Understanding how to deal with keyboard warriors
Social media is the modern double-edged sword for all providers of services such as restaurants, hotels, solicitors, dentists, etc. These technological advances allow everyone to be a critic, making it very easy to post reviews online. A great review on Facebook or Twitter can lead to an increase in work, but a damning one can often be disastrous. So, is there anything that can be done?
While freedom of speech is important, keyboard warriors need to be controlled. Professionals are occasionally targeted by disgruntled clients who have perhaps taken umbrage at having to pay for services performed (how dare they) and worse still, by competitors deliberately posting false reviews to tarnish the reputation of their rivals. Fortunately, defamation is unlawful and action can be taken to preserve one’s reputation.
Defamation is an umbrella term for both slander and libel. Slander is defamation in a transitory form (usually spoken) and libel is the publication of defamatory allegations in permanent form (including publication on television or radio and on the internet). Defamation is an untrue accusation against the reputation of individuals, companies or firms, which serves to undermine that reputation in the eyes of right thinking members of society generally, by exposing the victim to hatred, contempt or ridicule.
The difficulty with social media defamation is that the identity of the poster is not always known as they will often use anonymous handles; this anonymity can actually encourage the posting of defamatory comments. Few would be so brazen to defame somebody if they could be easily identified.
Initially, internet service providers such as Google bore the brunt of defamation actions from those libelled online. However, the Defamation Act 2013 has rebalanced the focus of defamation actions away from such intermediaries and onto the actual posters of alleged defamatory statements.
Now, a website operator has a defence to show that they did not post the statement. However, in order to avail themselves of this defence, they must take action when a complaint is received. The deadline for responding to a complaint is short; for instance, if the defaming poster’s contact details are not known, they must remove the offending material within 48 hours. In the rare event that the author of the post refuses to allow the post to be removed and refuses to allow their details to be disclosed, the victim of the defamation can proceed to Court for an Order that the author’s details be disclosed.
In our experience, website operators and defaming posters fear litigation. The easiest response to a complaint is to agree for it to be removed. With that in mind, you should not tolerate defamatory reviews and posts but take action swiftly to minimise the potential for reputation damage.
Heidi Berry is head of commercial litigation at Rudlings Wakelam, a firm of solicitors specialising in law for dental professionals and can be contacted on 01284 755771. Preferential rates are given to all CODE members.