An Absolute Must NOT Do When Dealing with Negative Online Reviews
By Whitney C. Gibson, Internet defamation attorney
With today’s Internet and social media landscape, defamation cases are on the rise. Further, false and defamatory statements can spread quicker than ever, to a wider audience, and can stay online potentially indefinitely. Thus, there is a great need to protect the reputations of individuals and businesses.
As an Internet attorney with an emphasis on Internet defamation, I have seen hundreds of clients harmed online in a variety of ways through different online forums. Thus, when another on the Internet has harmed a client, there is no single solution we universally apply.
Rather, we consider a range of factors relating to a company or individual’s Internet crisis including, but not limited to:
- Jurisdiction and the statute of limitations
- The potential damage
- Available legal claims
- The terms of service of the website on which an online attack occurred
- Potential removal options
- Attacker characteristics
- The client’s budget and risk tolerance
Oftentimes the best solution is, indeed, bringing a defamation lawsuit.
However, it is so important to remember that a negative online review must be false to take legal action. It cannot be based on fact.
And here’s why…
In March, a New York business came under fire after a demand letter sent to an online reviewer went viral. In this particular case, a man posted a 2-star review on Yelp about a business, in which he expressed his displeasure with the service he received and said that he “cannot recommend them based on my experience.”
On the surface, there was nothing disparaging about this 2013 review, and it seemed to be based on fact.
Several weeks later, the business owner went on Yelp and responded to the review, thanking the customer for the feedback and explaining his view of the situation. But then in March, the Yelp reviewer received a demand letter in the mail from the business owner’s attorney, threatening a defamation lawsuit if the review was not removed from Yelp.
The letter itself made its way onto the Internet (presumably by the author of the review himself), and many media outlets picked up the story. In fact, four of the top six results when this business is now searched on Google relate to this story.
Dealing with harmful online reviews
Thanks to websites such as Yelp, business owners – small business owners in particular – are forced to deal with harmful reviews. And there are certainly many instances where a demand letter and a defamation lawsuit are appropriate and the best solution to an online defamation case. But, again, it is crucial to consider all facts and find the right solution for each particular issue.
American psychologist Abraham Maslow is credited with saying, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” In cases of online reputation attacks, potentially harmed or defamed parties should make sure they (or their attorneys) carry more than a single tool.
We often recommend assembling the right team of experts to handle the complex issues of online reviews, as we mentioned last month. Oftentimes the best strategies will be a product of the combined knowledge of various experts, including not only an Internet attorney, but also cyber investigators and online reputation management specialists.
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