The Final Deletion: What a backyard wrestling video reveals about the paradox of “the right to be forgotten”

For almost a month, wrestling fans have been buzzing over Total Non-Stop Action’s (TNA) online video, ‘The Final Deletion’. For whatever reason, not everyone sees the beauty in suplexes, power bombs, or watching grown men hitting each other in the face with trash cans. Even as an avid wrestling fan, parts of it are hard to get through. However, you need not worry, I watched it for you, several times, and can tell you why this match and its fallout in TNA storytelling is a perfect vehicle for explaining the difference between simply deleting content and actually changing public opinion in an online reputation campaign. In addition to possibly resurrecting Matt and Jeff Hardy’s careers, ‘The Final Deletion’ also brings to light an inherent contradiction in the ‘right to be forgotten’ concept, important to anyone working in online reputation management.

First, some context: This video is sports entertainment. Professional wrestling is an art-form. It has unique conventions or ways of conveying symbolic meaning. For example, in professional wrestling acting is judged like nachos: the cheesier the better. And ‘The Final Deletion’ is cheesy. The premise of the video is that ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy challenges ‘Brother Nero’ Jeff Hardy to a match for the right to the Hardy family legacy, with the loser being deleted from existence forever. Remember this is a professional wrestling storyline—a parallel fantasy universe from which we can draw lessons for the real-world. The threat of ‘deletion’ instead of a simple loss, and the deliberate choice to use digital vernacular and present it as a pre-recorded video instead of a traditional taping in front of a live audience, makes Matt’s attempt to remove Jeff from existence comparable to real-world efforts to displace unflattering articles in search engine results.

Despite winning the ‘Final Deletion’ match, when Matt subsequently goes on a live broadcast, he is greeted by fans cheering wildly for the supposedly deleted Jeff. These fans are much like real-world Internet users who create more content about an event even after the initial post is removed. Many politicians who have been caught deleting controversial tweets know this reality all too well. At this moment Matt realizes he can never truly delete Jeff so long as the audience remembers Jeff. This is a perfect demonstration of how digital content is not completely isolated from the physical world and removing it does not automatically cause the events leading to its creation to disappear from people’s heads. Since the audience will never forget about Jeff as long as Matt is around, Matt must create new content or extend the narrative in order to realize his ultimate goal of controlling the Hardy legacy. He needs to give people a chance to move on and accept the new status quo, instead of wondering where the guy from the last match disappeared to. So how does Matt deal with this reality? He changes the conditions of their match; Jeff will no longer be deleted. Instead, he’ll become Matt’s slave. Yes, it’s ridiculous, but it elegantly completes the metaphor—in the real world, we can’t delete content, but we can use new content to establish different front page results in search engines.

While this blog post gives me a convenient excuse to write about wrestling, the events surrounding this video do a better job of highlighting the difference between deleting content from the Internet and actually removing an issue from public conversation than any white paper could. In fact, ‘The Final Deletion’ deserves credit for three reasons, two of which matter in illustrating this point:

  • it’s responsible for the most attention TNA Wrestling has ever received;
  • it illustrates how to effectively manipulate search results in a reputational campaign by bringing to light a fundamental paradox in the much debated ‘right to be forgotten’ initiatives that concern anyone managing a brand with unfavourable search history;
  • and, of course,
    it features a frog splash from a very tall tree.

Last week, articles discussing ‘The Final Deletion’ were shared over 10,000 times on social media. Articles about ‘TNA Wrestling’ in general struggled to generate that kind of engagement during the entire month of June, and most of the content was about whether or not the company would be sold or file for bankruptcy. It’s hard to compare ‘The Final Deletion’ to other clips in TNA’s catalogue. Reaction segments are a good equalizer. The segment reacting to ‘The Final Deletion’ on TNA’s weekly broadcast was viewed more than 192,000 times since being uploaded on Thursday, while the next highest segment was hovering around 90,000. With one event, the online narrative about the TNA has shifted from one about financial difficulties to how amazingly crazy ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy is, increasing viewers on TNA broadcasts as wrestling fans look to see what sport’s entertainment’s new answer to Tommy Wiseau will do next.

Sure, people are debating whether ‘The Final Deletion’ is a piece of art or even an act of professional wrestling, but there’s no doubt that it is fantastic when considered as a piece of viral content. It’s a backyard wrestling video from a second tier promotion. The fact that it has more than 300,000 views (on just the official link) is incredible. Imagine if a second round playoff series in the QMJHL was generating more buzz than The Stanley Cup. Thanks to ‘The Final Deletion’, TNA was on the same level as WWE for a short time, going by general share of voice among people who care about such things. That really is an amazing achievement.

The match itself incorporates several spots (wrestling term for planned sequences) recalling famous matches in The Hardy Boys’ career going back to their time in WWE, which had never really been acknowledged in TNA storylines before. The audience is reminded of what it means to be a Hardy in the storyline world of professional wrestling as the two brothers symbolically rewrite history by performing new versions of the stunts that made them famous in the first place. Here too, we can draw lessons for online reputation recovery campaigns. Taking professional wrestling seriously for a moment, the fight is a violent and indirect way of redefining one’s past by repositioning key points in its foundational narrative. In terms of digital reputation, you can compare it to disavowing links to unfavourable articles while tweaking public-facing copy to meet the same communications objectives as before, without using words or phrases that might have been used in unflattering coverage.

