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Google whitewash puts new spotlight on old child-porn charges

An apparent attempt to clean up a Duke graduate’s online image may be backfiring.


Kevin Morris


A recent graduate of Duke University may be involved in an effort to clean up an online image tarnished by charges of child porn. If so, users of Reddit caught him in the act—and the gambit may well end up backfiring.

Tuesday morning, redditor Gnarwhalrus discovered an odd post apparently written by someone named Clifford Satell.

It read as follows:

“Clifford Satell is a young entrepreneur, skilled writer, efficient and clear communicator, Eagle Scout and graduate of Duke University in Durham, NC”

The post stuck out. Reddit isn’t a blogging service, social network, or profile site like LinkedIn  — users post content they find online, often under a pseudonymous identity.

But Reddit, thanks to its popularity, does rank highly in results on Google and other search engines, making it useful to someone who might be seeking to change what turns up in a search on his or her name.

Gnarwhalrus quickly posted the story to Reddit’s r/worstof community, where redditors celebrate the site’s most “stupid” or “evil” submissions.

Not sure if world’s shittiest spammer, or just doesn’t know what Reddit is for,” Gnarwhalrus titled his post.

That spawned intense curiosity from other redditors. Soon, they found similar postings about Satell across the Internet.

But, they wanted to know, why was he doing that?

That’s when redditor nbkierstead stumbled across a story in the Duke Chronicle about Satell.

Satell, it turns out, plead guilty to charges stemming from the possession of child pornography earlier this year.

From the story: “Satell was first charged in April 2009 with felonies related to obtaining and possessing material containing images of pre-teen and teen boys engaging in sexual activity.”

But, according the Chronicle, Satell successfully plead his case down to a minor charge of dissemination of obscene materials. As a result, he was not required to register as a sex offender.

However, the Chronicle’s reports of his charges were picked up by the Huffington Post and other sites which rank high in Google’s search results. So while Satell wasn’t tagged as a sex offender by police databases, anyone who Googled his name might turn up the initial charges—and they might not see the later reports of his plea deal.

In a statement to the Duke Chronicle earlier this year, Satell noted that Duke University had “concluded its disciplinary process” and that he was due to graduate in May—which, according to the bios being posted about Satell on Reddit and other sites, apparently happened on schedule.

There may be more to this story than redditors have uncovered: Satell, a former vice chair of the Duke College Republicans, filed a civil-rights complaint against Duke University administrators in December, alleging that they did not take complaints of harassment seriously.

If Satell is indeed organizing an effort to alter Google’s search results about himself, he risks invoking the Streisand Effect, a phenomenon in which a person’s efforts to hide or obscure information about himself or herself online ends up drawing more attention to it. If anything, people will now be far more likely to Google Satell’s name.

The Daily Dot has attempted to contact Satell for comment but did not hear back by publication time. We’ll update this story if we hear more.

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