For those keen to ensure their online presence is an accurate reflection of them, the modern-day digital landscape is fraught with challenges. Search engine algorithms, which determine what content is made visible to those searching about you, are not transparent. Having the same (or a similar) name as somebody else can also result in confusion. And there are cases where inaccurate information about an individual is deliberately spread. While these challenges are similar across the world, there are some specifics that particularly apply to digital profile risks in the Middle East.
Problems with searching for names
Even when searching for something as fundamental as a person’s name on a search engine, you are not guaranteed a solid result. Problems with searching for MENA-based individuals often stem from the differences in naming conventions. Arabs generally do not have family names. Instead, their names are patrilineal strings, composed of a given name, their father’s name, their paternal grandfather’s name, and so on. Adding to the complexity, some people are identified by a Nisbah, such as an affiliation to a town or tribe;their Laqab, an often-honorific descriptive nickname; or a Kinya, usually referring to the name of a first-born but also encapsulating the nom de guerre. An example is ISIS’s deceased leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, who appeared in official documents as Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Al Badri. Others in the region, including Kurds, Persians, and Turkic peoples, also have their own distinct naming styles.
The spelling of names transliterated from Arabic to English is something of a fluid art rather than a precise science, compounding the potential for confusion. The region’s most common name, Mohammed, can plausibly be rendered as Mohamed, Mohammad, Muhamed, Muhammed, or Muhammad. There are differences in preferences and pronunciations across the 25 countries in the region, adding further to the complexity.
The problems with AI-driven content
AI-driven content creation and web syndication services play an important role in shaping people’s digital profiles. As my colleague Anita Walkowska notes in her article The role of AI and machine learning in online reputation management, AI and machine learning can enhance the speed, precision and effectiveness of human efforts, and are applied in multiple business tools including decision support systems and intelligent retrieval systems.
In the Middle East, automatically-generated profiles and biographies hosted by sites such as Manhom.com or Dhow.com, or Wikipedia imitations like Marefa.org, often rank highly in a subject’s search results. When imprecise or incorrect information is replicated across an individual’s digital profile on multiple sites, the harmful implications can increase exponentially. Information such as a former role, erroneously conflated from two separate but similarly-named individuals’ career histories, can find its way onto multiple automatically-generated biographies, assigning the role in some instances to the wrong person. When an individual is inaccurately linked to a company that finds itself in a communications crisis or on a sanctions list, painful problems result.
The proliferation of AI-based providers in Know Your Customer (KYC) verification and sanctions and Anti Money Laundering (AML) compliance tools also reflects the growing role of automation in crucial business tasks. But even the most advanced systems will often return multiple results for similarly-named individuals, resulting in complications and reputational issues, both for businesses and for the unfortunate victims of false positive searches.
The spread of harmful disinformation
The limited availability of corporate records and accessible official documentation across the region creates a situation where imitations often circulate in the public domain, which can cause real harm to an individual’s reputation, profile or economic interests. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are heavily relied on for news and information, but they can also act as a powerful conduit for the spread of disinformation.
The 18th-century author Jonathan Swift sagely observed that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it”, a quote that also applies to the Middle Eastern digital space in the 21st century. By the time a fake property deed, an edited shareholder certificate, or a grainy bank transfer receipt makes its way onto a Facebook group or a Twitter thread, the damage is done: doubt is sown and aspersions cast. Recently, we have seen an unfortunate series of land thefts in Morocco resulting from intricately falsified deeds, a sequence of Libyan ministerial resignations emerging on social media only to be refuted as fabrications, and the breach of sensitive personal information from an app that records Lebanese car registration plates.
The route to limiting reputational risk
Gaining an understanding of the array of reputational risks is vital if you are to mitigate against them. To this end, it is essential that you know your rights to data protection, and know what personal data security agencies or corporate entities might have access to.
What may seem like simple steps can prevent major problems. Understand the size and appearance of your digital profile – how do you appear online when people search for information about you? Preparedness is another crucial mitigant, and there are steps you can take to ensure there is consistency in how you are named across your various profiles. Find out who shares a similar name to you, and whether you need to act to ensure you are distanced from them. And make sure that no false information has entered your profile. Technical solutions and practices, combined with thorough analysis and recommendations, can help you manage your online reputation, giving you the insight and information to take control of your own digital narrative.