When someone starts a rumour about you at school or work, it can be a harrowing experience. The false allegations might make their way around the institution, or even travel to other schools or companies, embarrassing you at every step of the way. But when someone starts a rumour about you online, it can balloon into an outsized problem very quickly. Sometimes, it can even be dangerous — consider the innocent people who have been falsely implicated in crimes in the wake of mass tragedies.
It’s hard to know how to clear your name when the lie is spreading so fast — or if you should even wade into the fray yourself. Here are some steps you can take if you are the victim of an online rumour.
Determine if it is safe to defend yourself online
This week, following the tragic mass shooting at an elementary school in Texas, online hoaxers quickly started a rumour that a transgender woman who is active on Reddit was the perpetrator. Within hours of the killing, a Republican representative had even tweeted about the rumour as fact. The accused posted a photo of herself to prove it wasn’t her, given that reports from the scene indicated the shooter was killed. She later spoke to the media, saying she’d received threats and harassment and providing time stamped photos of herself (we won’t be naming her here, because she doesn’t need to pop up on any more Google searches).
Immediately wading into the fray like this is certainly an option, but it’s important to consider your safety and your reach. In a situation where the rumour is serious and may inflame deep tensions, consider whether your post is going to be noticed at all, or noticed in a way that brings more heat down on you.
The woman’s Reddit post was direct: “it’s not me,” she wrote. “I don’t even live in Texas.” Take note of that: As tempted as you may be to react with rage and counter-accusations, it could be a pitfall to bring more negativity into the mix. Keep any response succinct, simple, and factual.
Reach out to friends with a bigger platform
If you have any friends or family members who have sizable followings online — even if only within your community — it may be time to call in a favour and ask them to help you disseminate the truth. Not every rumour will rise to the level of being falsely accused of a crime by an internet mob, but salacious stories do tend to get reposted frequently, and it will take more than one person to respond to them with the facts.
If someone reaches out to you to get your side of the story — whether they are a mere classmate or a reporter, if the incident is of public interest — consider telling it, but only if you feel reasonably confident you can represent yourself well. Here are some tips on preparing for sudden viral fame and scrutiny.
You may want to reach out to a lawyer
Representing yourself in a positive light can be daunting, especially in times of distress. It might suit you better to have someone else represent you in an instance where the rumour is particularly damaging, particularly in the case of online rumours, which are searchable, and will last forever.
Getting a lawyer might seem like a major step, but if the rumour impacts your safety, your hireability, your reputation, or your mental health, it might be a necessary one. There are legal representatives who specialise in online harassment and who will understand the ramifications involved; here are some tips for how to find one.
Wondering what a lawyer could even do? Minc Law, a firm that specialises in online defamation, advertises that its lawyers can file an internet defamation suit, remove damaging online content, and even help identify anonymous perpetrators. There’s more to this than a simple cease and desist letter.
Use a paid service to scrub yourself from the internet
The internet is real life in 2022, so the idea of removing yourself from it can be upsetting. You don’t have to go completely offline, though. You can simply consider paying for a service that will take your personal information off the web. Services like DeleteMe and HelloPrivacy can help you get your personal information taken off of those people-search sites that have replaced old-fashioned phone books.
It’s also a good idea to go through your old Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit posts and make sure nothing identifiable about your address or phone number can be found there, and consider deleting your posting history or making your accounts private so you won’t be allowing additional abuse to pour in. You may need to ride out the storm of rumours, but you don’t need to ride it out while fielding texts from strangers who believe they are true.