page considers 'gripe sites' - online fora and enthusiast
sites dedicated to criticism of an enterprise, institution
or government agency.
It covers -
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.
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
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 -
fora, with a wide or narrow focus, that include criticism
by consumers of products and services along with comment
on other matters
fora that specialise in criticism, for example of films,
insurance or restaurants
'attack' or 'suck' sites, discussed elsewhere, that are
established by individual enthusiasts or groups to savage
an organisation, product or service
that offer pseudonymous 'scores' or 'ratings' about individuals
and organisations, including schools, teachers and businesses.
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
The Encyclopedia of Business & Finance fretted
that gripe sites
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.
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
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
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 whirlpool.net.au
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'.
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