‘The Final Deletion’s’ aftermath and the fallout on TNA’s weekly broadcast cement it as a definitive metaphor for effective online reputation management. Matt eventually realizes a pinfall victory is like a running a digital reputation campaign without any offline support. Without something to replace whatever you are trying to delete or remove, people will still remember the original, and create more similar content to take its place. As long as other people remember Jeff and create content about him, he is never truly deleted. The crowd remembers Jeff and chant his name until he appears in the ring. In real-world campaigns, these chants are manifested in the form of new content that appears in search results in place of deleted content Removing results from search engine pages, without offline efforts to create equally prominent content in its place, makes those results harder to find, but they still exist. Users looking for information about major brands or high profile individuals will not be satisfied with mediocre placeholder content and will ultimately rediscover scandalous material, bringing it back to the forefront of search engine results. Why? Because as Google and European courts are starting to articulate, being forgotten is not a right. Privacy, within reasonable limits, is a right. But there is a very big difference between the two.

Google’s ‘right to be forgotten’ initiative is a program that, theoretically, allows individuals to remove web pages containing personal information from search engine results. A version is technically live in the US, it has been contested in European courts for years, and was recently rejected by a court in Japan. A version very similar to the American one was recently (and very quietly) made available to Canadians with lawyers already considering the possible implications. For major brands and people regularly in the headlines, the program is essentially meaningless. Google will not, nor is it under any obligation to, delete results that are a matter of public record and interest, regardless of how embarrassing those events may be for the people involved. Results related to crimes, politicians, or public figures are not eligible for deletion under ‘right to be forgotten’. This is not because Google engineers are especially fond of these things. Search engines aggregate information that already exists in some form so that it is easier to find digitally. They do not write negative content, yet they’re often blamed for its continued effect on a subject’s reputation.

When a crime or political scandal stops being covered by broadcast or television news, it is quickly forgotten because watching old news broadcasts is almost as pointless as saving old newspapers. People move on from a story, however, the physical copy of that news report still exists somewhere. Digital content related to a story will linger in search results for its main keyword because those results are not designed to reflect the general news, but an up-to-date understanding of a keyword, which often includes recent news headlines. Even if the general news cycle has moved on, negative results naturally stay relevant longer when eligible news stories are confined to one keyword, as they are in any Google search. Understanding this is part of the game. Successful reputation campaigns prepare clients to accept that negative content will be associated with their name for some time. First, campaigns need to address underlying digital metrics — like traffic — that have a more tangible effect on most businesses, before focussing entirely on removing unflattering content from search results. Though clients often disagree when it’s about them, people have a right to read about things that make the news. So in order to change the digital narrative, you need new content to establish a separate yet equally plausible story.

This is especially true for ‘public figures’. Search engines determine who is a public figure using an algorithm to calculate mentions by frequency and volume within a particular content type. Anyone with enough of a certain type of coverage can be considered a public figure in Google, even if they are far from a celebrity in real life. In a famous case from a few years ago, a Google leak revealed that 95% of “right to be forgotten” requests came from private individuals. Many of those requests were for news articles where victims’ names should never have been printed in the first place, but under the ‘right to be forgotten,’ the articles cannot be removed as they deal with a crime. Many other cases involved an original version of a story being indexed in Google results, despite a correction being issued in the print version. In both cases, the privacy violations were the news publishers’ fault, not the search engine’s. Google simply aggregated the content it was given. It is very rare that a result actually fits the criteria for deletion: roughly 75% of ‘right to be forgotten’ requests are denied. Requests are rejected because content with enough visibility to negatively affect someone’s reputation normally also makes it socially or historically relevant, and its omission in a search would reflect poorly on any search engine’s basic competency. Though legislators have begun to acknowledge the unprecedented power a company like Google has over people’s reputations, it is very unlikely any search engine will ever be asked to remove news articles from its results in a country paying even basic lip service to ideas of free press, speech, and access to information.

The problem is that while forgetting is not a right, we do acknowledge people are entitled to some element of privacy. However, the idea that anyone can remove knowledge or events from the public record because it embarrasses them is more ridiculous than anything in ‘The Final Deletion’ video. ‘Broken’ Matt Hardy comes to a version of this realization. After the crowd cheers for Jeff in his first live appearance since the video aired, Matt decides to redefine the terms of their match, much like we create more content when executing a reputation recovery campaign. In TNA storytelling, Matt quickly redesigns his plan so now Jeff will have to stay and work for him. This makes sense in the broader context of a match to determine the superior Hardy brother: like everything else about ‘The Final Deletion’, Matt’s reframing of the match is an excellent example of how one can change how an individual is perceived online by emphasizing different aspects of their background. Matt creates new content by changing the original narrative from ‘loser is deleted’ to ‘loser stays and lives’ in wrestling’s version of indentured servitude. This allows Matt to restore his desired reputation as the dominant Hardy and remove negative results (represented by his brother as a threat to whatever he plans on doing in TNA).

We need to think on those same terms when conducting digital reputation recovery, especially with major brands and public figures. Instead of trying to ‘delete’ individual pieces of digital content, you need to understand that the content, or some mention of it, is going to be there for some time, and try to leverage that to your advantage instead. The crowd chanting for Jeff Hardy after he was ‘deleted’ is comparable to how in digital terms, stories live on as reposts, shares, or mentions in comments long after the original digital source is removed. Digital reputation recovery is about giving them a reason to forget. You can use the first wave of negative content to understand the exact reason people are upset, then leverage the public figure or brand’s prominence to inject new content into search engine results to address negative content, without mentioning it directly. It is not easy. But, if a backyard wrestling video can go viral, it’s proof that when it comes to the Internet, anything is possible – it just can’t be deleted.