When I told him I had made contact with one of his clients, he was confused, then spooked. “How?” he asked, with the frightened look of a man who realizes he has left a gas burner on at home. I said I thought I knew the names of several clients, and he appeared stricken while he declined to comment as I listed them, one by one.
“This could be very bad for me,” he said, visibly shaken. “No one’s going to want my business.” We stared at each other in uneasy silence for a few minutes, and I fetched him a nonalcoholic sangria to calm him down. When I returned, Tom had shredded his napkin.
“Just tell me,” he asked as he stood up to go, “did you come upon these names because of something I said to you on the phone?” He said he’d be haunted forever by the guilt of having let a name slip. I told him no. The websites had been evidence enough.
Before we parted, Tom cautioned me that not every suspected client was technically a client. I had named the Hollywood director David O. Russell, for example: Favorable mentions of his recent film The Silver Linings Playbook are all over the Phiniverse, and Russell did have a recent slew of embarrassing press for having allegedly groped his pre-op transsexual niece in Florida. But Tom implied that Metal Rabbit may just have worked on the marketing of that film, and the Weinstein Company confirmed that he handled some of its social media. (Someone who works with Joe Ricketts of TD Ameritrade confirmed that he is a Metal Rabbit client, but insisted he only paid for web design and maintenance, not reputation management; a spokesperson for Weil claimed he had paid Metal Rabbit to “ghostwrite” for sites he said he had no reason to believe were illegitimate; Antonio Weiss, Briganti, and Schifter could not be reached for comment.)
When I asked why Irena Briganti would claim to have attended Brown University if she obviously didn’t, Tom implied that I shouldn’t be too quick to assume that an “Irena Briganti” I found online was a real person. He said that one service his company offered was the creation of doppelgängers—fake Phins or Irenas or Graemes—so that one could never be sure whether the snark on the web referred to the fakes or to the misbehaving real McCoys. I imagined a future in which rich people create dozens of scapegoats for themselves, like Saddam Hussein with his body doubles, and wondered how some data-mining bot might tell the difference.
In the days and weeks that followed our meeting and my short phone call with Phin, both he and Tom told me that they couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to me again, and I made copies of the websites, expecting that Metal Rabbit Media would panic and edit their sites. But for months, the sites all stayed up, even the ludicrous ones that placed Phin’s ponderous musings on Atlas Shrugged and Kafka in the company of Nobel laureates. They were finally edited last week, but it was hardly a thorough track-covering.
Part of me sees this brazen shamelessness as just another expression of the privilege of extreme wealth and its certainty that money will heal all wounds—$300,000 is a lot of money to blow on a failed reputation-management strategy. But it also happens to be the amount Phin was accused of smuggling into this country.
The persistence of these sites also makes me wonder: Are Phin and Chad the wild optimists about the Internet, or am I? I’d always assumed good information would crowd out bad online and that the arc of progress would bend toward truth. But the Metal Rabbit sites keep piling on, and the original tax-evasion stories are fading into the archives—last week, the fake and the real news items were still struggling for control of that first page of Phin’s search results. Of course, the only guaranteed, durable solution is one that Phin isn’t pursuing: publishing in journals that weren’t invented for his own greater glory, or giving away real money rather than paying others to pretend that he is. In the event that happens, I’m sure I’ll get a Google Alert announcing it.