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Fixing Your Online Reputation: There's An Industry For That

May 29, 2013
Originally published on May 30, 2013 7:21 am

This year, nearly 1.7 million students will graduate from college. Many of them are engaged in a new ritual of the digital age: cleaning up and polishing their online profiles. The demand is so great an entire industry has sprung up to help.

According to numerous surveys, the vast majority of hiring managers routinely Google potential job candidates. And what they see on that first page of search results matters — a lot. Just ask Pete Kistler, who was a college junior when he started applying to a bunch of computer software firms, looking for a summer job.

"My GPA was 3.9. I had a lot of relevant internship experience and I wanted to go into software," Kistler says. "By a bunch, I mean dozens and dozens. But I'm not hearing back from anyone."

Kistler says he was puzzled until a friend gave him a call. He worked at one of the companies Kistler had applied to. "And [he] said, 'You won't believe this, but but the reason that you didn't get called back was because they Googled you and they found another kid with your name that's a drug dealer and they thought that you were him,' " Kistler recounts.

Kistler says he still remembers the exact moment he Googled himself. "You know, my stomach dropped," he says. "Everyone who Googles me probably thinks I'm this kid — I'm this drug dealer. And there are all these Google images of a car crash and a DUI."

Pushing The 'Bad Stuff' Down The Search Page

I became interested in the business of cleaning up online reputations precisely because of Kistler's story. After his scare, he and a college friend, Patrick Ambron, founded their own business to help people in his situation. And his story is so compelling that The Associated Press, USA Today, Forbes, CBS and NBC have all reported on the two Pete Kistlers — the computer programmer and the drug dealer.

But before he became a minor media sensation, Kistler says, he was scared, angry and confused. "At that point, I didn't really know what to do because I didn't know how to fix my own search results in Google." He says he was convinced bad search results were costing him jobs.

This was in 2008. There were reputation-management companies at the time that could help Kistler out, but the cost was steep. "Up until then, the business was catering basically only to rich people," says Ambron, now CEO of BrandYourself.com, the company he founded with Kistler.

Ambron says he and Kistler realized that personal Google results now matter for everyone, but for young people like themselves, the tools they needed to fix them were out of reach. Many services charged upwards of $1,000 per year. The biggest players in this industry spend millions annually to advertise heavily. Reputation.com, an underwriter for NPR, is one such company.

But Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land, finds most of these ads unconvincing. "They usually make me kind of laugh," he says. "Because the promises tend to sound like, we're going to sort all this stuff out for you, and the reality is that nobody can really guarantee to do that."

If there is bad information out there about you online, Sullivan says, you usually can't simply erase it from the Internet. No one can. Instead, he says, these services work generally the same way: They flood the Internet with new, more positive stories and content about you — stories that link to each other and are written in ways that make them pop to the top of search results. "You try to get the good stuff to come into the top results, which will push down the bad stuff," Sullivan explains.

It's called search engine optimization, or SEO. Kistler didn't have the cash to pay for it while he was in college. So he and Ambron tackled the problem together — and realized that maybe there was a business in this for them.

"What we wanted to do was create a product that allowed anybody to do the same thing we were doing, but do it themselves for free," Ambron says.

They landed some venture funding for BrandYourself and opened an office in New York City. They now offer more affordable paid services, too, and a couple of colleges, including Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, offer the service to undergrads.

But Ambron acknowledges they can't make bad stories disappear — only "push unwanted things down with more positive relevant stuff."

An Oft-Repeated, But Tangled, Online Story

The story of Peter Kistler the computer programmer being mistaken for Peter Kistler the drug dealer has become ubiquitous online. BrandYourself even has a photo — a mug shot — on its website of this supposed drug dealer Pete Kistler.

The thing is, I can't find a record of this guy anywhere. I've looked through the public records I could access and LexisNexis; I even called in NPR's librarians. We just can't find any reference to a Pete Kistler who was dealing drugs. The photo on BrandYourself's website is actually of a man named Adam Laham.

When we asked BrandYourself if it had any records, the company sent us a link to a story about a rape from 1988. We asked what state the alleged drug dealer was arrested in, but it didn't respond.

Still, this tale of the two Pete Kistlers has been repeated so many times online that it's become the Internet's approximation of truth.

And that, after all, is how these online reputation management businesses work. You take the story about yourself that you want to tell, then repeat and repeat it — until that's the only story about you anyone sees.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This year, more than 1.7 million students are graduating from college. And many are engaged in a ritual of the digital age: cleaning up their online profiles. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, an entire industry has sprung up to help.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: I became interested in this business of cleaning up online reputations because two guys told me a great story. It's a story about how they founded their own business. And the story is so good it's become a bit of an urban legend. It begins when Pete Kistler was in college at Syracuse.

