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Hate Speech



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section heading icon     gripe sites

This page considers 'gripe sites' - online fora and enthusiast sites dedicated to criticism of an enterprise, institution or government agency.

It covers -

It complements exploration elsewhere on this site regarding 'score sites', which have featured offensive comments regarding teachers, rastaurants, other businesses and potential partners-for-life.

Context is supplied by the discussion of reputation and consumer activism.

subsection heading icon    introduction

The preceding page considered literary and other reviews written by journalists and scholars on a professional basis. What of online criticism that does not have a professional status?

Hotel, restaurant and other commercially published guides have solicited unpaid contributions from consumers since at least the 1860s (the beginnings of mass publishing and mass tourism). The consumer movements of the 1890s and 1920s saw newsletters that sought to inform buyers and shame offenders by publishing letters in which consumers critiqued products or related their experience with good/bad service. That publication was emulated, albeit weakly, by major newspapers and magazines - weak because they relied on inhouse expertise rather than offering an unfiltered forum for any brickbat.

The vogue for user generated content (UGC) evident since the late 1990s has seen the emergence of -

  • online fora, with a wide or narrow focus, that include criticism by consumers of products and services along with comment on other matters
  • online fora that specialise in criticism, for example of films, insurance or restaurants
  • the 'attack' or 'suck' sites, discussed elsewhere, that are established by individual enthusiasts or groups to savage an organisation, product or service
  • sites that offer pseudonymous 'scores' or 'ratings' about individuals and organisations, including schools, teachers and businesses.

Those venues have broadly been characterised as gripe sites, an elastic term that can praise or damn. Some comments on such sites can be expert, cogent and well-founded; other comment is merely venomous. It is often pseudonymous, something that encourages invective, hyperbole and flaming.

Some comment in such fora is defamatory. It has been criticised as 'cybersmear', with marketers warning that sites have the "potential to destroy reputations with the speed and ferocity of a devastating hurricane" and to "spread hoaxes that negatively affect the goodwill that companies strive to develop over years" because the net is the "electronic rumor mill for the new millennium".

The targets of criticism in fora and sucks sites have thus sometimes sought to suppress particular criticisms or even to silence the venue, for example by arguing that a domain name infringes a corporate trademark or that an author and the site operator is engaged in 'injurious falsehood'. The following paragraphs consider particular questions regarding operation of those sites and responses to them.

subsection heading icon    responses

The Encyclopedia of Business & Finance fretted that gripe sites

pose a difficult problem. Although the material posted on such sites might be distorted, false, or even outright libelous, it can still prove damaging to a company's image. Moreover, few legal remedies exist as the law struggles to keep up with technology. It is often difficult for companies to trace the operators of gripe sites, for example, and suing the Internet service providers that provide access to protesters has not proved successful. In addition, turning to the law for help can turn into a public relations disaster for companies, making a small problem into a much bigger one. "The Internet is an uncontrollable beast ... While legally the firm may have recourse to law, the reality is that they may just have to accept the problem and carry on with their business."

Jonathan Schwartz commented in the April 2006 Chicago Bar Association Record that corporations

inevitably have to deal with gripe sites. The question then becomes how to respond most effectively to this 21st century revolution in consumer activism. If a gripe site is truly libelous or substantially harmful to a company's financial health, the company should attempt to enjoin the Web site to prevent harm to the company's goodwill. In contrast, if the gripe site is simply a legitimate complaint site that offers consumers the opportunity to share their experiences with the company's products and services, the most beneficial option for a company may be to watch and learn from the discussions on the site.

As noted earlier in this profile, one response has been for site operators to articulate standards for contributions by members of the public and to actively delete offensive comments in an effort to minimise liability.

A leading restaurant consumer review site accordingly warns that

Though we allow wide latitude in expression of opinion, a claim of food poisoning is not a statement of opinion - it is a statement of fact. The law in the United States (as well as many other countries) makes a clear distinction between statements of opinion (which are generally permissible regardless of their rightness or wrongness) and statements of fact (which can be considered defamatory and therefore subject to penalties if they are untrue or unproven). We can't allow potentially defamatory statements to be made on eGullet, for our own protection and yours. So unless you are in possession of certified medical proof that your symptoms are without a doubt the direct result of eating at a particular restaurant, don't say it. Don't even suggest it.

Likewise, if you say, "I heard a rumor that restaurant X is closing", you may be defaming that restaurant. It doesn't matter that someone else told you the rumor. You're the one spreading it. Before you spread a rumor, you have to ascertain its truth or likelihood - otherwise you become responsible. You are free to express opinions - even very harsh ones - about a restaurant (though we discourage gratuitous harshness), but when it comes to the factual stuff we've all got to be careful. Saying a restaurant is closing when it isn't can cause real economic loss.

In practice there is no hard & fast rule.

Some observers have suggested that organisations should pick their targets carefully in responding to criticism, however unfair or untrue. Injurious falsehood litigation by an Australian software developer against the forum fizzled but was likely to have offered at best a pyrrhic victory, with the case attracting attention from academics, digital liberties organisations and the mass media in addition to the large number of 'whirlhooligans'.

subsection heading icon    studies

Marketing studies are highlighted in the discussion of online reputation management elsewhere on this site.

Legal writing includes Jonathan Schwartz' 2006 'Making the Consumer Watchdog's Bark as Strong as its Bite: Complaint Sites and the Changing Dynamic of the Fair Use Defense' in 16 Albany Law Journal of Science & Technology 59-145, 'The Battle For Mindshare: The Emerging Consensus that the First Amendment Protects Corporate Criticism and Parody on the Net' by Hannibal Travis in 10 Virginia Journal of Law & Technology (2005) 3-84, Diane Rowland's 2006 'Griping, Bitching and Speaking Your Mind: Defamation and Free Expression on the Net' in 110 Penn State Law Review 519-535

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version of December 2007
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