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The Power of Yelp

A few mornings ago I had CNN on in the background and a few tidbits of conversation caught my attention. The news anchor was interviewing Christopher Dietz, a contractor who is suing a former client for bad reviews on Angie’s List and Yelp.  My initial reaction was to side with the reviewer, free speech and all that. However after hearing more of the story, I felt conflicted.

I manage a boutique on Newbury street in Boston and understand the power of a bad review. In fact, I have even had customers use their reviewing power as a negotiation tactic. Although you can reply to bad reviews on sites like Yelp, often the damage is already done and any counter arguments come across as whiny or disingenuous. Both Yelp and Angie’s list will not mitigate posts. Outside of legal action, there is very little recourse for businesses to get false reviews removed.

BS News legal analyst Jack Ford explained defamation and how it relates to this case. On “CBS This Morning” he said, “Our constitutional right to free speech is not absolute. There are limitations on it. For instance, the classic one, you can’t falsely yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater. … Because obviously, you can expose people to damage. What you can do is offer up is your opinion about things. As long as it’s clearly an opinion. Here’s what you can’t do. And this is where you get into defamation. You can’t make a false statement of fact that damages somebody’s reputation. So if I wanted to say, in a situation similar to this, I was just not at all happy with the work that my contractor did. That’s okay. That’s my opinion. But if i say, ‘I was not at all happy with the work that my contractor did, and by the way my contractor is an embezzler’ … or ‘he stole jewelry’ or even make the argument saying, ‘He damaged my house,’ now you’re making a statement of fact. The law also says, truth is an absolute defense. So if somebody did damage your house or somebody is an embezzler, then you’re OK. Even though it damages their reputation, as long as it’s true, it’s OK. The classic thing to remember is [defamation is] a false statement of fact that damages somebody’s reputation, as opposed to opinion.”

Ford added, “The Internet is still kind of the wild west. You know, tradition news organizations, we have editorial processes we follow. Reliable sources, fact checking, even though you have the right to do it, is it the right thing to do? If you’re going online, everybody uses this, goes and does research first before they buy stuff. Make sure you’re doing it in terms of a genuine opinion on your part. Here’s the other thing, don’t try and cloak your statement of fact and say, ‘It’s my … opinion that he damaged my house. It’s my opinion this person is a serial killer.’ Just because you say the word opinion, doesn’t mean it’s no longer a statement of fact. The thing to be careful about a statement of fact that’s false and damages their reputation.”

The rapid evolution of the Internet has left the law struggling to keep up. It has also given consumers a great deal of power over the companies they choose to do business. As more and more people turn to online communities to make purchase decisions the integrity of these reviews will become increasingly important.

Now  for a more even more timely example….

What’s the saying? With great power comes great responsiblity? One online reviewer exercised this power by complaining about Santa on her local mall’s Facebook page over the weekend. She writes:

“Because we did not purchase any photo packages the gentleman mumble something to Santa and when my daughter who is six was going to sit on his lap Santa put his hands together and placed them on his legs so she couldn’t sit on him. Santa was not attentive and brushed her off all because we did not purchase pictures. Why don’t you just put up a sign saying NO PICTURES NO SANTA. My daughter was hurt and I so disappointed. Shame on you!”

Santa was fired this past Monday.



Happy holidays everyone!

For more on both of these stories go to:



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