An internet sociopath’s guide to destroying small businesses (column)
On Your Right
Is the Internet a blessing or curse? It might depend on who one asks. A consumer would likely wax rhapsodic about access to a world of stuff at highly competitive prices, much of it without sales tax. As long as one is not ingesting the purchase, it’s all relatively safe. The same might be said of retailers, who have access to a global marketplace stretching from Nome to Hobart, Bergen to Ushuaia. For information junkies, the Internet is a cornucopia; the news feed never ends. For compulsive over-sharers, there’s Facebook, Twitter and their more recent and proliferating cousins.
Then there’s the ubiquitous dark side: the stalkers, flamers, cyber-bullies and other sub-human forms of life. It is in this shadow world of undesirables that the most vexing issues of freedom of speech, freedom of information and “right to know” are hammered out.
Let’s say you’re a carpet cleaner named Joe Hadeed whose business suddenly receives a slew of negative comments on the review site YELP. Let’s say you have your suspicions about the reviewers, as in they’re phonies — perhaps in the pay of your competitors, trying to knock you down a few notches. What can you do?
Not much, according to the Supreme Court of Virginia, where Mr. Hadeed’s case finally landed. Not because of the familiar argument that “this is free speech,” but due to a less satisfying legal technicality: the YELP records necessary to determine whether the comments were made by legitimate customers or Slimebots “R” Us are held in California, outside the jurisdiction of Virginia courts. Mr. Hadeed — and indeed, anyone else defamed by spurious YELP comments — is out of luck, unless a California resident. In which instance the “free speech” meme would doubtless be deployed; to what success, is unclear.
One should remember Mr. Justice Holmes’ admonition that a claim of “free speech” does not protect anyone accused of “falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater,” the operative word being “falsely.” Also, YELP and Google have boilerplate agreement language for reviewers limiting certain aspects of “play for pay.” But self-enforcement is a tricky business. Yes, YELP has sued reviewers for misrepresentation in the past, and in a February 2015 administrative case the Federal Trade Commission successfully fined a company for buying positive reviews. Both examples are newsworthy because they are rare.
The past few years have seen exponential growth in small businesses engaged in online reputation defense, so one suspects the problem is metastasizing, not subsiding. Perhaps we are witnessing the well-known effect of anonymity on random acts of cruelty: when one is unseen and unknown there is a greater proclivity to inflict pain on one’s fellows, particularly when there is no penalty for doing so. The Internet — vast, faceless and ubiquitous — offers irresistible opportunities for this sort of sociopathy; rather like dropping a cow carcass into a blood-frenzied school of piranhas. And despite sporadic actions of organizations which profit from the bile of consumers real and imaginary, one’s chances of being detected and punished for untruth are vanishingly small.
Maybe the lying-about-strangers malady springs from baser instincts: an ego boost given by the power to destroy; the electronic equivalent to pulling wings off flies. Or possibly anger toward the business community in general: since they “didn’t build that,” they shouldn’t be enjoying the fruits of their labors while the reviewer is still living in mom’s basement. Call this the Internet’s dark reflection of a sick society.
Whatever its source, the Internet’s false negatives are poisonous. Business is founded on trust, whether the simple trust between merchant and buyer that the former will provide the required good at a fair price and the latter will pay as promised, or the more complex trust among partners and even competitors that each will behave in a reasonable and honest fashion. When that trust is thrown into question, our economy falters and citizens’ lives are the worse for it.
There is no remedy for the Wild West qualities of the Internet that isn’t worse than the disease, so we must all do our part to bring forth the best and discourage the worst. Begin by paying no attention to online reviews that are anonymous. If movie reviewer Kyle Smith and restaurant critic Pete Wells sign their work, there’s no reason someone who thinks that Hadeed’s Carpet Cleaning is lousy shouldn’t either. Being identifiable keeps us honest. Or at least civil.
Trust no review that lacks details: time, place, names of parties involved, circumstance. Those lacking these elements are likely products of the Online Slime Factory, located beneath the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Distrust the websites that offer these reviews; patronize the businesses they howl about.
Above all, be skeptical. Investigate. Compare. Call out the transparently untrue. Good practice for the politics of the year ahead.
Morgan Liddick writes a weekly column for the Summit Daily News.
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