Tip Sheet: Identifying and Nailing the Online Defamer

It’s Monday morning. You grab a cup of coffee, sit down at your desk and begin reviewing the social media activity for your company, which owns several trendy t-shirt shops in the city. You opened the first store’s doors five years ago and now have three stores, but 75% of sales are made online. As you’re scanning the weekend’s online activity, you’re shocked at what you see. Instead of the regular chatter amongst customers, there are a number of horribly negative reviews. You quickly search online to find that two blogs have been created to blast the stores. The two new sites appear in search results immediately below your company’s main Web site.

The complaints make you question their validity. One reviewer said he paid for a 1,000-t-shirt order he never received. Another said the t-shirts are made with slave labor. You know these accusations are not true. The problem is there are dozens more, and they are all posted by a variety of anonymous screen names. You are being attacked.

You begin to plan your response. But what can you do? It doesn’t matter if you’re selling clothes or providing PR services. You can fight back against this kind of attack.

In the past, online reputation management pros have been limited to search engine optimization tactics; they would find ways to push bad content down on search results. That’s no longer the case.

It’s now possible through the use of investigative and legal tactics to identify the attackers, remove the harmful material from the Internet, stop the attackers from posting about you again and even recover losses. If negative posts are false, create a misleading impression, intentionally interfere with your client’s business, intentionally inflict emotional distress or contain private or sensitive business information, the defamer—even if he’s “anonymous”—can be identified, located and stopped.

More business owners and executives are realizing the importance of online reputation management. According to a survey from Econsultancy, 70% of online consumers trust reviews from unknown users.

Online attacks are being instigated by not only disgruntled customers, but also by competitors, ex-employees and ex-business partners. Legitimate opinions of unhappy customers are protected speech, just as they should be. The cases in which our law firm assist are ones where attackers are bound and determined to hurt a particular company. The appropriate response should be determined by the type of attack. So how can you tell the difference? Based on our experience, there are several ways to determine unhappy customer postings and those that are defamatory. Attacks typically include one of the following:

1. The statements are known to be false;

2. The statements include outrageous, atypical accusations;

3. The reviews or posts are clustered in time. Your client will have few reviews and then suddenly there are 10 items in a single month, often from multiple screen names;

4. You have a good idea who the defamer is, even though you cannot prove it; and

5. The material is causing harm. A single unhappy customer can leave a review that minimally impacts a business. Someone committed to significantly damaging a business will find ways to substantially harm it online.

The traditional strategy to combat false reviews was to start a counter campaign or to bury the content. The former is costly to the client and can escalate the issue unnecessarily. The latter is becoming increasingly difficult due to changes in search algorithms.

The three most common misconceptions we hear are:

1. The statements are covered by freedom of speech: The courts have repeatedly recognized the First Amendment does not protect false statements and other illegal conduct.

2. Nobody will remove it anyway: Oftentimes, we find the removal of damaging information can occur quickly. Court orders can be obtained for removal if appropriate legal claims exist.

3. You can’t catch anonymous posters: Using investigative techniques coupled with court ordered subpoenas, most cases can be resolved.

When you realize you’re dealing with more than just a disgruntled customer—someone who is committed to ruining your business, you’ll be able to take appropriate action. Your ability to manage your brand’s reputation online is imperative as you build your reputation as an effective PR professional. PRN


Whitney Gibson is an attorney in the Cincinnati office of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. He can be reached at [email protected]. Christopher Anderson, Ph.D. ([email protected]), and Bruce Anderson, co-founders of Cyber Investigation Services, LLC, co-authored this article.