PETE KISTLER: My GPA was 3.9. I had a lot of relevant internship experience, and I wanted to go into software.

HENN: So Kistler started applying to a bunch of top computer software firms, looking for a summer job.

KISTLER: And by a bunch, I mean dozens and dozens. But I'm not hearing back from anyone.

HENN: Kistler says he was puzzled. No one was even calling him. Then...

KISTLER: One of my buddies who works at one of the places that I applied to actually reached out to me and he said, you won't believe this, but the reason that you didn't get called back was because they Googled you and they found another kid with your name that's a drug dealer, and they thought that you were him.

HENN: When Pete Kistler was telling me this story, he said he still remember the exact moment he Googled himself.

KISTLER: I remember it vividly. You know, my stomach dropped and I thought, oh, my God, everybody who Googles me probably thinks I'm this kid, I'm this drug dealer. And there are all these Google images of a car crash and DUI.

HENN: It was almost kind of funny, he says, until he tried to clean up the mess.

KISTLER: At that point, I didn't really know what to do because I didn't know how to fix my own search results in Google.

HENN: There are reputation management companies out there that could help Kistler out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Reputation.com combats negative material.

HENN: But the cost is steep. Michael Fertick helped create this industry and now runs reputation.com.

MICHAEL FERTICK: Another one of our products starting at $1,000 dollars a year, OK - let's just be clear - called Reputation Defender, will help you take control of your reputation online.

KISTLER: Of course, I had student loans and there was no way I could possibly afford that.

HENN: Did you talk to your parents about it?

KISTLER: Yeah, I did. And they didn't have the money either.

HENN: These companies advertise a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Call 800-222-6638 now for your free reputation assessment.

HENN: You've probably heard messages like these. Reputation.com is an underwriter for NPR. And the biggest reputation management companies spend millions on marketing each year. But Danny Sullivan, the editor Search Engine Land, finds these ads unconvincing.

DANNY SULLIVAN: They usually make me kind of laugh because the promises tend to sound like, we're going to sort all this stuff out for you, and the reality is that nobody can really guarantee to do that.

HENN: Sullivan says if there's bad information out there about you online, you usually can't simply erase it from the Internet. No one can. Instead, these services...

SULLIVAN: They all do work kind of the same way.

HENN: They try to flood the Internet with new, more positive stories and content about you, stories that link to each other and are written in ways that make them pop to the top of search results.

SULLIVAN: You try to get the good stuff to come into the top results which will push down the bad stuff.

HENN: It's called search engine optimization, or SEO. And Pete Kistler says when he was in college he didn't have the cash to pay for it. But he did have a friend with some SEO experience: Patrick Ambron. And soon, they realized that maybe there was a business in this for them.

PATRICK AMBRON: So what we wanted to do was create a product that allowed anybody to do the same thing we were doing but do it themselves for free.

HENN: They launched a company called BrandYourself, landed some venture capital funding and opened an office in New York City. They now offer more affordable paid services, too, and a couple colleges including Johns Hopkins and Syracuse offer these services to their undergrads. But Ambron acknowledges they can't make bad stories just disappear.

AMBRON: What you do is you push unwanted things down with more positive relevant stuff.

HENN: And this story of Pete Kistler the computer programmer being mistaken for Pete Kistler the drug dealer has become ubiquitous. Newspapers picked it up. The story has appeared in USA Today, The New York Post, Forbes and on CBS and in the AP. BrandYourself even has a photo, a mug shot actually, on its website of this supposed drug dealer, Pete Kistler. But the thing is, I can't find a record of this guy, this convicted drug dealer named Pete Kistler anywhere.

I've looked through public records I could access and LexisNexis. I've called in NPR's librarians. And we just can't find any reference to a Pete Kistler who was dealing drugs. That photo on BrandYourself's website is actually of a man named Adam Laham. I asked both Pete Kistler and Patrick Ambron if they had any records, and they sent us a link to a story about a rape from 1988. We asked what state this alleged drug dealer was arrested in, and they didn't respond.

Still, this tale of the two Pete Kistlers - the programmer and the drug dealer - has been repeated so many times online it's become the Internet's approximation of truth. And if you think about it, that's how these online reputation management businesses work. You take the story about yourself that you want to tell and you repeat and you repeat it until that's the only story about you anyone sees. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.