News travels fast on the internet and negative content can quickly ruin your personal or professional reputation. Unfortunately, some of the most egregious online posts are hidden by a pseudonym or anonymity.
There are some tools, however, that you can use to discover the identity of an anonymous online poster. Attorneys most commonly identify anonymous online posters by:
- Issuing subpoenas, and
- Tracking IP data.
In this post, I’ll share the techniques we use to help our clients identify anonymous posters. I’ll also answer the most common questions we are asked by clients, including:
- How many steps are there to identifying anonymous posters?
- What if a platform directly identifies the poster?
- What if a poster uses fake information?
- Can a poster prevent the release of their name?
- Have posters ever prevailed in remaining anonymous?
In our defamation law firm, we’ve worked with countless site administrators and content managers to identify anonymous posters and remove harmful content. Every case is different, but there are some general principles that apply to most situations.
Let’s start with an overview of the steps involved in unmasking an anonymous poster, and then discuss some of the most common scenarios that arise.
How Many Steps Are There to Identifying Anonymous Posters?
The number of steps involved in identifying an anonymous poster differs from case to case. Many posters take advantage of their anonymity to be deceptive and misleading. Some savvy posters even take efforts to cover their tracks, hiding behind fake accounts and emails.
Occasionally, the platform where the material was posted will have accurate identifying information for the poster. The process becomes more involved when a poster has hidden their identity through the use of fake names, emails, and accounts. The good news is, you can usually identify those who have tried to hide their identities.
Either way, the first step involves filing a lawsuit. You can file a complaint against “John Doe” before you know the true identity of the poster, based on the nature of the content they posted. With John Doe actions, an alias or username is used in court filings when the defendant’s true name is unknown.
Usually, the website or platform where defamatory comments were posted is included on the court documents as well (although you aren’t making claims against the website).
If the poster has published defamatory information, you’ll file a defamation lawsuit. If they’ve shared your personal data or information, you may have an invasion of privacy claim.
Once you start the legal process with a viable legal claim, you can request subpoenas. A subpoena is a request for information that you can send to any internet platform. In this case, you’ll start by requesting a subpoena for the platform or host of the negative content.
Defamation Removal Tip: Besides a court issuance of a subpoena, there are two other ways to identify anonymous posters: social media forensics and blog visitor logs.
When a Platform Directly Identifies the Poster
When uncovering anonymous posters, the best possible scenario is when the original platform is able to identify the poster. This usually means only one subpoena is necessary, and the case can be resolved relatively quickly.
Case Study #1: How Lawyers Work with Platforms to Identify Posters
One of our clients was slandered on facebook. The posts weren’t submitted by anyone he knew. When he tried to identify the poster, he found a fake account with very little personal information. He thought he hit a dead-end and would never be able to do anything about the negative comments. Then he hired an internet defamation attorney.
We filed a defamation lawsuit against John Doe and requested a subpoena for Facebook. Facebook complied and revealed the email address and identifying information for the poster.
In this case, the poster had not thought of creating a fake email address and actually used his personal email. The email address immediately pointed to the defamer, who happened to be a business competitor of our client.
Once we discovered the defamer’s identity, we were able to force him to remove the harmful comments.
When a Poster Uses Fake Information
Some more experienced defamers go out of their way to hide their identities. They create fake email addresses, which they then use to create phony accounts. This is designed so there is no way to trace the account back to them. What these posters fail to recognize is that they are still leaving a digital footprint behind.
A user’s internet protocol (IP) data can reveal details like:
- When the user accessed a platform,
- Their IP address,
- Geolocation, and
- Timestamped activities.
IP data creates a virtual trail of breadcrumbs, which can lead you to the original poster.
Since every IP address is owned by someone, an IP address will show you roughly where a platform was accessed. Usually, you can trace an address back to a particular internet service provider (ISP), wireless provider, or public access point like a library.
This narrows down your search, enabling you to ask the IP address owner who could have been accessing their internet at the timestamped dates and times. From here, you can usually uncover the identity of the poster.
Case Study #2: How Internet Lawyers Identify Posters with Fake Information
A client of ours owned a business and noticed he was getting dozens of fake Google reviews. The reviews also contained hateful language. When he came to us, he had a strong defamation claim, so we filed suit and subpoenaed Google.
