UC Davis and Social Media Permanence

You know the story. Back in 2011 University of California, Davis campus police officer Lieutenant John Pike was videotaped and photographed casually pepper-spraying students peacefully protesting tuition hikes. It quickly turned into a meme:


The Sacramento Bee  just uncovered (through FOIA requests) that UC Davis paid a firm by the name of Nevins & Associates upwards of $175,000 to scrub references to the incident from the Internet.

Nevins & Associates proposed:

[…] Objectives:

  • Launch an aggressive and comprehensive online campaign to eliminate the negative search results for UC Davis and the Chancellor through strategic modifications to existing and future content and generating original content as needed
  • […] Advise and support UC Davis’ adoption of Google platforms to expedite the eradication of references to the pepper spray incident in search results on Google for the university and the Chancellor […]

…which is impossible. You can’t scrub something from the Internet (which should be common knowledge, as many people have tried).

They have failed miserably as a quick search of Google Images illustrates:

Pepper Spray Cop Google Image Search Results

(Sidebar: I’m dying to see one of the monthly reports they promised to deliver the university, measuring the progress of their efforts.)

Not only that, but they’ve made the situation vastly worse because the attempt to stifle free speech in the name of sanitizing the reputation of the Chancellor and the university has erupted into a firestorm. As I write this, the Wikipedia page for UC Davis is already in the process of being updated with the details about the attempt to scrub references to the incident:

UC Davis Wikipedia Page in the Process of Being Updated About the Pepper Spray Incident

I’m completely dumbfounded that Nevins & Associates actually claimed they could deliver this result. I’m loathe to criticize colleagues in PR/digital, but this is the kind of behavior that gives digital professionals a bad name.

They should have told UC Davis the cold truth: you can’t erase anything online – and trying to do so inevitably worsens the situation AND alerts more of the public to it. There’s actually a name for this type of situation: the Streisand Effect.

Had they proposed that they would try to MINIMIZE the impact of the wealth of content about the pepper spray incident by amplifying positive messages, that would be fine. But words like “eliminate” and “scrub” should not be in the vocabulary of anyone who works in the digital world.

I’m also agog that the (presumably) college-educated leadership of UC Davis actually thought this was possible. Moreover, that they thought a firm with such a small digital footprint itself was capable of making it happen:

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If your organization faces a crisis of perception, the only path to follow are Arthur W. Page’s principles. The radically transparent era we live in has made them more relevant now than they were decades ago when he published them. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is not serving you well.

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