In the Medium post heard ‘round the world last week, Amazon CEO and now scandal-checkered billionaire Jeff Bezos proclaimed that National Enquirer and its parent company, AMI, not only tried to blackmail him, but he refused to give in.
“Rather than refuse to capitulate to extortion or blackmail,” Bezos decided to share what happened, because, as he wrote, “If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can?”
Bezos was right to point out that normal people are blackmailed, particularly young people in revenge porn situations, and they don’t feel they can stand up to it because they fear the social consequences of their blackmail material going public. Yet Bezos’s strongly worded letter shows just why, even if you aren’t Jeff Bezos, you shouldn’t give in to blackmail.
In his Medium post, Bezos details how and why AMI owner David Pecker allegedly blackmailed him. Pecker recently entered an immunity deal with the U.S. Department of Justice and has been investigated for his company’s relationship with the Saudi government.
The National Enquirer received salacious photos and texts allegedly of Bezos’ torrid affair with Lauren Sanchez. The National Enquirer, via Pecker’s attorneys, said they would publish the photos unless Bezos and company claimed to the press that they “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”
Whether the Enquirer was just digging up dirt on Bezos for fun or were trying to save their own reputation, it’s still blackmail. As this excellent Reason aticle points out, blackmail follows this formula:
- A has a plausible claim that B should do X (e.g., make good on a warranty, or pay a debt).
- A is demanding that B do X.
- A is threatening to reveal that B hasn’t done X.
Since the pictures have nothing to do with AMI’s demands, it’s definitely blackmail and a punishable offense. Rather than capitulate to the National Enquirer’s demands, however, Bezos refused to give in and instead, published a letter that deflated the story and reveals how slimy they really are.
Blackmail Is a Growing Trend
Unfortunately, while Bezos may be unique in his billionaire status, the blackmail he experienced comes up often now in the digital age of over-sharing and smartphone-ready personal information. It’s worth pointing out that Bezos likely would not have been blackmailed if he had remained faithful to his wife. (Although AMI sounded desperate enough—they may have tried to blackmail him with something less salacious or fabricated.)
It’s a generally good rule that if you don’t want to be blackmailed with juicy gossip or intimate photos, don’t do these things. Problem prevented.
However, blackmail still arises regardless of the moral condition of the people involved or the context of the relationship. It is particularly common now among teens and college students. These folks, who have grown up with cameras at their fingertips, often think nothing (at first) of sharing intimate photos or information with a close friend or an intimate relationship, only to have that held over their head later as a threat when the relationship ends.
Blackmail Has Devastating Consequences
Blackmail, especially revenge porn, can have devastating consequences. Gawker initially refused to take down a video the site had published in 2010 showing a drunk young woman having sex in a bathroom stall at a sports bar despite her pleas to remove it and the possibility the video might have actually shown a rape, not consensual sex. Although Gawker eventually removed the video, it had already spread to other sites.
The incident was revisited when Hulk Hogan sued Gawker for publishing a secretly recorded sex tape involving him. That decision, and Hogan’s lawsuit, eventually spurred the website’s demise.
Last year, at least five British men committed suicide after they were conned by a large-scale “sextortion” gang. Someone from the group poses online as a member of the opposite sex looking for love. They coerce the naive person into performing sex acts on a camera, only to inform him or her later that he or she must pay a ransom or see the photos and videos released to friends and family.
An Italian man landed in court considering charging him with manslaughter when his girlfriend killed herself after he threatened to share intimate videos and photos with her family. Tovonna Holton, a 15-year-old Florida girl, committed suicide after her classmates saw a leaked Snapchat video of her in the shower. It was rumored her ex-boyfriend had posted the video on Twitter after their breakup, even though he denied it.
Even if blackmail doesn’t cause suicide, it can cause a person severe emotional distress. At least 41 states plus Washington, D.C. now have revenge porn laws making publishing private, semi-naked, or naked photos (like Gawker regularly did) illegal. As Bezos pointed out, the copyright of the photos was never AMI’s to begin with, so it’s illegal on that front as well.
While it might be tempting to hurt someone who has hurt you, it shouldn’t be done. Blackmail is immoral, dirty, desperate, illegal, and, as Bezos showed, legally and publicly actionable.
Resist the Urge to Capitulate
Everyone should resist the urge to capitulate to blackmail, whether you’re a professor at the hands of an angry ex, or a CEO at the hands of an immoral publication. Bezos’s public response was an epic alpha move that anyone else could also consider. His refusal to bend to National Enquirer while exposing their efforts to blackmail gives him the upper hand.
Annmarie Chiarini was a college professor and victim of revenge porn when her ex-boyfriend claimed he would “destroy” her, repeatedly posting nude photos of her online, before most revenge porn laws had been passed. She now encourages people to realize “it doesn’t define your life.” The average person facing such a quandary may not feel as alpha as Bezos, or have his massive resources, but you can utilize the law, keep your spirits up, remain steely-eyed, and refuse to give your blackmailer a win.
As Bezos wrote: “Of course I don’t want personal photos published, but I also won’t participate in their well-known practice of blackmail, political favors, political attacks, and corruption. I prefer to stand up, roll this log over, and see what crawls out.”
The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative’s National Helpline is confidential and available 24/7 for support and advice. The free hot line can be reached in the U.S. at 844-878-CCRI (2274).