Unfortunately, the information we acquired from Google were fake accounts. The poster clearly used a fake name and email to leave the bad review.
We requested IP data from Google, where we discovered the poster was using Verizon Wireless service to make the posts. Then we had to request IP data from Verizon, which linked us to a cell phone number for the poster. It turned out the cell phone number belonged to a business competitor.
Armed with that information, we were able to get the comments removed and force the competitor into a settlement with our client.
Google Review Removal Tip: You can remove unwanted and fake Google reviews by asking the author to remove the review, flagging the review for violating Google’s Terms of Service, or pursuing legal action.
Can a Poster Prevent the Release of their Name?
Yes and no. There are avenues for posters to remain anonymous, but they aren’t failsafe. A poster may object to the release of their identifying information, but they must have a competing claim to do so.
For instance, they may argue that their post was within their First Amendment rights or factual. They may also argue entitlement to certain protections under privacy laws.
When this happens, attorneys can use a tool called a “Motion to Authorize” to compel a platform to release information. Motions to authorize can only be used when you can show that your request is reasonably related to a violation of the law. This process often leads to courts weighing the merits of a case before a true defendant is even named.
Case Study #3: How Attorneys Use a Motion to Authorize
We represented a doctor who discovered negative online reviews about his practice across multiple platforms. The reviews were gruesome and didn’t match any real client experiences.
Naturally, these reviews had the potential to severely damage his business. We filed a defamation suit and subpoenaed Google, Healthgrades, and the Better Business Bureau to gather the poster’s information.
Once we were able to track the poster to a specific Internet Service Provider (ISP), we asked them to help us identify the poster. Many ISPs will provide a user with notice before they release a user’s IP data, and so the ISP notified the user that we were requesting their data. The poster would not give their ISP permission to reveal their identity and filed an anonymous motion to quash. He argued that he had a right to remain anonymous because personal health information is private and confidential.
Fortunately, courts recognize that there is a balancing act between personal privacy, freedom of speech, and preventing defamation. In this case, both parties presented important rights: the right to privacy and the right to live free of defamation.
The Judge ended up siding with our client and forced the poster to reveal their identity. It turned out the poster was a former patient that had attempted to extort the doctor and we were able to remove all the fake reviews.
Have Posters Ever Prevailed in Remaining Anonymous?
Sometimes posters successfully remain anonymous. The United States has strong First Amendment protections for online posters, making us a “pro-defendant” jurisdiction when it comes to libel and defamation claims.
Beyond the legal protections afforded anonymous posters, some platforms – like Glassdoor and Indeed – value anonymity. They want users to post freely and as a result, they put up a strong fight over revealing posters’ identities. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they lose. Platforms may also push back against subpoenas if they feel releasing the information will violate a privacy law.
When it comes to identifying an anonymous poster, context is key. If you have a strong legal claim for defamation, copyright infringement, or online harassment, you have a much better chance of successfully identifying the poster.
This means you cannot use these tools to confront a poster simply because they shared something you disagreed with. You must have a valid legal claim for courts to issue subpoenas and compel action.
Reputation Management Tip: 93% of consumers are influenced by online reviews when making their next purchase. Simply put, reviews and rating matter. As a general rule of thumb, you want to refrain from responding to negative and false online reviews. Responding could stand to worsen the situation and lead to even more malicious attacks.
Learn More About Online Defamation & Content Removal in Our Legal Resource Center
We provide a Legal Resource Center and informative guides as a free service. Check it out if you’d like to learn more about dealing with anonymous posters, getting content removed, or protecting your online reputation.
If you’ve been attacked online and think you’re being defamed, contact our experienced defamation attorneys for a free consultation. Reach out to us today by calling us at (216) 373-7706 or fill out our contact form online.
“Dan Powell and Dorrian Horsey worked together seamlessly to restore my reputation after I was wrongly accused of professional misconduct in several, malicious online postings by a reckless and misguided activist group. They secured a public retraction and apology from the group, and Dan used his Internet expertise to identify and hold accountable the individual who impersonated me in a series of fabricated emails that contributed to this scam. Dorrian’s knowledge of the North Carolina court system proved invaluable in reaching a successful settlement that included financial compensation from my impersonator. I don’t believe there is another law firm in the country that could have achieved these results. I strongly recommend Dan and Dorrian to anyone else facing a similar situation.”
Taft Wireback, August 23, 2021