When critics go too far: Dealing with defamation on social networks

In the digital age, everyone’s a critic and social media-saavy marketers must be thick skinned.  Even top brands must endure negative comments, bad product reviews, brand-related criticism, and the occasional, scathing blog posts. We’re all fair game for bloggers and social networkers — until they cross the line into defamation.

According to the Blogger’s Legal Guide, defamation (or, ‘defamation of character’) involves sharing false statement publicly that have a negative effect on a living person’s reputation. When defamation occurs, marketers must intervene on behalf of the company to protect the brand’s reputation and its employees.  

When defamatory statements are found, the first step is often to contact the blogger and ask them to revise their criticism to exclude defamatory phrases.  They have the right to share details about their negative experiences — they just need to remove portions that aren’t true. 

Cease and Desist

If that doesn’t work, the next stage of intervention may include  sending a formal ‘cease and desist’ letter asking the offending blogger or social networker to remove or revise their defamatory statement. It’s typically not a good idea to send a ‘cease and desist letter’ until you’ve made successful attempts to contact them informally.  The formality of a ‘cease and desist’ letter is likely to stir a reaction — but it may NOT be the reaction you are looking for.

No one wants to pursue defamation cases with litigation. Defamation cases are typically expensive to prosecute and difficult to win. Defenses against defamation include:

  • Truth. Statements aren’t defamatory when they are true.
  • Personal Opinions. These may be protected.
  • Statements ‘passed innocently.’ If someone is unaware that statements are false, they may be innocent of defamation — particularly if the target of statement is a public figure. In these cases, it may be necessary to prove malice (intent to harm) by the defamer.
  • A Pre-Existing Bad Reputation. It’s difficult to defame someone that already has a bad reputation.

One of the biggest drawbacks to defamation lawsuits is that they publicize the defamatory content, making it more visible than doing nothing (which, of course, is also an option.)

Community Action

A more subtle (and effective) way to deal with defamatory blog posts is to request assistance from a neutral third party — the Internet Service Provider (ISP) or the manager of the community where the defamatory text appears.  Most of these services require participants to agree to their ‘Terms of Service’ – which prohibit defamatory text and provides the service with the ability to remove inappropriate content. This tactic often works.   WordPress.com suspend blogs or blog posts for the following types of abuse: Personal threats; Calls to violence; and Impersonation of a private person.

“We will not suspend blogs for other reasons you might find objectionable. For example, we don’t suspend blogs for expressing negative personal opinions, for describing a negative experience they have had with a business, or for being generally offensive,” the WordPress policy states. “Instead of asking us to suspend such a blog, please consider either responding in the blog’s comments or on your own blog/site to set the record straight, by simply ignoring the issue (blogs that use insults and bad language tend to have low credibility and low traffic in the first place), or by seeking a court order against the blog.”  These options can also be considered.

In the end, the goal is to balance the “freedom of speech” that bloggers and social networks enjoy with the and defamation rights of others.   There will always be trolls — those individuals who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in online communities to provoke a desired emotional response and disrupt normal on-topic discussion — but there are also boundaries.

Yo Momma

Learn about the rich history of Yo Momma jokes as told by various experts in the field of matriarchal defamation.

About Troy Janisch

Troy Janisch, Publisher of Social Meteor, is a digital marketing professional and social media beatnik. He is a contributor to SmartBrief on Social Media. Like a good social media program, SocialMeteor.com is all about content. It’s not a consulting company or marketing agency.
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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Troy-Janisch/1095484363 <fb:name linked="false" useyou="false" uid="1095484363">Troy Janisch</fb:name>

    From Barb Hernandez via LinkedIn: How many social-media savvy marketers have spent time on some crisis planning? By the time much of the legal wrangling is wrapped, there may be significant damage to someone’s or a company’s reputation. Might be time to update that list of “worst-case” scenarios in the file cabinet, and plan ahead for dealing with defamatory comments.

  • http://wendysoucie.com Wendy Soucie

    I recently was approached by a business owner who himself had been conned to do some work for someone else and had not been paid. The original customer posted a ripoff report online and named him as one of the offending parties even though he had completed the work and signed off. He asked me what he could do to restore his good name. I suggested he submit his own comment of the situation. I then suggested to him that he could ask past clients to offer their reviews of his work in the social networks – LinkedIn, Yelp, Merchant Circle, Facebook page, and to post their own comments on the complaint report in question.
    It is usually better to have the crowd police themselves and counter the offender, or to share multiple reviews to show the diverse opinion of everyone’s experience. This has paid off big time for Amazon for book reviews. I mean who really thinks everyone likes the book. And we know they only include the good ones on the book jacket. And yes, I posted my good opinion of this company who has done work for me on LinkedIn and on the complaint site.

    Wendy
    http://xeesm.com/wendysoucie