ILLUSTRATION: SÉBASTIEN THIBAULT
How the 1% Scrubs Its Image Online
| le 19 December 2019
Prominent figures from Jacob Gottlieb to Betsy DeVos got help from a reputation management firm that can bury image-sensitive Google results by placing flattering content on websites that masquerade as news outlets
Jacob Gottlieb was considering raising money for a hedge fund. One problem: His last one had collapsed in a scandal.
While Mr. Gottlieb wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, googling his name prominently surfaced news articles chronicling the demise of Visium Asset Management LP, which once managed $8 billion. The results also included articles about his top portfolio manager, who died by suicide days after he was indicted for insider trading in 2016, and Mr. Gottlieb’s former brother-in-law, an employee of Visium who was convicted of securities fraud. Searches also found coverage of Mr. Gottlieb’s messy divorce in New York’s tabloids.
So last year Mr. Gottlieb hired Status Labs, an Austin, Texas-based company specializing in so-called reputation management. Its tactic: a favorable news blitz to eclipse the negative stories.
Afterward, articles about him began to appear on websites that are designed to look like independent news outlets but are not. Most contained flattering information about Mr. Gottlieb, praising his investment acumen and philanthropy, and came up high in recent Google searches. Google featured some of the articles on Google News.
His online makeover shows the steps some executives and public figures are taking to influence what comes up on the world’s top search engine. It also illustrates that despite Google’s promises to police misinformation, sites can still masquerade as news outlets and avoid Google’s detection.
Google removed five websites from Google News after The Wall Street Journal inquired about them. Google, owned by parent company Alphabet Inc., said the sites violated its policies around deceptive practices. Google’s news feature forbids “content that conceals or misrepresents sponsored content as independent, editorial content.”
Mr. Gottlieb said in an interview with the Journal that he found his press coverage unfair and wanted to fight back.
“I worked with this company to help me launch my new venture,” he said.
Status Labs interviewed Mr. Gottlieb on his interests and plans, and told him it would get him positive press coverage, according to a person familiar with the matter. He paid between $4,000 and $5,000 per month for the services.
Afterward, an article on a site called Medical Daily Times was published, saying Mr. Gottlieb made a donation to an initiative at New York University’s medical school.
The phone number for Medical Daily Times on its website rang at a pizzeria in Toronto. Until recently, the article’s author was listed as BJ Hetherington. The author couldn’t be reached for comment.
A black-and-white photo accompanied BJ Hetherington’s author page on Medical Daily Times. The photo is of a Canadian theater actor, Randy Hughson. A publicist for Mr. Hughson said he wasn’t aware his photo was being used with BJ Hetherington’s name until the Journal contacted him.
The information about Mr. Gottlieb’s donation is also inaccurate: An NYU spokeswoman said Mr. Gottlieb didn’t donate to that particular initiative, though he has donated to NYU on other occasions. Medical Daily Times didn’t check the information with Mr. Gottlieb, said a person familiar with the matter.
Medical Daily Times couldn’t be reached for comment.
Status Labs’ client list has also included scandal-rocked companies, billionaires and public officials, said former employees. Status Labs provided services to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, according to former Status Labs employees.
Status Labs’ services can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars per month, said people familiar with the matter.
Ryan Stonerock, a lawyer for Status Labs at law firm Harder LLP, said the company wouldn’t discuss its clients. A spokeswoman for Ms. DeVos at the Education Department said it “doesn’t sound like the department or the secretary have a relationship” with Status Labs and didn’t respond to other questions sent by the Journal.
Former Status Labs employees said that in addition to helping clients bury negative information in Google’s search results by gaming the tech giant’s algorithms, the company has also edited Wikipedia pages without disclosure of its role, something Wikipedia forbids.
Academics said these actions can deprive the public of information that may help them make more informed decisions.
Mr. Stonerock said Status Labs was founded to correct what it perceives as an imbalance of power between its clients and the information available online about them.
“A single false accusation can cause permanent damage to a person or a company’s hard-earned reputation,” said Mr. Stonerock. “This imbalance of power has made the first page of Google the first, and often times the last, impression for individuals and companies.”
Fifty-five Status Labs employees use “a variety of proprietary methods, which are always evolving” to help clients “disseminate positive and truthful information about themselves online,” he said. “An internal ethics committee at Status Labs vets the potential client and determines whether Status Labs can assist the client in an honest and truthful manner.”
Status Labs executives Darius Fisher and Jesse Boskoff agreed to an interview at its Austin, Texas, headquarters but canceled the meeting due to what Mr. Stonerock said was a “pressing client matter.”
Status Labs declined to respond to most of the Journal’s questions. Mr. Stonerock said the company wouldn’t comment “on its proprietary business methods and/or trade secrets.”
Google is under increased scrutiny from global regulators. Senators recently proposed bipartisan legislation that would require Google to disclose its algorithms. A recent investigation by the Journal found that the search giant has interfered with its algorithms and changed results. A Google spokeswoman disputed the Journal’s conclusions.
Google said that it tries to monitor deceptive behavior. But Google News, the unit of Google’s search engine that highlights news articles, featured several of the outlets that contained articles about Mr. Gottlieb and other Status Labs clients.
