I e-mailed Tom and set up a call. He was cagey about what he said but in some ways fairly up front. Metal Rabbit Media, he said, was a boutique shop for the online reputations of very wealthy people. He worked by mining the client’s history of publication and philanthropy, then pumping up the volume to drown out all else. Basic service costs $10,000 a month, Tom said, which could make Phin’s total bill, running from the first website in December 2010, nearly $300,000. (Which made me think: Just who was scamming who here?)
Many of his clients had dark pasts, Tom said, and would come to him to get rid of the problem. He said he began by managing expectations: “The name of the game really isn’t completely getting rid of it,” he said. “But if it’s just a stupid incident, there are ways that you sort of push it down so it’s not the first thing people see when they Google you.” He called the possibility that someone might notice the manipulation “our nightmare scenario” and told me “the ultimate success for us is cleaning up the bad stuff without anybody noticing.”
When I asked Tom for a client who would speak to me anonymously, he said none would. But my list of suspected clients included at least one man I thought might talk, and I e-mailed him to arrange a call. When I mentioned Metal Rabbit, he fell silent, but ultimately he agreed to speak if I didn’t use his name.
I’ll call him Chad. (Unfortunately, his anonymity is blown, since his real name appears on several websites in the Phiniverse.) He is in his thirties and is probably the most sympathetic client imaginable for a company like Metal Rabbit. A foreigner now studying in the United States, he has a distinguished record of public service overseas, including in war zones in the Middle East. But when you Google his name, that record doesn’t quite overwhelm the screeching of a single hate site, which he says a jilted ex-lover posted to expose his alleged affairs. The site is semiliterate and unhinged. Its stated purpose is “TO REVIEW AND STUDY THE DEMONIC BEHAVIOR OF [CHAD],” and it prays that the Taliban will castrate him.
When Chad and I spoke, he was on holiday in his home country, and I could hear a lovely breeze and the swaying of trees on his side of the phone. The woman in question, he said, was his girlfriend from over seven years ago, and the breakup was acrimonious. “She was stalking me and stole a bunch of my shit,” Chad claims. Then, a few years later, Chad says he found the website and felt enough shock and pain to reach out to Metal Rabbit. He couldn’t afford a Phin-scale reputation offensive, but he paid “three or four thousand dollars a month” for a “fire-drill service” that would give his online presence an emergency scrubbing—a positive PR campaign that resembled those conducted by Metal Rabbit’s more scrupulous competitors. Like the rest of Metal Rabbit’s clients, Chad seemed to have an abhorrence for the anarchy of the web and a wildly optimistic faith in reputation gamesmanship—as though bad information online could be swept up with just a PR hack and a digital dustpan.
“Honestly, the only motivation is my kids,” he says. “It’ll be upsetting to them to see their father talked about like this.” He said that he considered suing, but since the site was posted anonymously, he found he had no one to sue. “You don’t understand,” he said. “She writes one blog post, and I have to spend years living with it. This is asymmetric warfare.”
I sympathized with Chad, and could even see worthiness in Tom’s efforts on his behalf. But when I thought about Weil or Phin, I wanted to ask why Tom would act as the servant of people whose characters committed public suicide long ago.
Tom suggested a meeting at City Bakery in the Flatiron district. He was recovering from the flu but showed up a few minutes early. His voice sounded congested, and over the course of our conversation, it got softer and retreated further up into his sinuses. We sat upstairs, teapot-to-teapot, and I eased into a conversation about ethics.
“We’re not putting press releases out there willy-nilly that aren’t true,” he said boldly, describing his clients as victims, and himself something like a defense attorney hoping for a hung jury. When I asked Tom if he ever had a client too loathsome to deserve his services, he said, “I haven’t come across a completely unsavory character,” then added, “I would say it’s not my place to judge.”