Following the horrific school tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, social media users looking for comfort shared and re-tweeted similar thoughts and messages. One of the stories, according to traditional media, was attributed to actor Morgan Freeman offering his thoughts on the tragedy.

Days later, Morgan Freeman revealed that he’d actually never made any statement about the Newtown tragedy. However, his actual and factual disclosure of this received only a fraction of the attention of the original, incorrectly attributed statement. Why? Perhaps those using social media found the truth much less interesting and thus didn’t offer thoughts and perspectives; the truth was not as meaningful as the half-truth. Those who cared to research the issue would have seen that the statement allegedly made by the Oscar-winning actor was actually posted by someone in Vancouver. In fact, the person who made the statement thought it might be “fun” to attribute the statement to Morgan Freeman and see what happened. The half-truth delivered entertainment value to the consumer and, therefore, went viral. But fact had very little to do with the digital reality.

This experiment emphasizes what we have found to be true about online reputation management issues in a more general sense as well. Once something proliferates online it’s hard to correct, let alone retract it. In the pre-Internet era, rumors and innuendo could spread within a small group of connected people unchecked, with most people lacking the desire to verify what they had heard. While the Internet has equipped people with the tools to instantly verify fact from fiction, it has also encouraged a digital culture that can perpetuate incorrect information for the sake of humor and/or being entertained. Many readers can’t even be troubled to (instantaneously) verify information before further reposting.

It is this very thing that has given online reputation management such a focus. Morgan Freeman is newsworthy enough to dominate search results once his alleged Newtown statement is proven to be a hoax. But every day around the world, individuals find themselves the victim of untruths on websites offering little or no practical ability to correct or dispute the information. When those untruths feature prominently in online search results they can severely damage a person’s reputation, business, career–even family members.

Online reputation management experts like 3Ci are challenged to combat these untruths by creating tools and digital assets that assist clients in establishing a positive reputation. Whether negative postings have appeared or not, we emphasize to our clients the importance of proactively beginning online reputation management early; presenting honest, transparent information that builds a solid online reputation before the need arises.

By claiming digital identities on popular social and profile sites, identities can be developed that will be found upon an online search. By securing the URL associated with one’s business or personal identity and directing that address to a platform like WordPress.com, a simple but foundational website can be set up. Being actively involved with blogs and forums allows participation in online conversations that may involve you. This combined with a pro-active approach to monitoring online content that may be posted now or in the future can combine to deliver the beginnings of a solid online reputation.

Online content, search methodologies and new websites will continue to evolve. It is difficult to speculate what tools may be needed in the future to combat half-truths. What can be acknowledged is that social sites will continue to spread misinformation. Slander and gossip will be spread as long as people can communicate, and the only defense is we really have is to acknowledge the activity, participate in the discussion and pro-actively define our online identity. If it is true that social media and online content influence our perceptions and memories, then all entities–both business and personal–have little choice but to join in the great migration toward digital content as the Internet becomes the tool that defines us to the world.