This is an expert witness testimony from a defamation lawsuit which helped win the case for the plaintiff (the person who was damaged bu the bad review), which was awarded $428,910.00.
Mr. Kronenberger (the Expert Witness) has an impressive resume which clearly outlines his experience and case work, as well as the fees he charges for being an expert witness.
The lawsuit involved defamatory statements that spread around the internet and caused great damage and is estimated to take a year to repair. The attorneys’ gave the person making the false statements a chance to fix it, but their response was Bring it on! and that they did, winning almost a half million dollars!
REPORT OF CRAIG KRONENBERGER
Summary of Opinions
I have been retained to offer opinions concerning the harm to Plaintiff, Jemal Ahmed’s (“Ahmed’s”), reputation caused by Defendant, Elias Kifle’s (“Kifle”), publication of negative articles about Mr. Ahmed in Defendant Ethiopian Review (“ER”). As explained in detail below, in my opinion, Defendants’ publication and re-publication of articles caused very significant damage to Mr. Ahmed’s reputation. In addition to Kifle’s multiple postings, the negative content was picked up and re-published by other news outlets. As this occurred, the content gained “authority,” i.e., became viewed as trusted sources by internet search engines; thus pushing them to the top of the first page of search engine results. Their authority grew as more and more people found the articles and shared them through social media platforms. The end result is that the negative statements not only spread far beyond ER, but gained authority as they spread, compounding the damage to Mr. Ahmed’s reputation.
The widespread online dissemination of the negative content greatly increased the damage to Mr. Ahmed’s reputation. The magnitude and extent of that harm can be seen by searching Jemal Ahmed’s name across search engines and major social media platforms. From March 2012 through January 2015, the search engine results page for “Jemal Ahmed” ranged from 30-50% negative. Removing content unrelated to this Jemal Ahmed –i.e., for others with the same name –negative results jump to 80-100% of first page results. That negative content also appears at the top of search engine results where people are most likely to see and click on it.
Our analysis shows that a very large number of people –at least 13,380 –clicked on, viewed, or shared the negative content from March 2012 to January 2015. The total number of people who “engaged with” the negative content about Mr. Ahmed is extremely large, compared to what one would typically find for a private businessman.
In my opinion, Kifle also employed tactics to help increase the authority and visibility of the negative content by cross-linking to multiple other websites he owns. His re-publication of the negative content on the ER website also helped increase its visibility and the number of people who read it.
Finally, I was asked to opine on how much it would cost to repair Mr. Ahmed’s reputation. Although nothing will fully repair his reputation, in my opinion, it will cost between $125,210 and $145,210 to take the steps necessary to at least partially restore Mr. Ahmed’s reputation.
A. How Reputation is Impacted Online
Search is ubiquitous and when researching or seeking out information about topics we often start with search engines. Currently over 3.3 billion searches are made each day (Google 2012, Internet Live Stats), making it one of the most important channels for finding information related to individuals, topics, products or services. Simply put, search engines are one of the first places people look when trying to learn more about someone. Sixty-five percent (65%) of Internet users see online search as the most trusted source of information about people and companies – Edelman Trust Barometer 2014
Adding to the digital ecosystem are social media platforms, which have created a chaotic and fast-moving digital landscape. Everything is happening instantaneously with very little time to stop and think. This shift has created ethical challenges for the media as accuracy and transparency have to be balanced against the immediacy of information, today. As one commentator observed:
Making mistakes is, and always has been, unavoidable. But losing sight of the importance of verifying and checking facts and doing good journalism -whether in a news report or an opinion column -is as much, if not more so, a culprit of erroneous information getting posted or broadcast or printed as is the speed with which we can now get the information.
– BBC Journalistic Ethics At Internet Speed, May 2014
All of the above factors make it increasingly difficult for search engines to fairly index content and provide a reasonable algorithm for evaluating what content is good quality and can be trusted and thus should rise to the top of the results page. Google uses algorithms to determine which content should be positioned higher in its search rankings. Google’s algorithms are confidential, but through multiple research studies and testing, we have been able to decipher a significant amount about how things are indexed. It is also important to note that Google is changing its algorithm on a daily basis. To get a full picture of how Google valued content from 2012 to today, we have reviewed the Searchmetrics SEO Ranking Correlations And Ranking Factors for 2012 and 2014, which have identified the following areas as critical to driving search engine results:
- Authority of content and the website –the extent to which they are treated as “trusted” sources
- Social sharing of the posts
- Links coming in and out of the site and/or content
In addition, Studies have shown that people are far more likely to check on the top, page one search engine results than those further down on page one. They are even less likely to view or check on content on page two, which accounts for roughly 3.99% of clicks and and the third page accounts for roughly 1.66% of clicks (Moz 2014).
