Case study on removing defamatory review for a small business
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Strategies and approaches for removing fake online reviews
In this case study, we explore the challenges faced by a small business suffering from defamatory online reviews and the strategic approach taken by a law firm to effectively remove fake online content. By examining the specific steps, legal tactics, and collaborative efforts employed, this article aims to provide valuable insights for businesses dealing with similar issues and highlight the importance of a tailored, cost-effective approach to addressing online defamation and protecting a company's reputation.
Table of contents
This case study is based on the situation faced by our clients who were a family operating a successful mixed commercial farm based in Hertfordshire. They operate a pop-up farm shop with a five-star hygiene rating from the Food Standards Agency. Our clients became aware of defamatory and malicious publications on a Facebook Group specified for the village.
The posts encouraged others to boycott the business, financially harming the farm shop. False claims were made that the business was illegally closing a public pathway and that the meat purchased at the farm shop had caused illness. In January 2021, our clients received a shock when they discovered defamatory and malicious publications on Facebook and fake, defamatory reviews on their Google business listing. These reviews alleged negligence in business operations, failure to comply with legal duties, causing illness, and unlawful closure of a public local bridleway.
The clients were shocked and distressed by these allegations, as they had always strived to operate their business ethically and with integrity. Upon investigating the matter, our clients suspected that a single individual using pseudonyms was behind the fake reviews, in an attempt to manipulate Google’s platform and harm their business. The clients were devastated by this revelation, as they had always operated with transparency and honesty, and had never encountered anything like this before.
Despite the setback, our clients refused to be deterred and decided to take action against the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews. They enlisted our help to pursue legal action against the individual and clear their name, determined to restore their reputation and regain the trust of their customers.
The clients’ business started experiencing a decline as a direct result of false claims and defamatory reviews. These allegations created a negative perception of the farm and its operations, leading to a loss of customers and revenue. Rumours spread quickly throughout the village and beyond, reaching a wider audience and exacerbating the damage to the business's reputation.
The majority of people in the community were unaware of the complexities and nuances involved in taking legal action for defamation. This lack of understanding further fueled the rumours, making it challenging for the clients to address and rectify the situation on their own. As the situation grew increasingly serious, the clients felt compelled to seek the assistance of expert lawyers who could help them navigate the legal process and restore their reputations.
One of the main concerns, in this case, was identifying the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews. Although the clients had suspicions about who the culprit might be, they were unable to substantiate their claims and prove the person's true identity. This obstacle was a significant barrier to resolving the issue, as the identity of the perpetrator was essential for taking legal action and holding them accountable for their actions.
Furthermore, the individual's use of pseudonyms to post the reviews made it even more challenging to track them down and gather evidence to support the clients’ suspicions. In summary, the clients faced a myriad of concerns, including the decline of their business, the spread of harmful rumours, the complexities of defamation law, and the difficulty of identifying the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews. These challenges made it essential for the clients to seek the expertise of a law firm experienced in dealing with defamation cases and online reputation management.
Any response to a false online review should be measured. We recommend carrying out an initial assessment and strategy development to be able to optimise the way by which our clients respond to fake online reviews. Below is the step-by-step strategy that we have deployed in this specific case of false online reviews:
- Evaluating the situation: We have conducted a thorough evaluation of the clients’ situation and gathered all relevant information. Based on the details provided by the clients and their own research, we developed a strategy to address the defamation issue and protect the clients’ reputations.
- Applying for a Disclosure Order: As a crucial part of the strategy, we applied for a disclosure order from Google. This legal instrument compelled Google to reveal the identity of the individual who posted the defamatory reviews. The disclosure order was necessary because the individual used pseudonyms to hide their identity, making it difficult to prove their involvement in the defamation.
- Obtaining Consent from the Judge: The judge granted the disclosure order by consent, which means that they agreed with the law firm's request without requiring a full court hearing. This decision was communicated via email from Google, which helped expedite the process. The consent from the judge not only saved time but also reduced the overall legal costs for both the law firm and the clients.
- Identifying the Defaming Individual: Upon receiving the disclosure order, Google revealed the identity of the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews. It turned out to be a fellow farmer, who may have been motivated by jealousy towards the clients’ success. This critical information allowed the law firm to take further action to resolve the issue.
