Seth Woodard Persily didn’t like what he saw in Nathan Deal’s TV ads this summer.
So the Atlanta lawyer and public relations specialist has declared a private war on the Republican nominee for governor. Persily is out to sabotage Deal’s reputation on the Internet.
There is reason to believe that he is succeeding in his effort to make sure that every time Google sees the words “Nathan Deal,” the world-changing search engine offers up the word “ethics.”
It may be the first campaign of its kind, one that opens an entire new field of worry for political candidates.
Perhaps more important, it is a low-cost area of activism open to any small group of people with access to a computer, a keyboard and time. Persily insists he is acting as a private citizen, not on behalf of the rival campaigns of Democrat Roy Barnes or of Libertarian John Monds.
The first thing you need to know about Persily is that he is the gay father of two, joined in a Piedmont Park marriage ceremony two years ago to his partner Nathan.
Persily also sits on the board of directors of YouthPride of Atlanta, an organization dedicated to providing a social venue for gay and lesbian teens, and to the prevention of teen suicide.
On Aug. 5, near the end of his bitter primary runoff against former secretary of state Karen Handel, Deal launched a TV spot alleging that Handel at one time supported domestic partnership benefits for gay couples.
The same ad pointed to Handel’s support, while on the Fulton County Commission, for funding directed to YouthPride. Deal condemned YouthPride as “a group that promotes homosexuality among teenagers as young as 13.”
So Persily had two reasons to be angry.
The second thing you need to know about Persily is that he is the executive vice president of Penn Multimedia, a 2-year-old Atlanta firm that specializes in the relatively new field of reputation management — especially on the Internet.
So when Persily gets angry, he has options.
Usually, he uses his powers for good. Say a company has been forced to issue a recall on a faulty widget — a move that produces a certain amount of bad press and a viral YouTube video.
Making a difference on Google is always the prime target.
“We flood the Internet with positive results so that video or bad review or that column is no longer in the top 10 [search] results,” Persily said. “Well over 90 percent of people will never go to the second page of Google. If you can control what’s on that first page of Google, it doesn’t really matter what people are saying about you anywhere else — because no one will ever see it.”
Going after Deal was something new for Persily.
“I’ve never tried to harm someone’s reputation. This is a first for us,” he said. “We’ve always been in the business of cleaning people’s reputations up.”
What Persily has targeted is not the hyperlinked search results you get after punching the words “Nathan Deal” into Google. Given the search engine’s secret algorithms, manipulation of those results is nearly impossible.
Persily has attempted something slightly more subtle.
When you type any search term into Google, the search engine immediately suggests a number of additional words. Whenever “Nathan Deal” is now typed into a Google search panel, the first suggested word is “ethics.” Second is “vs. Karen Handel.” And third is “bio.”
Anyone who accepts Google’s first suggestion will be offered page after page of articles about an investigation conducted by the Office of Congressional Ethics into allegations that, as a congressman, Deal pressured state officials to protect a private salvage business in which he was a partner.
Persily makes no claim that he created the Google connection. Only that he has encouraged it — to make sure that “ethics” stays No. 1.
He and a dozen Georgia volunteers have employed two tactics. Across the Internet, they have posted dozens of articles, dozens of times, in dozens of places, that include the words “ethics” and “Nathan Deal.”
The articles don’t have to be about Deal. They don’t even have to be read. They just have to include the name of the north Georgia congressman, and the word “ethics.”
Secondly, during spare moments through the day, whether at home or in the office, Persily and his allies go to Google and type “Nathan Deal ethics” time and time again.
This is more than a case of smoke and mirrors.
“It’s conceivable. I wouldn’t be very surprised if something like this worked,” said Guy Lebanon, assistant professor at Georgia Tech with a specialty in machine learning and knowledge management.
The key to manipulating a Google search suggestion, Lebanon said, would be the widespread distribution of Deal-ethics articles across the Web, and to make sure that “Nathan-Deal-ethics” searches arose from many disparate locations rather than a single source.
The Deal campaign said it was aware of Persily’s activities, understood the importance of reputation management, and was adopting counter-measures —saturating the Internet with positive articles about the Republican nominee for governor.
“As the frontrunner, we have to expect liberals to attack us. And they have to expect to be attacked in return,” said Brian Robinson, spokesman for the Deal campaign.