“Any efforts to enhance someone’s online presence shouldn’t involve deceptive tactics aimed at influencing Google Search rankings,” said Google, which removed the sites from Google News because they didn’t meet its transparency standards. Google News says it doesn’t allow “sites or accounts…that misrepresent or conceal their ownership or primary purpose.”
Mr. Gottlieb said the information Status Labs helped get published about him wouldn’t have affected his reputation with investors.
“Obviously nobody invests in a hedge fund…based on an article in a no-name online blog,” Mr. Gottlieb said in a statement, though he added it has “improved my reception on Tinder.”
Former Bank of America Corp. executive Omeed Malik also received services from Status Labs, according to people familiar with the matter.
The website Chronicle of Week, which used the tagline “Independent News,” published information on Mr. Malik after he became the subject of articles last year related to his firing from the bank. Mr. Malik denied allegations of sexual misconduct, later filed a defamation complaint against Bank of America and obtained an eight-figure settlement, the Journal previously reported.
In October, a Chronicle of Week article about Mr. Malik appeared on the first page of an ordinary Google search of his name. The article, dated July 23, 2019, cited his “vast pertinent experiences within multiple leadership roles” and said he “stands out as a leader within the industry.” It didn’t mention the allegations or the settlement.
The website where that article appeared has also gone by the names “Chronicle of the Week” and “Chronicle Week.” Chronicle Week described itself as “an online digital newspaper” and listed an editorial staff in February 2019. By October, after the Journal’s queries, that language and staff names had been removed, and a sentence was added that some of the information appearing on the site is paid for as sponsored content.
A Wikipedia page about Mr. Malik also became the first result in a Google search of his name, displacing news articles.
Following a Journal query, Wikipedia removed Mr. Malik’s page. Anne Clin, a Wikipedia editor involved in the decision, said Mr. Malik should never have had his own page because he isn’t notable enough. A lawyer for Mr. Malik, Tom Clare, didn’t comment on the removal and said Mr. Malik has disputed reports regarding the reasons for his departure from Bank of America.
Mr. Clare didn’t respond to questions about Status Labs. In a brief phone call in October, Mr. Malik said, “we view this as libelous.”
Status Labs provided services to Ms. DeVos before she became U.S. education secretary to suppress Google search hits connecting her to her brother, Blackwater founder Erik Prince, a person familiar with the matter said. Blackwater was a State Department contractor that was banned from Iraq after a deadly 2007 shootout of Iraqi civilians. Mr. Prince couldn’t be reached for comment.
One article touting her accomplishments as a “reformer” appeared on chemfindit.com, a site that briefly used the same IP address as a company affiliated with executives of Status Labs called Blue Land Partners, according to a Journal analysis of data from Farsight Security Inc.
Another article about her appeared online titled “Betsy DeVos Positive News Article.” The August 2017 article was on a website called “Enable Diversity,” which also featured Mr. Gottlieb. The website has since been removed.
Disgraced blood-testing startup Theranos Inc. also received services from Status Labs, according to former employees. An editing account used by Status Labs was called Jppcap, according to people familiar with the matter. That account made several favorable edits to Theranos’ Wikipedia page. One edit removed a reference to an article in the Journal reporting Theranos devices often failed accuracy requirements. Theranos dissolved last year. A lawyer for Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes and lawyers for Theranos while it was in business couldn’t be reached.
The co-founders of Status Labs, Mr. Fisher and Jordan French, also ran a company called Wiki-PR, which edited Wikipedia pages for clients, according to a former employee. Mr. French left Status Labs in 2015 following a dispute, according to that former employee and a press release from Mr. French. Status Labs was founded in 2012.
Wiki-PR edited clients’ Wikipedia pages without disclosure, according to a cease and desist letter sent by a lawyer for the Wikimedia Foundation, which oversees Wikipedia.
The Wikimedia Foundation banned Wiki-PR and its “employees, contractors, owners and anyone who derives financial benefit from editing the English Wikipedia on behalf of Wiki-PR.com or its founders,” the letter said.
Status Labs continued to stealthily edit clients’ pages, said former employees.
The hedge fund of billionaire Ken Griffin, Citadel LLC, hired Status Labs to edit information on Wikipedia in 2015 about the fund’s investments and Mr. Griffin’s art collection, according to a person familiar with the matter. Citadel’s spokesman said “changes made to the Wikipedia pages in 2015 were to correct factual errors.”
The Wikipedia account used, Jppcap, was the same one that worked on the Theranos page, according to a review of Wikipedia’s edits, which are public. The account didn’t disclose it was working on behalf of Status Labs or a paid client, which would have been a violation of Wikipedia’s terms, said Ms. Clin, the Wikipedia editor.
Mr. Gottlieb didn’t end up starting a new fund, but he is now managing his own money. His Google results still do not prioritize certain articles. In August, his former firm filed a lawsuit against the widow of Mr. Gottlieb’s deceased portfolio manager, seeking more than $100 million in repayment for money it said it paid the money manager.
The Journal published an article about the lawsuit and mentioned Mr. Gottlieb’s full name once and last name twice toward the end of the article. Many factors, such as the keywords used, help determine what Google turns up in search results.
In October, a Google search of Mr. Gottlieb’s name returned 19 pages of results. The Journal’s article wasn’t among them.