Anyone with a social media account can post online reviews of businesses, and there’s virtually no way to vet a review, that is, whether the reviewer is being truthful or whether the reviewer has an ulterior motive.
Schemes have been found where reviewers were compensated for good reviews, where reviewers blackmailed businesses into giving benefits in return for not writing bad reviews, where businesses threatened to sue reviewers for bad reviews, and where reviews were blatantly faked.
While a sudden plethora of five star reviews might be a red flag to Yelp, Google, or Tripadvisor, business owners are more concerned about the impact of fake negative reviews on their business.
When faced with a negative review that appears malicious or fake, people often respond by contacting the review site. Unfortunately, the review site has no legal responsibility for user posts.
Sites are protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), a little known federal law that was originally enacted to keep internet pornography out of the hands of children.
Congress passed the CDA in 1996. Most of the law focused on limiting indecent or obscene material on the internet; however, those provisions were struck down in a series of lawsuits filed by free speech advocates. Section 230 remains. In a nutshell, Section 230 says that internet providers are not the publisher or speaker of information they post when the information was created by someone else. 47 U.S.C. § 230. This means that a website generally is not responsible for content posted on it that was created by a website user. There are a couple of exceptions, e.g., criminal content and intellectual property infringement are not protected. So, online review sites are not responsible for the content of reviews posted by site users.
Even though they may not be legally liable, social media sites are concerned about the reliability of reviews posted on their sites. Most sites have adopted procedures for taking down fraudulent reviews. These procedures are site specific. So victims of fraudulent reviews must contact each site owner for instructions.
While the site may not be liable for fraudulent content, the individual doing the posting does not have legal protection for fraud, criminal acts, or defamation. If a reviewer did not use the business it reviewed, the review is likely fraudulent. If the review contains facts that are not true, the review may be defamatory. The basic test for defamation is that the statement is false and caused harm, is published, and is made negligently or maliciously. However, an opinion is not defamation.
So, what’s a victim to do? Look at the site’s acceptable use policy and see if the site has a procedure for taking down fraudulent content. Contact a lawyer to see whether the review contains content that is not legally protected and what recourse you may have against the individual that posted the review.