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Crossing the Line: TheDirty.com and Online Reputation Management

Blog Team • August 17, 2016

Back in 2013, it looked as though Nik Richie might get his comeuppance.

The founder and owner of the hugely successful website TheDirty.com was in court defending himself against a libel suit. Observers said the case could impact Online Reputation Management in a big way. After hearing arguments from both sides, the District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky found Richie liable for damages for posting content that harmed the reputation of a former high school teacher.

Nik Richie has made plenty of enemies since starting his website. Sarah Jones is among them; she’s the former high school teacher and professional cheerleader who sued him. The court awarded her with $388,000 in damages, but her victory glow didn’t last long; an appeals court later overturned the judgment.

No Protection

Before it was overturned, the lower court’s ruling marked the first time that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 failed to protect a website owner who accepted and posted third-party content.

The case of Sarah Jones began in 2009, after an anonymous poster wrote on TheDirty.com that Jones, who also was a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, had slept with every member of the team, and in the process infected several of them with a sexually transmitted disease.

The case was actually tried twice in District Court. The first proceeding ended with a hung jury, while the second went in favor of Jones. But here’s where it gets a little complicated. Before the lawsuit was resolved, Jones pleaded no contest, in an unrelated case, to having sex with a minor when she was still a teacher. As part of her plea deal, she received five years of probation but no jail time.

A Small Setback

Critics began to say that because of her criminal behavior, Sarah Jones could not have been defamed by Nik Richie. But Jones countered that sleeping with a student happened after Richie posted the damaging content in 2009. “Just because I messed up two, three years down the road, doesn’t mean that he can be excused.”

And yet Nik Richie was excused. The case was resolved in his favor in June 2014, when the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Richie and his site were protected under Section 230 of the CDA. The ruling is seen as a small setback for reputation management, since it makes it more difficult to have damaging online content removed.

“A Huge Wake-Up Call”

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” And that was Nik Richie's out – he’s not a publisher.

Two people gossiping

Since launching TheDirty.com in 2007, Richie's bread and butter has been posting unsubstantiated gossip about ordinary people. But most, if not all, of the posts are anonymous, and don't get any fact-checking. It’s this third-party content by unidentified writers that outrages Richie’s legions of detractors.

But theDirty.com is hardly the first website to draw controversy with aggressive tactics. ShesaHomewrecker.com encourages women whose husbands or boyfriends have cheated on them to use their site to publicly name and shame suspected paramours.

While some view it as a tasteless spectacle, ShesaHomewrecker.com can at least make a case that it performs a public service. And when pressed, Nik Richie insists that his website, too, is a public service. “For some people it is a huge wake-up call.”

Anonymous Post, Anonymous Hack

Even in the freewheeling world of online publishing, Nik Richie is seen as a renegade who goes too far. The website popdust.com gleefully described how Richie’s site was forced offline by the hacker activist group Anonymous in early 2015. “The controversial figure and professional douche has lost a fortune due to the attack,” Max Page wrote, “which has caused his cash cow slut shaming site to be down for twenty days so far…with the loss of huge revenue from Super Bowl ads.” An unidentified woman, Page reported, had recruited Anonymous to hack into TheDirty.com after the site vilified her daughter.

The Terms of Service on TheDirty.com state that false or defamatory comments are not allowed. Nik Richie says he is willing to delete false postings, provided you use your manners when you ask. “If you sue me, all it’s going to do is cost you money,” he told Forbes.com. “Email me nicely and I’ll take it down.”

That was not the experience of ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews, who emailed Nik Richie after nude images of her were posted on Riche’s site. The images were taken illegally by a stalker who, through a hotel room peephole, shot video of Andrews undressing.

The stalker wound up going to prison. Andrews, meanwhile, apparently did not ask Nik Richie nicely enough to remove the illegal images; she even threatened to sue. Big mistake. After getting her email, the unflappable non-publisher reposted the images, along with a new message. “Erin Andrews, can you ask your lawyers if this is the post they want me to take down because I am confused?”

“Dirt and Lies”

By his own admission, Nik Richie is without normal human emotions. “I really don’t have feelings,” he told an interviewer in 2010. “I haven’t got to that point where I feel bad for anyone.”

He once appeared on the Dr. Phil program, and was unexpectedly confronted by people who told him how badly they’d been hurt by his site's anonymous postings. Among them was a woman who said, “Someone I didn’t know posted that I was a transvestite.”

Richie acknowledged that TheDirty.com may have hurt people. But he insisted that what he does is for the greater good. “It’s a form of holding people accountable for their actions.”

Dr. Phil would have none of that. “"You’re selling dirt and lies,” he told Richie, “and you’re making a profit off it.”

CNN’s Anderson Cooper also took Nik Richie to task, when he interviewed the non-publisher in 2012. “It’s not like I’m looking for garbage,” Richie said at one point.

“What do you mean?” the astonished newsman shot back. “You are looking for garbage! You’re looking for the lowest common denominator.”

Tough Stuff

But Nik Richie, whose real name is Hooman Karamaian, is made of some pretty tough stuff; he has been unfazed by these and other public reprimands. “I look in the mirror every day,” he told Forbes.com, “and know that I’m the coolest person in the world.”

So he is unconcerned about his reputation – or maybe satisfied with it just as it is.

For those who have had their online reputations damaged, whether on TheDirty.com or elsewhere, there is always help. The Reputation Management professionals at InternetReputation.com com can remove or suppress negative online content for people just like you, giving them peace of mind and the positive online reputation they need.