can you sue for online defamation? (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/fischerfotos/)

can you sue for online defamation? (photo by https://www.flickr.com/photos/fischerfotos/)

Editor’s note: This article is part of a featured series that tackles the basics of reputation management. In our Reputation Management 101 series, you’ll learn about basic (but important) concepts, tasks, and tips for reputation management. Each post will include actionable advice and realistic ideas that you can use — today — to improve your online reputation. Join us as we explore reputation management resources that everyone should know!

The short answer is: yes, you can sue for online defamation.

Online defamation includes reviews, social media postings, website comments, chat room discussions, podcasts, blog posts, and more. If it’s false, damaging, and available to a third party, it’s probably defamation — and it probably hurts. As the target of defamation, you’re likely angry and feeling injured as you suffer from difficulty finding work, growing your business, or simply hearing about what others have said about you online. Without a doubt, it’s infuriating to have lies spread about you, online or off, especially when they cause real damage.

It is possible to sue for online defamation, and there are a number of cases where the plaintiff has won — and won big. But should you sue for online defamation? That’s another story. A lawsuit can amplify what you hope to hide forever, and even in the best case scenario, it can make an already bad situation worse. Let’s take a look at what exactly online defamation is, what it does to your reputation, and what you can do about it, as well as alternatives to an online defamation lawsuit.

What is Online Defamation?

According to Nolo.com, defamation is ultimately any statement that can hurt your reputation. When it’s online, it’s written, and known as libel. Defamation is civil wrong, not a crime, and an individual or other entity can sue others for libel. By definition, defamation is published, false, injurious, and unprivileged. That means it’s publicly available, not true, and damaging.

Online defamation can be found on review websites, social media, in public comments on websites, blogs, individual websites, and more.

How Online Defamation Damages Your Reputation

Any bad review or public complaint about you or your business can be damaging. However, true defamation is particularly damaging because it is objectively false and injurious to your reputation. As in, your reputation has suffered due to lies someone has spread about you online. That hurts.

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
  • fewer to no new clients or customers
  • decreased revenue or income
  • harassment by the press and/or on social media
  • embarrassment with friends and family members
  • loss of business

Want to know exactly how much a good online reputation is worth? In one Harvard study, a one star increase in Yelp reviews led to a 5 to 9 percent growth in revenue for Seattle restaurants.

Cases of Online Defamation

  • In 2006, $11.3 million was awarded to a Florida woman for a 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 simply clear her name using the court.
  • 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. The couple had to move out of town, and the wife lost her business after they were accused of sexual assault. They were found not guilty of all charges, but online attacks continued — and their reputation suffered as a result, thus, the successful lawsuit.
  • No one won in a 2014 defamation case in which a contractor’s client wrote scathing reviews of his work on Yelp and Angie’s List — and the contractor fired right back with his own accusations in responses 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. The doctor was unhappy with online reviews left by the family, but the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that none of the statements were actually defamatory.

When You Can Sue for Online Defamation

Think you want to sue for online defamation? A lawyer should be able to advise you whether your case qualifies or not. However, there are a few ways to quickly determine if you may actually be dealing with defamation — or just an unflattering opinion.

Ultimately, the most important thing you’ll need to prove in a defamation suit is that the information shared is not 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. (Of course, proving that there was never a moldy muffin is another story.) 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. This is pretty common in online defamation, as most statements are made on a review site or social media. But a private conversation between the business owner and individual does not count — unless it’s been made public. However, “public” does not have to be widespread. In fact, all that matters is that the statement is made to a third party.

There are other requirements, including different standards for public figures and private figures, knowledge that the statement is false, and more. For specific details, it’s best to contact a qualified attorney. However, note that before you can even consider a case, you’ll need to be sure that the statement or statements in question are fact based, false, damaging, and made available to a third party, as this is the basis for proving defamation.

Damages for defamatory statements can range from zero to millions. Typically, damages are calculated based on actual injuries, such as lost income, lost earning capacity, personal humiliation, and of course, pain and suffering.

Can You Win an Online Defamation Lawsuit?

No one wants to start a lawsuit they can’t win. It’s expensive, a big hassle, and perhaps most importantly, can be embarrassing and even damaging. This is especially true if you’re suing a current or former customer, particularly if the public is watching (and they probably are). So if you’re going to sue for online defamation, you should be sure that you can win — and that it will be worth it.

To start, you should ensure that you’re actually dealing with online defamation. That means assessing whether your case of defamation actually is defamation with a statement that is published, false, injurious, and unprivileged.

Another factor to consider is anti-SLAPP laws. Meant to defend individuals against strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs) that seek to silence their free speech, anti-SLAPP laws can place the burden of proof on to the plaintiff — and ultimately, stop a defamation lawsuit in its tracks, making it difficult to win even if you’re in the right.

Should You Sue for Online Defamation?

While it is possible to sue for online defamation and win, ultimately, it’s usually not a good idea except in extreme cases that have caused serious harm. For example, a single false review about a moldy muffin probably won’t completely tank your business and cost you thousands in lost revenue (especially if you have other positive reviews to back up your good name). However, a more concentrated effort to spread false information about you or your business, like a website made to defame you (such as yourcompanysucks.com) combined with a slew of false online postings from multiple personas who are ultimately revealed to be a single person is essentially an attack that can cause real damage, and might warrant action.

But whether you feel like you have a case worth pursuing or not, it’s important to keep in mind that any action you take in this area may make things worse before they get better — if they ever do get better. In the best case scenario, you’ll quietly file and win your lawsuit, be awarded damages, and ultimately, clear your name. But the reality of what happens may be much different.

When you start a defamation lawsuit, particularly one that attracts media attention, what often happens is what’s known as “The Streisand Effect.” The Streisand Effect essentially refers to a situation in which trying to fight back against or censor information actually amplifies it — and an online defamation suit is the perfect situation for this to happen.

If you start such a lawsuit, you should know that the press may (and probably will) report on it, ultimately filling Google results for your name or your business name with reports of the lawsuit. And that can hurt for the months or years that the lawsuit goes on — whether you’re winning or not. Ultimately, if you win, you’ll be vindicated, and you can hope that the press reports on your win to clear your good name. But in the meantime, taking legal action can, and probably will, make matters worse.

If you’ve got a real case worth pursuing, this effect may be a risk you feel you can take. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that things will likely get worse before they get better. And if you lose, your reputation will be much more difficult to repair after word gets out that you sued your customer — and lost.

Alternative Remedies for Online Defamation Lawsuits

Even if you’re not interested in suing for online defamation, you may feel that you don’t want to just let things go. That’s normal, and there are a number of options within reach. Instead of pursuing a lawsuit, you can:

  • Contact the review website: If the statement in question is posted on an established review website, contact the website. Often, review sites have policies that will allow for mediation or removal of reviews that are found to be false or fake.
  • Contact the individual: If you know the individual who has posted the statement, contact them and ask them to remove it. It will help if you offer an apology, and even a token of appreciation for their opinion, as well as an explanation that they are damaging your reputation — and that a retraction would greatly help you. Remember to tread lightly here and be polite and apologetic, not 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

Yes, it is possible, but in most cases, not a good idea.

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, most people are intimidated by and wary of individuals and businesses who have been involved in legal action of this kind, and with a lawsuit, your Google search results are likely to be filled with information about the lawsuit for years (possibly decades) to come. If you win, you’ll likely be awarded damages, and the world will see that you were right — but you may never be able to build your reputation back up again.