Social Media Means Social Responsibility

By David Gould, President

In this age of the internet, where the written word has become as fluid as the spoken, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are responsible for what we write. We sometimes forget that the online written word is forever recorded to posterity. We’ve all heard the stories of internal or external company e-mails coming back to bite the sender, whether it be in a legal matter or a personal one. This same phenomenon has spread to blog posts and online reviews.

Specifically, in recent months we’ve seen articles regarding online reviews and libel suits. Does the average consumer have a legal responsibility when it comes to a review posted on Yelp, for instance? It’s tough to say. Certainly professional journalists who post their opinions in the traditional media are held to a certain legal standard. They do not have liberty to make false or defamatory accusations without proof to back up their claims. The lines become blurred when we enter the realm of the online review.

At what point does my expression of opinion cross the line into defamation and libel. I’m no lawyer (and don’t play one on TV either) and cannot speak to the letter of the law when it comes to libel, but I do think common sense applies. Clearly, if businesses want to leverage the power of viral marketing, they must be able to take the good with the bad, but must they also be subject to blatantly false or unsubstantiated accusations.

It’s a slippery slope no doubt. If every false claim and accusation were subject to legal prosecution, I suspect we would see a serious drop in the utility of online reviews. I believe that would be a bad thing for both consumers and businesses alike. I believe that the vast majority of reviews are useful and well intentioned, whether they be good or bad reviews. That said I do believe we all have, at the very least, a moral responsibility when crafting online reviews.

When researching this blog post I read a few articles about a chiropractor who sued an online reviewer for making false accusations. In the end, the parties settled out of court, but I thought it ironic that one of the comments posted to an article I read may actually skirt the limits of libel. In response to the article one reader commented, “The chiropractor is gouging the insurance providers. In the end we all pay for this.” One might infer that the chiropractor is making dishonest claims to the insurance provider.

Let’s hope for the reader’s sake, the chiropractor has put this incident in the past.


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