B. The Defamatory Publications
On March 29, 2012 the Ethiopian Review first posted an article stating that Plaintiff is “in charge of” a human trafficking operation to send 45,000 Ethiopian women and teenagers to Saudi Arabia to work in “slave-like conditions, often subjected to beatings and other kinds of abuses.” The post included a photo of Plaintiff Ahmed taken from his Facebook account. P. Ex. 1.
On March 30, 2012, Plaintiff Ahmed posted a comment to the March 29 article stating that the story is false; and that he is not involved in foreign employment or human trafficking. Plaintiff’s comment was number 41 of 58 comments posted to the article. P. Ex. 4. Kifle re-published the comment in a separate post on March 30, 2012.
On April 4, 2012, Plaintiff’s counsel sent Kifle a letter again stating that the story is untrue, demanding that it be removed immediately from ER’s website and that Kifle publish an apology. Kifle did neither. Instead, on the same day, Kifle posted part of counsel’s letter along with the following remark: “where are you going to sue me this time? In Timbuktu . . . Bring it on please, Sincerely, Elias Kifle.” This posting generated more highly negative comments. P. Ex. 6.
Plaintiff Ahmed filed this lawsuit in August 2012. Shortly thereafter, Kifle published another article stating that “Al Amoudi’s chief human trafficker files lawsuit against Ethiopian Review.” This article generated 59 negative comments about Plaintiff. P. Ex. 7. On October 18, 2012, Kifle re-published the original March 29, 2012 article on the Ethiopian Review’s website. The re-publication generated yet another 59 comments. P. Ex. 8.
Within days of each of Kifle’s posts described above, an online video site called Bilisummaa TV posted videos based on the ER articles about Plaintiff. In addition, numerous other digital websites picked up the stories and re-published them.
The negative article remains on ER’s website to this day.
Expert Witness OPINIONS
I. THE NEGATIVE ETHIOPIAN REVIEW CONTENT SEVERELY DAMAGED JEMAL AHMED’S ONLINE REPUTATION BECAUSE: (1) GOOGLE TREATS ETHIOPIAN REVIEW AS A TRUSTED SOURCE; (2) THE CONTENT RANKED AT OR NEAR THE TOP OF SEARCH ENGINE RESULTS DUE TO AUTHORITY GAINED THROUGH ITS REPUBLICATION AND CROSS-LINKING; AND (3) AT LEAST AN ESTIMATED 13,380 PEOPLE CLICKED ON OR OTHERWISE ENGAGED WITH THAT CONTENT.
To understand how people were exposed to the content posted by ethiopianreview. com and Kifle, we analyzed searches that occurred since March 2012 from Atlanta, Ethiopia, the broader United States and globally. We looked at searches, using English as a primary language, across the three largest search engines (Google, Bing, Yahoo) with a deeper emphasis on Google, which typically receives an average of 90%** or higher of total searches globally. **Statcounter Global Stats
During our audit, we reviewed the following domains owned or controlled by Kifle: ethiopianreview. com, ethiopianreview. us and ethiopianreview. net. Currently, ethiopianreview.us and ethiopianreview. net use a redirect, which causes anyone landing on any of the URLs to be redirected back to the ethiopianreview. com. We also looked at the individual articles posted by Elias Kifle about Mr. Ahmed.1
As part of our auditing, we also looked at individuals or media publishers who may have shared or discussed the content within social media channels. This includes how many people shared the link or articles about Jemal Ahmed and how many people were potentially impacted by the articles through search engines or social media sites. To do so, our audit included public data on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook from March 2012 until today.
B. Domain and Page Authority
The first step in our analysis was to assess whether ethiopianreview. com – where the negative article was originally published – is treated by Google as a trusted source of information. This is referred to as “domain authority.” Domain authority is a metric that determines how well a website or page will rank in search results based on predicting Google’s algorithmic rankings. We used a tool customarily relied upon in the industry to assess domain and page authority, Moz’s Open Site Explorer (Moz). We also used Moz, to review the number of external websites that currently link to ER and how many times it has been shared on social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
The Moz analysis showed that EthiopianReview. com has a relatively high domain authority of 53. The chart below shows that these scores compare favorably to trusted, mainstream digital publications: The domain score is significantly above Comparison of Outlet Domain Authority Atlantaparent.com and only slightly below Atlantamagazine.com.
|AC360.blogs.cnn.com (CNN, Anderson Cooper, New
|Atlantamagazine.com (News Media)||64|
|Atlantaparent.com (Parenting News Media)||34|
In just the last 60 days, 231 external websites have linked to EthiopianReview. com and there are currently 20,783 total links to the site. The site’s influence also reaches social media with 19 links on Facebook, 24 links via Twitter and 126+ Google shares. Social sharing of links also plays a critical role in driving results. In particular Google+ over the last 16 months has been a high factor related to ranking.
