Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

When Someone Tells Lies About You on the Internet

Don't assume it's true just because someone bothered to type it

01.24.13 10:24 PM ET

James Lasdun has an incredible piece on what it feels like to have someone making up crazy stories about you:

As a freelance writer, I depend for my living on easy relations with magazines, creative-writing departments, and so on. Nowadays any involvement you might have with such places leaves some kind of record on the Web. All Nasreen had to do was work her way through my Google pages, and she could systematically denounce me to every one of them. She seemed to be carrying out her threat to "ruin" me.

Very rapidly my relations with all of the publications and colleges I've worked with became tinged with anxiety. Had she contacted them? If so, were they concerned? I could have asked them, of course, but doing so seemed fraught with difficulties. If they hadn't heard from her, what would they make of my strange tale of a former student's denouncing me as a plagiarizing sexual predator? Somehow it seemed a mistake to introduce such a concept of myself into the minds of other people, even friends. And if they had heard from her, well, what good would it do for me to ask them to please take no notice of what she said?

I quickly succumbed to a kind of paralyzing dread: fearing the worst on every front, nervously examining my correspondence for signs of distrust, attributing longer-than-usual silences to decisions to cut me off, but unable to bring myself to find out if the worst had actually occurred.

The culminating act in this particular line of attack came in April of 2008. I had taken a teaching job near where I live. One morning there was a knock on my office door. It was my department head, Frank, looking uncharacteristically ill at ease.

"We've been sent a very weird e-mail," he said. "Maybe you should read it."

The subject heading ran: James Lasdun, important information about your "writer-in-residence"

I began reading warily. "To Whom It May Concern," it began. "I am a former female student of James Lasdun and find it truly disturbing that he is allowed to teach on any level. During my time as his student he did no work on my writing nor on any other female writer's work."

What followed was the familiar litany of plagiarism, theft, racism, and sexual misconduct, although set out at much greater length than ever before, and with a new lavishness of detail. "I wish you'd keep Mr. Lasdun away from young women over which he has power," it concluded. "It is the only way this twisted, sadistic man can get his kicks."

As I began trying to explain to Frank that every one of Nasreen's assertions was a lie, I sensed that, although he personally believed me, in his professional capacity he needed something stronger than just my word against Nasreen's. As it happened, I had recently managed to get a detective from the New York Police Department to take an official interest in the case. If nothing else, that gave me standing as a bona fide victim. As soon as I told Frank about that, he looked immensely relieved, and by the end of our conversation, he was offering his full support

In practical terms then, I was unharmed by this latest strike. But by this stage, I was in more danger from the psychological effects of Nasreen's campaign than any practical damage she may have inflicted.

"Where there's smoke, there must be fire" is pernicious balderdash, especially in the age of the internet, when the only barrier to the number of crazy lies you can tell is the speed at which you can type.  And yet, we are all seduced by the feeling that if someone bothered to write it down, it must be true. Why would they bother, otherwise?  

But of course there are crazy, or merely vicious and revenge-bent, people who do stuff like this all the time.  Which we should remember every time we read an indignant diatribe against someone we don't know, by someone we don't know.   Yes, it would be insane to make this sort of thing up.  But there are a lot of insane people on the web.