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Libel, Slander, and Defamation: How to Protect Your Reputation in a Digital Economy

Scott Smith
4 min read
Libel, Slander, and Defamation: How to Protect Your Reputation in a Digital Economy

Bad reviews hurt a business. If you own the business, they hurt your soul. Nonetheless, platforms like Yelp are the gatekeepers to quality now. You have to accept that not everyone is going to like what you are doing and that any old jerk can leave a scathing review that could damage your credibility.

But never fear—even in the seemingly lawless world of the internet, there is law to protect you. The good news is that you can protect your business against untruthful, inflammatory remarks.

When Negative Reviews Transform Into Defamation

There’s definitely a hard line in the sand regarding defamation. Cross that line, and a negative reviewer could indeed be engaging in defamation. There have actually been hundreds of lawsuits over negative reviews posted in online forums, but few people take action.

The first amendment only protects the truth.

No one has the right to tell lies about you or your business. If a negative review in any public platform is negative AND untruthful, you can sue for damages. That situation is the very definition of libel.

A Quick Note From The Legalese Translator

Libel is something that occurs when an individual knowingly makes false statements about you in writing. Someone who does the exact same thing verbally is committing a similar crime, but we call that slander. The difference between the two is simple: Were the false statements printed or spoken?

The Quick and Dirty is this:  

  • Printed = Libel
  • Verbal = Slander

This content brought to you by The Legalese Translator.

Now, you are going to have to prove that a negative comment was untrue if you are going to silence it. If a customer says that they were served an ice cold steak, you’re going to have a hard time proving the remark untrue. I suppose maybe the customer’s steak could have flown off the plate and smacked a neighboring diner in the eye, which would give you some evidence of its temperature. If they have burn scars, you may well have a shot.

This is an insane example, but it demonstrates a case where a business is actually damaged by a negative review that can, at least in theory, be proven untrue. This is grounds for a defamation lawsuit.

business colleagues meeting in boardroom going over paperwork

All About Defamation

There are two types of defamation. We mentioned libel. Libel is the act of defaming someone by telling lies about him or her in print—literally, on paper, which can include publication in a news outlet or other online forum. This includes online reviews.

The second type of defamation is slander, which is spoken defamation. See that handy chart above if you need to reference back to this topic. Just for fun, we’re going to give you some examples.

Related: How to Keep an Amazing Reputation in the Real Estate Business

You see a lot of slander during political campaigns. Remember “Lock Her Up?” with Hillary Clinton or the myriad of statements about Donald Trump’s health? They could all be total fabrications. Even if true, the critics were unlikely to have evidence of their claims. You’d think such powerful people would be willing to sue to keep such commentary out of the media and public eye.

But defamation is tricky business.

In order to win a defamation lawsuit, you must prove the following:

  1. That a statement was made
  2. That it was published for others to see (comments, reviews, etc.)
  3. That the statement caused you injury (emotional distress, loss of business, etc.)
  4. That the statement was false.

That is a tall order, because each of those elements above must be proven fact. Items (2) and (3) are especially difficult to prove without cold, hard, tangible evidence.

Awards in a defamation lawsuits generally require the offending party to remove false statements. Damages might be awarded for lost profits or injury, which as mentioned are very difficult to prove, especially if we’re talking “emotional distress.”

Defamation Suits: Is This the Hill You Want to Die On?

You really need to pick your battles carefully. You can spend a lot of money silencing negative reviews that may not actually be costing you anything. It’s also difficult to prove that the offending party is lying. Judgments are rare without overwhelming evidence, so odds are you could spend more money engaged in the suit than actually doing things that could improve your business.

Young Asian businesswoman frowning with concern as she tries to understand something she is reading on her laptop computer scratching her head with her pencil in perplexity

How Business Owners Can Manage Negative Reviews Without Setting Foot in Court

My personal advice to business owners who are on the receiving end of negative or untruthful reviews is that you respond to it once. That’s a hard rule: Don’t beg, plead, or offer free stuff to the hostile party. Once, and only once, is the golden rule.

Why? It’s enough to show that you are a business owner who cares. It allows anyone who reads the review to hear your side. Reach out to the customer directly if it’s possible and figure out if you can resolve their issue. Maybe you can get a negative review taken down just by showing a potential client that you want to do better by them. That’s how you win over people whom you disappointed, and we all have off days.

And for bonus points: other readers will see you engaging with your customer base. This builds credibility with potential customers.

Related: Should There Be a Better Review System in Place for Landlords?

Now, if you’ve taken these steps and you are unable to resolve a negative and untrue comment or review that is causing your business injury, you can file a lawsuit against the perpetrator.

Just remember that lawsuits are a long and costly process. Don’t drag yourself into a fight if there aren’t sticks or stones involved. We mean it: ask yourself, “Is this the hill you want to die on?”

Do you want to go toes to the mat for (typically) not much reward? If the injury is real and the comment is false, take legal action. Just be sure you’re in a fight over something that matters.

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Have you had issues with defamation, libel, slander, or any of the concepts we’ve talked about above?

Share your experience in the comments section.

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.