The five articles published by Kifle and ER about Mr. Ahmed also have an average of 10 external links each. The authority of the negative ER articles is driven by media publishers, bloggers and individuals sharing links to the articles, thereby increasing awareness and reach, and ultimately influencing the search results page. As part of our analysis, we looked at how many times the articles have been shared, linked to and posted on social sites. We also evaluated and reviewed all of the links coming into the ethiopianreview. com domain, the individual pages where the content is posted and the relevancy of keywords used within the content. All of these factors represent key elements in driving search results related to Jemal Ahmed. SEO Ranking Factors and Rank Correlations 2014 – Searchmetrics
C. Search Engine Results Pages
To determine where and how often the articles were appearing, we identified key terms surrounding Jemal Ahmed and performed a SERP (search engine results page) analysis. The key terms were manually entered into Google and the results were scanned for coverage. We used data complied by Google Adwords to predict the number of clicks on Google per month for Jemal Ahmed. Once established, we were able to look at the percentage of searches Google received during that period in order to understand how many searches took place within other search engines. This number ultimately gave us the predicted total number of clicks across all search engines during the period of Mach 2012-January 2015.
In reviewing the negative coverage of Jemal Ahmed, we analyzed the search engine result pages of keywords related to his name and the ER articles. In 2013, 50% of all first page search engine results for the keyword “Jemal Ahmed” contained negative coverage. However, removing others with the same name, 100% of the first page search engine results specific to this Plaintiff were negative. Currently, 30% of all Page one search engine results on the first page of the search engines for the keyword “Jemal Ahmed” contain negative coverage. Removing hits on other people with the same name, the total number of negative page one negative results specific to this Plaintiff jumps to 90%.
According to data from Google AdWords from 2012-2014, an average of 40 people globally performed searches on “Jemal Ahmed” per month. The negative articles for this keyword ranked in positions 1, 2 and 10 on the first search engine results page. Using a current study from Moz on click-through-rates for organic Google searches, it was determined that about 53% of searchers will click on the articles mentioned above. Using this data, we estimate that 21 clicks on the negative articles occurred per month from March 2012 to November 2014, resulting in a total of 693 clicks. Both of the above data sources –Google Adwords and Moz –are tools customarily relied upon in the industry to analyze exposure to online content.
The search engine results page for the keywords “Jemal Ahmed Ethiopia” are also largely negative. Currently, that search yields 40% negative coverage for all results. According to data from Google AdWords, from 2012-2014, an average of 40 people globally performed searches on “Jemal Ahmed Ethiopia” per month. The negative articles for this key word ranked in positions 3, 6, 7 and 8 on the search engine results page.
Using the same study from Moz on click-through-rates for organic Google searches, we concluded that about 32% of searchers will click on the articles mentioned above. Using this data, we estimated that 13 people clicked on the negative articles per month from March 2012 to November 2014; 429 people total. Just these two keywords resulted in approximately 1,119 Google users viewing the negative coverage. Because Google only makes up 91% of all searches worldwide, we estimate a total of 1,229 clicks across all search engines globally. Moz-Google Organic-Click-Through Rates in 2014; Statcounter Global Stats
The Ethiopian Review articles also caused additional media pick up. Additional coverage appeared on at least 24 other websites and blogs.
D. Social Media Channels
In addition to search engines’ impact, we conducted an audit of social media platforms including Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+ to determine how social media channels affected the spread of the articles. For this analysis, we used Radian 6, – a technology that tracks social data over 650 million sources – to see the number of times the Ethiopian Review articles were shared on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
During this process we determined that the Ethiopian Review articles were shared on social channels 177 times and resulted in more than 22,926 impressions:
- 111 Facebook posts
- 42 Tweets
- 24 blogs and online news sites “Impressions” refers to number of times an ad may have been seen
A few examples of high authority social channels that picked up the articles include:
- EthioTube.net: Posted a video citing the Ethiopian Review articles. The video was viewed 8,338 times.
- IT WEB AFRICA: Posted an article about the lawsuits going on between Kifle, Ahmed and the Ethiopian government. The article was shared on Facebook 79 times and posted on Twitter 32 times.
E. Video Channels
Finally, we looked at how video channels affected the spread of the articles. We found several video posts published by BilisummaaTV, in reference to the Ethiopian Review articles. Currently the BilisummaaTV video channel has 2,278 viewers and maintains a channel (which helps to impact search results). The videos about the negative ER articles received a total of 3,636 views.
We found the following videos related to the negative content:
- 307 Views -The Ethiopian Human Trafficking Case Goes To Court Jemal Ahmed Vs. Elias Kifle
- 594 Views -BilisummaaaTV: Is Jemal Ahmed Human Trafficker?
- 309 Views -Al Amoudi’s Business Associate Jemal Ahmed: Is Jemal Ahmed Human Trafficker?
