When an online opinion becomes Internet defamation

The Internet has made it easy to reach a global audience. While Los Angeles residents have a right to express how they feel, they can be held liable for false and reputation-harming statements about others. For instance, you can say or write that you had a negative shopping experience at a California store without enhancing the story with untrue invectives.

A law professor at the University of Michigan made an interesting point about Internet defamation. The authors of online opinions are publishers who must adhere to the same rules as journalists. Social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Yelp give us a blank page and unlimited viewers that can encourage us to cross the line between negative truths and barbed untruths.

Word of mouth, or today’s Internet version of it, is the prime driver for new business for many small companies. Maintaining a good reputation is critical to staying in business.The opinions of unhappy customers can dissuade product or service buyers and, when enough people perceive the opinions as truth, turn profits into bankruptcy.

Stinging criticisms on review sites can protect consumers. Unfounded statements can unfairly impact a company’s reputation. Defamation and slander laws define the boundaries for both sides.

Defamation involves a spoken or written, published statement that causes harm. The personal or business damage must be evident. The statement also must be false.

A consumer who writes about the slow service at a restaurant on Angie’s List cannot be accused of Internet defamation if, in fact, the service is slow. There might be an argument between the restaurant owner and the customer about what is and isn’t slow. However, if there’s a nugget of truth in the statement, the opinion cannot be declared defamatory.

Nevertheless, it’s advisable to monitor the words you use in online criticism. An intellectual property attorney will be the first to tell you that there are regulations on public expression.

Source: Detroit Free Press, “Negative online reviews may end in defamation lawsuits” Zlati Meyer, Sep. 02, 2014

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