Alternative Facts or Fake News: the Online Review Farce
No one likes bad reviews, but few take the time to sue over them, and fewer sue the review platform instead of the writers themselves. But that’s not the case for two East Coast lawyers.
A New York lawyer has sued Google to identify an anonymous reviewer who gave him a one-star review, saying only “it was horrible.” The Google review, searchable under Manhattan commercial litigator Donald J. Tobias, was posted by “Mia Arce.” Tobias wants to know Mia Arce’s true identity and the reason for the bad review.
Tobias claims he doesn’t know anyone named “Mia Arce” and suspects that whoever wrote the review might have been commenting about a deceased Cornell University professor with the same name who reportedly jumped in front of an oncoming subway train and died. In his letter to Google’s legal department asking for removal of the review, Tobias stated, “I am an innocent victim of a purported but highly damaging ‘review’ that was posted, in all probability by mistake, by someone that I do not know and with whom I have had no relationship of any kind.”
Obviously Google refused to remove the review.
New Jersey attorney Richard Kitrick sued Google for defamation after receiving negative feedback online that Google refused to delete. Like Tobias, Kitrick claimed he had never represented the bad review’s author. Kitrick asked Google many times to remove the bogus post, but Google declined, so he sued. According to his lawsuit, Google’s Terms of Service say that it reserves the right to review and remove content that violates its policies, and one such policy is to not post “fake reviews.” Thus Kitrick alleges that Google did not follow its own policies and is, therefore, liable for his damages. Stated in his complaint, “Google profits from the slanderous statements that are negative and create controversy in that they encourage more use of the Google services.”
Some online review companies like Yelp post positive reviews only if a company pays for its services, and gives a company no way to contest bad reviews if it doesn’t.
What about fake positive reviews? Should those be allowed? Can anyone or any business post sham reviews promoting themselves or their business? Indeed, should positive online reviews have any legitimacy, or should we be skeptical of those, too?
Freedom of speech is one of our unalienable rights. With online reviews, however, consider the source. Some businesses, and yes, even law firms, play games with reviews. I know of one law firm that recruited close friends who were never clients to post a slew of fake positive reviews.
Don’t assume every review is correct. For example, if an attorney has reviews that proclaim him or her as having been the reviewer’s attorney “for many years,” yet the attorney has only be in practice for a year or two, chances are the review is bogus. If a married couple gives a divorce lawyer good reviews, they’re probably fake.
What Can You Do?
When considering any business, especially law firms, check them out. Online reviews can be helpful or deceptive, so learn what you can from other sources, too. Ask family, friends or even casual acquaintances for suggestions. Most importantly, meet with and interview the prospective lawyer. Ask questions and listen to the answers. Make sure you have confidence that your new lawyer understands you, your case, and what you truly need.
There really is no digital substitute for the person-to-person route.
At Rowley Chapman & Barney, we are proud of our reputation for extraordinary service, and work hard to earn our positive reviews, online or otherwise.