- 415 Views -BilisummaaaTV:Jemal Ahmed Accused Of Human Trafficking PT1
- 623 Views-BilisummaaaTV: Al Amudi To Sue Elias Kifle 4/2012
- 489 Views -BilisummaaaTV: A Letter From Al Amoudi Hussein Mohammed Lawer In 2012 PT1
- Views 899 -BilisummaaaTV: Is Al Amoudi Involved Of Exporting Ethiopian Women To Saudia Arabia?
In sum, our analysis determined that the negative content about Mr. Ahmed published by ER was clicked on, viewed, or shared 13,380 times between March, 2012 and January, 2015. In my experience, this number is far in excess of what I would expect to find for a private businessman, like Mr. Ahmed.
In my opinion, the widespread dissemination of the negative content severely damaged Mr. Ahmed’s online reputation.
II. Kifle Used Tactics To Increase the Strength and Authority of the Defamatory Articles
In our review, we identified several areas where ethiopianreview. com used tactics to manipulate the authority of its content and its ranking in search engines. The effect of these tactics was to keep the negative content about Mr. Ahmed at the top of first page search engine results where viewers are most likely to “click on” or otherwise engage with it. The primary tactic Kifle used was the cross linking of related negative articles across multiple sites he owns. Cross linking uses an approach where multiple websites (domains) are purchased and content is posted and promoted or linked back to each of the sites. The idea is to create an impression that other websites trust your content and are willing to link to it. This tactic helps to increase authority of his own content and site.
Kifle’s re-publication of the negative content, as well as his re-publication of Mr. Ahmed’s comment and counsel’s letter, also helped keep the articles “fresh” and in front of people longer and more often. Moreover, his listing of the negative articles as “related posts” on the ER website long after original article was published –for example, in July and September, 2013 – also helped increase the number of people who engaged with that content.
III. It Will Cost Between $125,210 and $145,210 To Attempt To Repair Mr. Ahmed’s Online Reputation
To estimate what it will cost to attempt to repair Plaintiff Ahmed’s online reputation, we looked at: 1) the advertising dollars needed to change the perception of those engaged with the negative content; and 2) the cost to repair and rebuild Jemal Ahmed’s reputation in search engines. It must be emphasized, however, that it is impossible to fully restore his reputation. Simply put, we will never be able to reach all of the people who read the articles in ER when published, or all of the people who were exposed to the defamatory content on other websites, or all of the people who came across that material by searching his name on Google or other search engines. We can, however, take the steps set forth below to attempt to restore his reputation.
A. Advertising Impact
Using a cost per engagement formula (CPE= Sum of all search clicks, views and shares) we are able to determine that an estimated 13,380 people engaged with the negative content. The cost to change perception is based on the paid advertising dollars needed to reach the possible audiences and change perception. This can be done by building a media plan that reaches the audiences in similar channels, where we would target a specified amount of advertising impression and frequency in order to change the negative perceptions created.
To determine the needed budget for shifting negative perception to positive suppression, we calculated the cost per engagement across display, search and social channels (same channels where people engaged with the negative articles). In this case, “engagement” would be defined as a click, view or social engagement. We also used the “Ethiopian News” as the related targeting parameters. We found that the average cost per engagement (CPE) across all channels was $1.50. To ensure we reach the right audience, we will need to increase frequency to 3X the CPE. I estimate the total cost needed to reach and engage 13,380 people will be $60,210 and $9,030 to manage it.
B. Cost To Remove and Repair Negative Content
The cost to repair is categorized by 1) opportunities to ask publishers or individuals to take down content that was being published or share, 2) look for ways to suppress negative content through the development of new content, 3) develop ways for Jemal Ahmed to re-build his personal and professional reputation 4) run advertising campaigns in channels most likely to reach the audiences impacted.
We estimate the total cost to be between $65,000 and $85,000, which would include the development of new content around Jemal Ahmed’s reputation, on-going management of the content in order to build the ranking around it, working with legal support to gather take-down notices and work with publishers on removing negative content and on-going reporting and monitoring of progress.
In sum, in my opinion, the total cost to repair Mr. Ahmed’s reputation, including cost of paid media spend, will be between $125,210 and $145,210. The range in estimated costs reflects the uncertainty about the number of hours needed to conduct take-downs with third party publishers who re-published the articles. I expect the process of repairing Mr. Ahmed’s reputation to take between 8 and 12 months.
1 My understanding is that Kifle refused to participate in discovery in this case. For that reason, we did not have access to ethiopianreview. com’s website analytics which would show how many different people came to the site and read the defamatory articles.
Note: Any lawsuit discussed and associated information should not be considered findings of fact or liability; court records may have been modified for readability – you can see the original court document by reviewing case 1:12-cv-02697-SCJ.