Restaurants and pubs across Cornwall are complaining about a series of negative reviews on TripAdvisor left by an anonymous reviewer. These reviews criticise the food and drink of the establishments and make unwelcome observations about the staff. Unpleasant and anonymous social media posts have become an undesirable reality of today’s social media world. Derogatory internet reviews can damage personal and business reputations and cause loss of customers and profits. But is there anything that the restaurateurs and publicans can do about negative online reviews?
If the post causes people to think less of you or your company and is posted online then it is likely to be defamatory. If the post has caused or is likely to cause ‘serious harm’, such as serious financial loss for the business, then you have what is needed to bring a legal claim.
However, not all negative reviews are actionable. It will depend on the wording and circumstances of each review. If the disgruntled poster can show that his comments are true, or that they are his honestly held opinion based on facts, then he is likely to have a defence to a legal action for defamation. It is worth speaking to the restaurant staff that were present on the day to see if they consider that it is possible that the review could be fair. It is feasible that a diner could have had a bad experience, even if other reviews are glowing. If the post is merely irritating rather than a cause of serious harm then the best approach may be to respond to the reviewer via an online management review, correcting any misleading statements reasonably and politely for public viewers of the review to see.
If the review contains factual allegations that you know to be false, or if you consider that the reviewer could hold a personal grudge or vendetta against you or your business, then there is action that you can take. If you know the name and the address of the wrongdoer then you can send them a Letter before Claim demanding that they remove the defamatory post, as a precursor to legal proceedings for defamation.
In order to bring defamation proceedings against the culprit you will need to know their name and contact details. Most social media websites won’t release details of the identity of an anonymous poster without a court order compelling them to do so. A court order requiring an Internet Service Provider to identify an anonymous reviewer is likely to be obtained if you can show that the reviewer has posted defamatory, private or other unlawful information, that the order is necessary to enable redress against the wrongdoer and that the website owner is likely to hold the necessary information. IT forensics may also assist with identifying anonymous users, through lawful investigative techniques.
However, if the reviewer is anonymous and you do not know their name and address it may be possible to persuade a website operator to remove the post by submitting a notice of complaint, without the need for legal proceedings. It may also be worth reporting the post to the social media website via their internal reporting mechanism. Each social media site has different reporting policies and procedures. TripAdvisor makes clear that it does not fact check reviews so will not remove a review simply because there is a disagreement about its contents. However, it may be possible that the review will be removed on the basis that it offends some other aspect of their content policy such as containing profanities, prejudiced views, threats or personal information. Content which encourages a boycott or smear campaign of an establishment is also not permitted and potentially biased content will be investigated.
There are therefore many different options available to restaurateurs or publicans who wish to combat social media posts or reviews which they find unpalatable!
Laura Baglow is head of NetRights, the Social Media, Internet and Media law department of Parnalls Solicitors. For legal advice and assistance with social media or internet postings please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01566 772375. Find out more about NetRights here
The contents of this article are for purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. The law may have changed since this article was published. Readers should not act on the basis of the information included and should take appropriate professional advice upon their own particular circumstances.