals.
What is glaringly clear is that Got News is unashamedly unaware of its own ironic hypocrisy. The creator of the muckraking piece is stating that Suprun should not be allowed to perform his role as elector because his participation in a cheating website represented an intention to have an affair, and he went through bankruptcy proceedings, and he may have operated a shady website (the proof on this latter part seems lacking to me — payday loans are not automatically a “scam” nor automatically fraudulent — and, there’s no apparent criminal/legal claims involved). This is all presented as though it should be grounds for rejecting him as an elector, ostensibly to help insure that a presidential candidate will be elected who is reported to have had affairs himself, had multiple bankruptcies, and who settled a lawsuit that claimed Trump University defrauded students of millions of dollars.
Considering Got News has only claimed that Suprun did some things that Trump himself has apparently done at far greater scale, the muckraking story should be ignored by the voters invested in having Trump elected. If Christopher Suprun is disqualified from being a mere elector by these things, then Trump himself should surely be disqualified from being president.
Unfortunately, the attack-article has now gone fully viral via social media and other similar types of sites. Once something like this because distributed so widely, it will usually rank very highly in the search results when the individual’s name is searched upon, unless something is done about it.
I didn’t write this due to political motivation — I wrote it because using character assassination as a tool of bullying and intimidation, and to harm people because you disagree with their opinion is wrong. Regardless of what political party you may align with, this should not have been done. I’m not expecting there will be enough faithless electors to change the 2016 presidential election — this isn’t about that. This is about how a person ought to be able to express their opinions and act on their principles without having their reputations attacked and ruined for years to come after the event.
I know that the people who participated with Ashley Madison don’t elicit much sympathy. It’s valid if you feel that way to a degree, because many of them compose a group of people that apparently have expressed an interest in betraying their spouses. However, not all of them should be painted with the same brush — a great many of them were curious and did nothing further, and yet more never followed through (the site itself used automated bots to generate conversations so that men would be tricked into thinking they were getting more attention than they were). Further, some of the people outed in the Ashley Madison scandal actually had open relationship arrangements with their spouses, and for yet others, their participation was a past indiscretion that had already been acknowledged and addressed with their spouses. So, you don’t know what their situations may be. The hacking of that site resulted in embarrassment, lost jobs, reputation damage, and even some suicides — in some cases, the damage may well have been far out of proportion of individuals’ participation with the site.
It’s also worth pointing out that Got News has apparently made substantial errors in the past when rushing to published other character assassinations as well, so you really can’t be certain that they were correct on all points in their piece written to make Chris Suprun look bad.
I’ve worked to try to help a number of people who have had something detrimental published about them on the internet. Generally speaking, something like Ashley Madison involvement ought to be only between two spouses, but once things like this get published, they can dog a person’s life for years. Anytime you search for someone by name on the internet, things like this can show up on page one in the search engines, impacting employment, relationships, and more. Past indiscretions or past failures need to be able to fade in most cases, and should not be the thing that defines one for years after the fact.
There are many agencies that work to repair one’s reputation online, and to undo the malice of character assassination on the internet. The industry is called “Online Reputation Management” (also known as “ORM”), but that’s mostly a euphemism for “Online Reputation Repair”. The primary strategy for ORM in such cases involves trying to promote positive and neutral content about a person, using Search Engine Optimization (a.k.a. “SEO”). This work isn’t easy, nor quick, nor necessarily permanent. And, it’s costly to undertake all of the work necessary to make it effective.
Online Reputation Repair can actually be crowd-sourced in some cases, however! If enough people promote existing positive/neutral content for a person’s name, then it will move up to the top of Google and Bing search results, pushing down the negative content until it’s off of the first pages of search results, and out of sight (and, out-of-sight is equivalent to out-of-mind).
If you feel as I do that the muckraking piece was simply inappropriate, and that it’s unfair that Christopher Suprun should have to endure ongoing problems in his personal life due to the reputation damage, you can do something about it. You can link-to the following positive/neutral items that are relevant for Suprun’s name searches, and you can also Tweet links to them, post the links on Facebook, post them on Tumblr, and blog about them. Each link helps increase the chances of these materials out-ranking the negative stories and mentions:
There are, of course, more things Suprun could do to improve the situation for himself. For one, he needs a personal website with a domain name that incorporates his name. There are other measures he could take as well.
If you are the subject of an online attack yourself, you can take similar steps to improve your online reputation as what I’ve related here, and you can read my online reputation management articles at Marketing Land for more self-help tips.
Note bene: I considered quite carefully whether to report on this online reputation story, because I try hard to avoid creating the very sorts of reputation-damaging materials that I try to fight on behalf of clients and victims every day. However, the elector’s voluntary publication of the New York Times op-ed piece itself is prominent, and he likely had some inkling that it was going to invite a large volume of negative attention from Trump supporters. The sheer volume of social media statements, reporting on the original op-ed, as well as the Got News story itself are entirely prominent already. The original negative piece has gone viral. As such, I do not believe that this article is likely to cause any further harm than the muckraking story itself, and it is something of a counterpoint to it. You will notice that we do not link directly to the Got News piece here, which could otherwise increase its ability to rank in search results. If the negative piece is removed or drops in the search results, we will de-optimize this post for Suprun’s name so that this will not be prominent, either.