The Ultimate Guide to Removing Embarrassing Photos from the Internet

Embarrassed_woman.jpgEmbarrassing photos are something we tend think of as a teenage problem, but increasingly this is becoming a real issue for a large number of professional adults. Photos shared or misrepresented through no fault of our own can have a big effect. Unflattering or defamatory images destroy jobs, relationships and self-esteem, and they will make getting control of your online reputation a monumental task.

ReputationDefender works extensively with individuals who have been harmed in this way. We help people increase their privacy on the internet to prevent negative images from being shared, and we work to reduce the impact when they are. However there are also actions you can take personally to fight back against this problem. As part of our service to clients, we have pulled together a definitive guide for dealing with embarrassing photos online.

Contents of this article –

  • How negative images happen
    • Misrepresentation
    • Minor indiscretion
    • Vendetta
  • What to do about negative images
    • Removal
    • Burial


How do negative images happen?

1: Misrepresentation

One problem with photos is that they do not always capture the context surrounding them. Once they make it online, they can spread quickly. Online, photos are frequently taken out of context and used to support a position or say something that has nothing to do with the subject. Recently, a photo of children texting in front of Rembrandt’s famous painting, “The Night Watch,” was circulated widely as the perfect “metaphor for our age,” a symbol of how social media takes precedence over art. Yet when the author of the photo came forward, he explained the children in the picture were completing a research assignment that included using a museum app to learn more about the painting.

In this case no one was hurt, but misrepresentation can make the subject famous for all the wrong reasons. In 2013, one woman from the US chose to dress up as Lara Croft for Halloween, even though polycystic ovarian syndrome meant she had always struggled with her weight. She posted a photo of herself having a great time to Facebook, but neglected to adjust the privacy settings to “friends only.” One morning, she awoke to find the image had been shared across multiple sites with the added caption “Fridge Raider.”

Misrepresentation can even hurt a career. A teacher posted bikini pictures online as part of her second career as a body builder; yet when the images were shared, many parents saw them as risqué and inappropriate for someone working with children. Complaints to the school soon put her job in jeopardy and school management approached her about removing the images.

2: Minor indiscretion

When negative images appear on the internet, most of us feel responsible in some way; however the reality is this can happen to anyone. Sometimes there’s a small mistake or indiscretion involved, but this can be followed by a backlash that far exceeds the original oversight. In 2012, a women took a photo of herself using a disrespectful gesture to poke fun at the “silence and respect” sign at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. As a joke among friends, it was crude at best, but when the image went viral the woman ended up losing her job and it took several years before she was able to find employment again.

3: Personal vendetta

Other times the goal is actual revenge. Over the last few months, the photo of one man has surfaced as a victim in numerous tragedies and terrorists attacks, including high profile incidents like the recent Istanbul attack, the shooting in Orlando, Florida, and the EgyptAir crash. When France 24 was able to track down the story, it turned out the man was accused of fraud in Mexico. Several social-media users had taken punishment into their own hands because “legal proceedings were dragging on” and posted his photo in relation to numerous incidents. “We wanted the whole world to recognise his face,” one of them said. Even major news organisations were guilty of sharing the picture without checking the details.

Revenge porn is the most common type of vendetta acted out over the internet. Many people share sexually intimate pictures with their partner over the course of a relationship. After the relationship falls apart, hurt and anger can make an ex want to get back in any way they can. Unfortunately, publicly posting explicit pictures on the internet has become a common tactic. If a photo like this goes viral, it can damage even the best reputation and make career advancement difficult. Over 300 instances of revenge porn were recorded in the UK from Oct 2014-2015, and the figures are likely higher since many people never feel comfortable reporting the problem.

How can I remove these damaging photos?

1: Removal

Depending on the situation, it can be possible to get harmful pictures removed from the internet and/or prosecute the perpetrators. Most countries have laws which can be applicable in these types of cases, but standards for prosecution can vary greatly. In the UK, cases of revenge porn have historically been prosecuted under the Human Rights Legislation and Protection from Harassment Act. In April 2015, however, a new law went into effect making it easier to prosecute the perpetrators of revenge porn. It’s now illegal to share “private sexual photographs or film” without the subject’s consent and those convicted can face up to two years in prison. The law is expected to make a difference over the next few years, however it does require proof the perpetrator intended to “cause distress to the specific victim,” making it less applicable to strangers who share images without knowing who they are about.

Victims may also be able to sue for copyright infringement if they took the photo themselves. Copyright typically automatically rests with the author of the picture, even if it’s been shared with someone else. Most social media companies will respond to a request for takedown based on copyright violation, however individuals need to provide adequate proof that they own the picture. Current UK law is based on EU directives and require sites like Facebook to “act expeditiously” to take down content once they “have actual knowledge” that it is in violation. This can be somewhat more complicated than takedown requests in the US which are issued directly based on the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act). However the UK system also offers more protection against companies attempting to misuse this type of request to silence criticism and repress free speech.

Many social media sites also have protections written into their individual terms of service. Twitter and Instagram both have provisions for the removal of content that is “abusive” or contains nudity. Pinterest will remove any pictures considered to be pornographic. Facebook has a more complicated criteria, but will allow you to send a direct request to the poster. This is often effective since many images are shared thoughtlessly without any direct malice involved. The victim in the Laura Croft case was surprised to realise how many people reacted positively to her request for takedown. Many perpetrators had never thought of her as a real person with feelings.

Regardless of the method, getting embarrassing content removed from the internet is a cumbersome and time consuming process. New instances will continue to crop up even as images are removed from some sites and it can take months or years to have a real effect.

2: Burial

If you’re not able to get images deleted, the best option is to bury them. This can be accomplished by getting your own positive professional photos to rank high enough on search engine ratings that the negative images disappear to the final pages. The pictures will still be there, but they will do much less damage to your reputation and career since most casual searches don’t go past the first page.

It won’t be enough to just post a better image. Search algorithms will prioritise pictures with a high number of clicks even if newer content is more relevant.  To get your image to outrank a negative one that has been shared across numerous sites you will have to publish it multiple times and give clear directives that it is about you. Here are some tips from our experts at ReputationDefender:

  • Diversified content – search engines will pull up a variety of different content on the first page, including images, videos, blogs, social media pages, and business websites. You will need to post content targeting each of these spots. Add professional photos wherever appropriate.
  • Use your name in the tag and filename – this will help search engines know the image and the content is about you.
  • Metadata – use EXIF or another format to tag your photo with information about who took the photo, what it is about, and who owns the copyright. This will make your image more credible than the negative ones.
  • Republish – search engines will penalise you for duplicate written content, but this isn’t the case with images. Publishing one or two great images multiple times will give you the best chance of ranking high on your search page.
  • Cross-Linking – if you already have a good image on the internet, get it to rank higher by linking to your blogs and social media pages.

3: Be persistent – it will take at least several months to affect search engine results even if you don’t have a lot of content or name recognition on the internet. High profile individuals will need an even more extensive ORM campaign carried out over a longer period of time.


This is why many or our clients choose to work with ReputationDefender. We have the resources to handle your online reputation professionally, leaving you free to get on with the rest of your life. Speak to one of our trained advisors to find out more about how we can help you:

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Posted on 25 July 2016 by Christina Hamilton