As the target of defamation, you’re probably angry and feeling injured. You may find it difficult to get a job, grow your business, or even secure a loan. That’s way it’s critical to stop online defamation before it damages your reputation further.
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While it is possible to sue for online defamation, is that the best course of action? A slander lawsuit can amplify what you hope to hide and make a bad situation worse. Let’s take a look at what exactly online defamation is, what it does to your reputation.
What is Online Defamation?
Defamationis a published, false, injurious, and unprivileged statement. That means it’s publicly available, not true, and damaging to your reputation. When it’s written online, it’s known as libel. Defamation is a civil wrong, not a crime, and an individual or other entity can sue others for libel.
Online defamation encompasses reviews on sites like Ripoff Report, social media postings, website comments, chat room discussions, podcasts, blog posts, and more.
How Online Defamation Damages Your Reputation
Any bad review or public complaint about you or your business can be damaging. However, defamation is particularly harmful because it is objectively false and intended to destroy your reputation.
Online defamation can lead to a number of issues for both individuals and businesses, including:
- loss of a job
- inability to find work
- lost clients or customers
- inability to gain new clients or customers
- decreased revenue or income
- harassment by the press and/or on social media
- embarrassment with friends and family members
- closure of business
Examples of Online Business DefamationCases
- In 2006, $11.3 million was awarded to a Florida woman for a defamation lawsuit against a client who posted negative messages about her parent referral service. The plaintiff pursued the case even though she knew the defendant would not be able to pay the award. Rather than focus on the monetary award, she wanted to clear her name.
- A Texas couple won $13.8 million in a defamation suit fighting back against anonymous commenters on Topix.com. The posters had said they were drug dealers, molesters, and sexual deviants. Though they were cleared of all charges, the online attacks didn’t stop. As a result, the couple had to move out of town and lost their business.
- Neither party won a 2014 defamation case in which a contractor’s client wrote bad reviews on Yelp and Angie’s List. The contractor retaliated by lashing out with his own accusations in response to the reviews. Ultimately, a jury found that they were both guilty of defamation, and neither would receive damages.
- A doctor in Minnesota lost his online defamation case against a patient’s family that left unflattering online reviews about him. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that none of the statements qualified as defamation. In this case, online reputation management would have been a smarter alternative to legal action.
How to Sue for Online Defamation
Are you thinking of filing an online defamation lawsuit? First, you’ll need to determine if you are dealing with defamation or just an unflattering opinion. To win a case, you must provethat public comments aren’t only false, but a statement of fact.
A review that says, “I was served a moldy muffin at The Flower Cafe” is a statement of fact, and if that statement is not true, it’s defamation. However, a review that states, “The server at The Flower Cafe was rude” is simply too vague and opinionated to qualify as defamation.
Additionally, the statement must be public. Since most damaging statements are made on review sites or social media, they would count as public. But a private conversation between the business owner and individual does not count. However, “public” does not have to be widespread. If someone makes a false, damaging statement to a third party, it could be defamation.
In addition to these requirements, there are different standards for public and private figures, as well as knowledge that the statement is false. For specific details, it’s best to contact a qualified attorney.
Can You Win an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
Slander lawsuits are expensive and time consuming, but they can also be damaging. This is especially true if you’re suing a customer. So if you’re going to sue for online defamation, consider whether you can win and make sure it will be worth it.
You should also consider anti-SLAPP laws. Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) seek to silence free speech. Consequently, the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff, so it difficult to win even if you’re in the right.
If you do sue and win, damages for defamatory statements can range from millions of dollars to nothing at all. Typically, damages are calculated based on actual injuries, such as lost income, lost earning capacity, personal humiliation, and of course, pain and suffering.
Should You Sue for Online Defamation?
While it is possible to sue for online defamation, it’s usually not a good idea except in extreme cases. For example, a single false review about a moldy muffin probably won’t cost you thousands in lost revenue. However, a calculated effort to spread false information about your business could create reputational risk. If a competitor publishes numerous fake reviews about you under different names, you should may need to take action.
Consequences of filing a defamation lawsuit
Whether you have a case or not, it’s important to understand that things might get worse before they get better. In the best-case scenario, you’ll quietly file and win your lawsuit, receive damages, and clear your name. But the reality may be much different.
When you start a defamation lawsuit, you may trigger “The Streisand Effect.” This is when an attempt to censor information actually amplifies it, and defamation suits are perfect examples of the phenomenon.
If you start such a lawsuit, the press will probably report on it. Unfortunately, that means you’ll have to remove more negative search results. If you win, you’ll be vindicated, and you can hope that the press clears your name. But in the meantime, if you take legal action, you could make matters worse.
If you’ve got a real case, you may be willing to take the risk, however. But if you lose, it could be even more difficult to repair your reputation.
Other Ways to Remove Online Defamation
Even if you don’t sue for online defamation removal, you may not want to let things go. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to handle defamation without a slander lawsuit that will help your reputation.
How to handle online defamation
- Contact the review website: Reputable review sites have policies that will allow for mediation or removal of fake bad reviews.
- Contact the individual: If you know the individual who posted the statement, contact them and ask them to delete it. It will help if you apologize and explain that they are damaging your reputation. However, you must be polite and apologetic instead of defensive and accusatory. Do not threaten legal action, as this is not likely to encourage them to help you.
- Do better and move on: If you’re not getting through on a website or directly with the reviewer or individual who posted the statement, you may be out of luck unless you want to pursue legal action. But ultimately, a single review or online statement should not completely damage your reputation. Instead, of suing, focus on building a positive reputation that can overshadow any negative mentions. Develop a blog, open social media accounts, solicit positive reviews, and simply become more active online in a productive way so that your search results will reflect more positively on you.
The Bottom Line on Online Defamation Lawsuits
While it is possible to file (and sometimes win) an online defamation suit, it’s important to weigh the consequences to your reputation.
If you’re able to win, you may receive damages, but ultimately, no one wins in an online defamation lawsuit. Cases may take months or years to find a judgement, and by that time, your livelihood and business may be ruined. Even if you’re completely in the right, customers and business partnersmay be wary to trust you in the future.
Legal content could fill your search results for years (possibly decades) to come. If that happens, you’ll be right back where you started: seeking online reputation management services.
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