Friday 28 October 2016

Beware the murky world of online review battles

An online spat between a Dublin hotel and one of its customers over a negative review gives punters pause for thought

Published 08/10/2015 | 02:30

Happy to eat: Diners on CCTV at the cafe
Happy to eat: Diners on CCTV at the cafe

The spat that has broken out between a Dublin hotel and a customer would be funny if it wasn't serious.

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A diner at the White Moose Cafe posted a negative review of her meal on Facebook. So far, so tedious. She felt her food wasn't up to scratch and she decided to take to the internet to give her unsolicited opinion. Most restaurateurs and hoteliers are used to this kind of thing and Trip Advisor has been built upon it, becoming either a valuable repository of vaunted critique or a venting cauldron of surly bad manners, depending on your viewpoint.

Responses to negative reviews are either of the "sorry you didn't like it", variety or ignoring the post and responding to only the nice ones.

In the Dublin cafe's case, owner of its parent hotel the Charleville, Paul Stenson, couldn't help himself and decided to vent his irritation. "If you are not happy with your food, DON'T F***ING EAT IT", was his opening salvo before informing other would-be diners that a CCTV camera is recording their every mouthful to "protect the untarnished reputation of our cafe". He decided to prove this with elan by posting a female diner he claimed was "horsing" into her food. Is he suggesting it's the review poster? Is he implying that she ate everything and then complained?

The hotel has form, responding aggressively to critics of its room rates during concert and sporting events, suggesting customers might prefer a 'homeless shelter' if they felt so aggrieved. Perhaps other hoteliers also feel frustrated and annoyed at guests complaints, wishing either they would keep it to themselves, or inform staff in a timely manner rather than the online world at large. What stops them all responding in kind?

When the fast-moving internet collides with the ponderous legal world, clashes are inevitable. Internet defamation is a very real thing, however, and under the Defamation Act 2009 anyone who posts something considered libellous is just as likely to be sued as they would if it were printed in a newspaper by a professional journalistic reviewer.

The difference of course, between a restaurant critic and citizen eater is that an editorial process buffers the former. You simply cannot write what you like and assume it'll be swallowed without comment.

Barrister Fergus Crehan says: "Generally, reviews have not been considered capable of defamation, so long as they stick to opinion about the fare on offer.

"Where someone goes further and alleges rats in the kitchen or similar, there might be a case. If you go even further, and make untrue allegations about the chef or head waiter, then the chances of the case would be quite strong." He adds however, that a 'revenge' review would have no such protection.

"To be defamatory, a statement has to be a factual allegation. Crude abuse is not defamatory.

"So if a restaurant alleged that a diner ran out without paying, that would be defamatory, but calling them a 'fat pig' or similar would not be."

So where does that leave parties who can't resist photographing their dismal dinner for instagram or offering knee-jerk responses to 'dirty towels in the bathroom' comments?

In a grey, murky place, is the answer. A case taken in 2014 in Oregon, USA where a guest at the Ashley Inn hotel, simply identified as '12Kelly' who had left a bad review on Trip Advisor, failed in its $74,500 action against him/her only because Oregon state law has a 'media shield' which prevents the identification of 'sources' - it's normally reserved to protect journalists from being sued, but the court opined that Trip Advisor was 'a medium of communication' and the shield applied.

In another state, or in Ireland, would it have an effect? Likely not.

In a wider sense, there's probably no argument to be made for trouncing your customers publicly.

It may make you feel better, and it certainly generates publicity, but in the long-term surely it just serves to keep people away, rather than checking out the place for themselves?

In any event, until there is more case law to separate 'hurt feelings' from 'defamation', millions of people are potentially putting themselves at risk.

Whether it's trolling a celebrity on twitter, or whining about a hotel, best stick to the facts and avoid your 15 minutes of fame.

Irish Independent

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