- Contacting the Defaming Individual: Armed with the individual's identity, the law firm sent a legal letter to the defaming farmer, informing them of the consequences of their actions and demanding that they cease their defamatory behaviour.
- Requesting Removal of Fake Reviews: The law firm also contacted Google and Facebook, requesting the removal of the fake reviews and posts from the clients’ business' listing and from the Facebook Group. Google obliged and deleted the defamatory content, helping restore the clients’ online reputation. Defamatory posts were also deleted from the Facebook Group.
- Monitoring and Follow-Up: The law firm continued to monitor the situation and provide support to the clients, ensuring that no further defamatory content was published, and addressing any new concerns that may have arisen. These steps are provided as guidance only and if applied appropriately, would be instrumental in identifying the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews, halting their actions, and restoring the clients’ reputation, all while minimizing the time and financial burden on the clients.
The important thing for most businesses that have to deal with fake online reviews is to have the fake reviews deleted as quickly as possible. This is where their and their lawyers’ focus needs to be throughout the process. It is important to try not to get distracted with feelings of anger, revenge and frustration. Our advice is nearly always to keep your eye on the ball, (the ball being your business) and do what you need to do to first, restore normal operation. In the case of our farm shop clients, these are the strategies that we have agreed on and proceeded to successfully implement:
- Defamation Cease and Desist Letter: Once the defaming farmer's true identity was revealed, the law firm sent a strongly-worded legal letter to the individual, demanding that they cease their defamatory behaviour immediately. This action put the perpetrator on notice, making it clear that any further defamatory actions would result in legal consequences.
- Removal of Fake Reviews: We successfully requested that Google remove the fake reviews from the clients’ business listing and that Facebook delete the defamatory posts from the Facebook Group. Google complied with the request, deleting the defamatory content and helping to restore the clients’ online reputation. Facebook was slow to respond but eventually, most of the defamatory posts were deleted from the Group. This outcome allowed the clients to regain control over their online presence, which is crucial in today's digital age.
- Clients’ decision not to pursue defamation case: In light of the successful removal of the fake reviews and the warning issued to the defaming farmer, our clients decided not to pursue a defamation lawsuit against the individual. The clients’ primary goal was to have the fake reviews removed and stop the spread of false information, which had been achieved without engaging in lengthy and costly legal proceedings.
- Focus on business recovery: With the defamatory content removed and the responsible individual identified and warned, the clients were able to refocus their efforts on recovering from the damage caused by the false allegations. By concentrating on their farm and shop's success, the clients could rebuild their reputation within the community and work to regain lost customers and revenue.
- Strengthened position against future defamation: The outcome of this case also served as a deterrent to any potential defamers, demonstrating the clients’ willingness to take legal action to protect their reputation. The successful resolution of this matter bolstered the clients’ position against any future defamation attempts, ensuring that they are better prepared to address such challenges in the future.
Challenges in Defamation Cases:
Cases like this involving online defamation present unique challenges for both the law firm and the clients. The anonymous nature of the internet makes it difficult to identify and address defamatory actions, and the damage caused can be significant and long-lasting. Many clients, particularly small to medium-sized businesses, are vulnerable to the negative effects of fake and defamatory reviews, which can have a substantial impact on their reputation and financial well-being.
Striking the Right Balance:
As legal professionals, it is essential for us to strike the right balance between the cost of taking legal action for defamation and its affordability for the clients. We understand that pursuing legal remedies can be expensive, and it is our responsibility to ensure that our clients' resources are used wisely and efficiently.
Focus on Clients’ Objectives:
In order to achieve the best possible outcome, we remain focused on our clients' objectives throughout the legal process. We work closely with our clients to understand their goals and devise strategies that will effectively address the challenges they face. By directing resources towards removing online interferences with their business, we enable our clients to continue focusing on their core operations and achieving success.
This case serves as an example of an outcome achieved through a cost-effective approach, utilising persuasion and determination. By obtaining a disclosure order from Google and working collaboratively with the clients, we were able to identify the individual responsible for the defamatory reviews, halt their actions, and have the fake reviews removed, all without engaging in a lengthy and costly legal battle.
This case highlights the importance of being proactive in addressing online defamation and protecting a business's reputation. It demonstrates the value of working with an experienced law firm that understands the complexities of defamation law and can navigate the legal process effectively, achieving the desired outcome in a cost-efficient manner.