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The Crisis Intelligence Blog

Internet Defamation: How Executives Can Handle Disparaging Online Content

17 Jun

disparaging-online-contentBy Whitney C. Gibson

Today, no company is immune from damaging Internet posts. But neither are their executives, who are just as vulnerable to online reputation attacks.

Business leaders – especially those very visible in the public and online – are easy targets for disgruntled customers, former employees and ex-business partners, among others, whether on Facebook, Twitter, other popular websites or blogs.

Most “interactive” websites – such as the aforementioned sites, news websites, blogs, and forums – are generally immune from liability for content created by a third party, pursuant to §230 of the Communications Decency Act.

However, the good news is that the harmed executive is not without recourse.

General strategies for removing disparaging online content

  1. When executives have been disparaged online, one strategy is to contact the person who posted the information by issuing a cease and desist letter, or otherwise negotiating with them to remove the content (sometimes the best approach is a friendly / gentle one, before resulting to an attorney’s cease and desist).  Of course, this is easiest when the identity of the attacker is known, but in some instances (such as with defamatory tweets), you can still attempt to contact an unknown attacker.
  2. Further, most websites prohibit the posting of defamatory content.  Thus, you can contact the website or website host to report a violation of the terms of service, as well as to request that the website remove the content.
  3. A third option is to obtain a court order against the individual who posted the information online, which can then be submitted to the appropriate website or search engine.

Once an author of harmful statements can be identified – whether by subpoena(s), with assistance from a cyber investigator, or if his or her identity is already known – he or she can be named as a defendant in a lawsuit.  From there, your attorney can try to obtain court orders, via agreements or judgment, that state that the post contains false and defamatory information.

If you can prove that the content is false and causing harm, and the court agrees, the judge may issue a court order for the author or poster to remove the statements.  Most websites will remove the offending content, when presented with a court order.  Google also typically honors these requests as well, removing links to the offending content.

Specific websites may call for specific techniques

While these strategies can be considered in most cases, each instance of internet defamation is fact-specific and solutions ultimately depend on the attack forum.  To illustrate this, I wanted to use the example of two unique websites, Ripoff Report and Wikipedia. The former because of its unwillingness to remove defamatory content, and the latter based on its unique “openly editable model.”

First, Ripoff Report
Established for consumers to air complaints about businesses and individuals, Ripoff Report operates under a strict policy, in which the website will not remove any content, no matter how inaccurate, disparaging or damaging it may be.

Thus, the best technique for handling harmful Ripoff Reports is trying to have the links to the specific complaints removed from Google.  If the harmful content cannot be found via search – even though it may still exist on Ripoff Report – the false information about you will not be found unless your name is specifically searched on Ripoff Report.

Meanwhile, false information about you may also be posted on Wikipedia, whether in articles about you or your company.

Wikipedia is most concerned with reliable sources. Thus, if the offending content is unsourced or poorly sourced, the editors will likely notice it and remove the content. Blatant attack pages are also easily deleted. In general, however, Wikipedia has set a fairly high burden for the deletion of most other articles.

In some situations, an executive may consider requesting removal of a particular article by contacting Wikipedia.  While the success of such a request will vary based on the circumstances and arguments crafted, Wikipedia has demonstrated a willingness to remove articles that are shown to conflict with is standards (such as those for biographies of living persons).

In conclusion

These are just two examples, and by no means do a few paragraphs on each capture the entire scope of how to handle defamatory posts on the respective websites.  Therefore, while each situation (and the resulting best strategies) is fact-specific, you should be aware that there are various solutions to consider when you’ve been defamed online.

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