Calling out blackmailers and dirty tricksters is the best defence, not only for billionaires.
By Gian Volpicelli
Jeff Bezos has given a masterclass in how to respond to blackmail
Calling out blackmailers and dirty tricksters is the best defence, not only for billionaires. But it's a position of power not open to everyone
We could all learn a thing or two from Jeff Bezos.
On February 7, the Amazon founder and CEO took to Medium to reveal that someone was apparently “blackmailing” him with some “naked selfies” Bezos had allegedly exchanged with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez. It was, to put it mildly, a bold move.
The National Enquirer – an American tabloid known for its proximity to US president Donald Trump and its suspected links to Saudi Arabia – had already published explicit texts between Bezos and Sanchez and was now seemingly upping the ante.
Following that, Bezos had hired a private investigator to find out whether The National Enquirer’s reporting could have been influenced by political reasons: as the owner of The Washington Post, Bezos has incurred Trump’s wrath many a time.
In early February, AMI, the company that owns The National Enquirer got in touch with Bezos, apparently threatening him with a threat to publish sexually explicit photographs and messages sent between him and Sanchez, unless the tycoon committed to publicly declare that the tabloid’s coverage was not politically motivated.
Bezos’s response was writing his Medium post, in which he included the threatening emails from AMI employees.
“Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?,” Bezos wrote.
Can Bezos’ case teach us anything about how to react to threats of public embarrassment? According to Jef McAllister, managing partner at law firm McAllister Olivarius, yes it can.
Sure, Bezos is a billionaire, can afford the best lawyers on the planet and he is grappling with a newspaper that put its requests – which Bezos labelled “extortion and blackmail” – in writing. But, whether dealing with disgruntled ex lovers, greedy hackers, or cunning scammers, McAllister, suggests to never cave in to the blackmailers’ requests.
“With revenge porn, if you can, it’s always best to call their bluff,” he says. “In many cases they won’t publish the photos anyway, and will instead just move to the next target. That is because for them to actually send your pictures to all your Facebook contacts [a usual threat made by scammers seeking a bitcoin ransom], it takes time.”
“I always suggest that blackmailed people don’t pay, and – so far – no one called me back to say that that was bad advice,” McAllister says. On the contrary, complying with the blackmailer’s request can result in recurrent requests of more money or more outlandish demands. “If it is someone who hates your guts, they’ll publish the pictures anyway.”
“The only way you can control this is to resist shame,” McAllister says. That is easier said than done, but customs are quickly evolving: in 2007, High School Musical actress Vanessa Hudgens ashamedly apologised for taking a naked selfie, which had then found its way to the internet; seven years later in 2014, when a bunch of 4Channers hacked the iCloud accounts of countless actors and dumped dozens of intimate pictures online, Jennifer Lawrence, one of the people affected by the hack, squarely said that the only people who should feel ashamed were the hackers and the people downloading the pictures.
Bezos, seemingly, shares that view. “Bezos is doing a public service, showing that momentary shame can be endured and calling the blackmailers’ bluff is actually the best way to beat them,” McAllister says.
And the law is of some succour. According to Sandra Paul a partner specialised in criminal litigation at law firm Kingsley Napley, “disclosing that sort of information in the UK can amount to an offence”, adding that the public interest defence is unlikely to provide any protection. In the US, the situation is quite different. But publishing such pictures would be a remarkable escalation.
Paul explains that, with his going public, Bezos effectively neutralised his counterpart’s leverage. He turned the tables on the people pressuring him, by subverting the main assumption on which sex-based shakedowns are predicated. “The blackmailer seeks leverage on the assumption that the blackmailed individual will prioritise their privacy. [Bezos’s publishing the correspondence] took that leverage away. He has been able to do something that many ordinary people would love to do.”
But while Bezos’s response has been rightly applauded, it is not an option open to everyone. Revenge porn – or non-consensual pornography – is still a powerful tool of control, usually exerted by one individual over another, rather than reportedly used as a power play at the very highest levels of American media and politics. Bezos has shown the way – maybe his courage will give others the strength to fight back against those who chose to use our most intimate pictures against us. / wired