It started with a Facebook comment. Like many modern-day horror stories, Tristan Moy’s saga began with the vibration of a notification.
In 2017, Moy and her bridal planning company were targeted by a rival business owner and her friend. In a series of Facebook comments, the pair claimed Moy was an unprofessional bully who ruined her clients’ weddings.
Late last year, Moy won a landmark defamation case in which the two women were ordered to pay her $150,000.
It’s a familiar story, says Courtney Bowie, founder of Her Lawyer, who wants to warn business owners about their actions online.
“This is a great example of how online comments can massively backfire,” she says.
Even if you have a valid complaint about another brand copying your idea or not paying an invoice, Bowie says venting on social media should be a last resort for business owners.
“For business owners who’ve had a bad experience with a service provider or those who think they’ve had their intellectual property ripped off, it can be tempting to try to get them cancelled on social media.
“I’ve seen this done in a really damaging way, where one business owner can incite hatred for another brand online with horrible reviews and boycott calls.
“In some cases, this results in the person behind the business receiving hate-mail from followers and even death threats in private messages,” explains Bowie.
“There is a fine line between defending yourself or holding others accountable, and actually causing harm.”
These online comments can have real-world consequences; let’s not forget the $150,000 worth of compensation in Moy’s defamation case.
“There’s a perception that it’s okay to try to cancel a business on social media, but a lot of people don’t know the potential impacts of doing so,” explains Bowie.
“In Australia, the defamation laws are very broad. There have been cases recently with hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages awarded,” she adds.
“Even if you don’t publish the original comment but simply re-tweet, re-share or even allow a comment to remain in your forum (for example, your Facebook group), you can face a claim for defamation. And it doesn’t stop at defamation – you could also be looking at claims for malicious falsehood, tortious interference, or even misleading or deceptive conduct under the Australian Consumer Law, where a court can award a penalty of up to $10 million.”
Outside the legal realm, Bowie says dragging someone through online mud can tarnish your own reputation.
“Your conduct in the digital world leaves a footprint, and potential clients, collaborators and employees will make judgements about you on that. If you’re airing dirty laundry online, it can reflect poorly on you,” she explains.
“Also beware of the ‘Streisand effect’ (so named for Barbara Streisand’s attempts to shut down images of her home online which then went viral) which happened recently when the Kardashian clan tried to have unauthorised, unedited images of Khloe Kardashian pulled from the internet.
“This can actually cause more airtime and eyeballs to be drawn to the issue. That might be something you want, but it could also have the unintended consequence of giving the other person an uplift in followers or shining a negative light on you or your business,” Bowie continues.
In addition to the reputational, legal (and potentially financial) consequences for the canceller, there can also be serious outcomes for the cancelled.
Ginger Gorman, a journalist, cyberhate expert and author of the bestselling book Troll Hunting, knows how damaging trolling can be, having experienced it firsthand in 2013 when she became the target of a relentless online attack. Since then, Gorman has investigated cyberhate and seen some extreme cases.
“When you are a business owner, [hate campaigns] can have devastating consequences,” she says.
“For example, I’ve frequently been told stories of unfair or untrue Airbnb or Tripadvisor reviews that are vicious and just plain wrong – and in worst case scenarios, that false information can result in a business shutting down (if the pile on is bad enough).”
“One of the worst cases I’ve seen was in 2019 when the ABC sent me hundreds of online posts sent – in both directions – between farmers and activists. Most of these were between women and sent on platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
“Some of the attacks were so vicious, producers ended up losing their businesses or simply being unable to operate safely and humanely,” Gorman continues.
Of course, being on the receiving end of such abuse takes its toll. Bowie says she is particularly concerned about the emotional wellbeing of the business owners involved in such situations.
“When someone has been cancelled or has received death threats on social media, it can have a dramatic impact on their mental health. It’s already hard being a business owner, the last thing you need is a virtual hate campaign.
“With suicide the leading cause of death in those aged 18 to 44 in Australia, we need to be thinking beyond our initial fear, panic or anger and carefully considering the consequences of our actions.”
So what’s the alternative? It’s a question that’s been posed at networking events, in Facebook business groups and to corporate advice columnists since the dawn of social media.
In a 2018 blog, Chantelle Baxter, founder of jewellery label Be. Bangles, asked “WTF do you do when another business keeps copying you?”
The two-word answer: don’t attack. The longer version: “After years of being a bit of an aggressive bitch in business, I’m all for taking the peaceful path now,” Baxter admits.
“We’ve had customers send us screenshots of our competitor’s ads, and while we appreciate their loyalty, we ask everyone to keep their comments above board. Attacking other people in business is not what we want to be known for.”
While unleashing a wrath of fury on your keyboard can be therapeutic in the moment, Gorman urges people to think before they act.
“You may have had a terrible experience and wish to bite back! But just keep in mind the so-called ‘online disinhibition effect.’ This is where, on the internet, there seems to be no consequence for our actions,” she explains.
“However, on the other end of that tweet, Facebook or Insta post you’re furiously sending out into the world, is a real person trying to make a living. What will be the cost to them? Is there another way you could handle this? Could you word your complaint more politely or address the issue privately? Does it need to be public?”
To answer those questions, Bowie recommends the BLOOM method: Breathe, Listen, Organise, Options, Mitigate.
“There are other ways to resolve disputes rather than turning into a keyboard warrior – or taking it straight to the Supreme Court,” advises Bowie, who says a simple phone call can make a big difference in coming to some sort of resolution.
“If a phone call or a DM isn’t going to cut it, look at a mediation service. Mediation is an affordable and productive way of resolving disputes. The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman has a free online Dispute Support tool to help you find the a low cost dispute resolution service to help you resolve your business dispute.”
If that doesn’t work, the next step could be to speak to a lawyer and discuss the chances of success and cost of litigation.
Before Baxter dealt with a copycat at Be. Bangles, she had a similar experience with her charity One Girl.
“We had someone create a company and website so similar to ours that we had to get our lawyers to write them a firm letter asking them to change their name and take it down,” she recalls.
“Business owners need to know their rights and protect themselves.”
In the case of intellectual property, that can be easier said than done, says Bowie.
“Our Copyright Act was written in 1968, so many of its provisions are irrelevant to today’s business owners. Unfortunately, the law in this area – like in so many others – is slow to catch up to modern business. I can understand the frustration of business owners who struggle to get the certainty and comfort they need and want from the law.”
If you’ve exhausted all options with no success, then it might time to consider taking it to social media.
“There are certainly instances where is it appropriate to publicly complain,” says Gorman.
“But if you do, be corrective and polite. Don’t incite aggression or hatred. If we want the world to be a kinder place, it has to start with us.”
From a legal standpoint, Bowie also encourages anyone posting online to make sure what they’re sharing is factual – and that it’s not breaking any confidentiality or non-disparagement contract clauses.
At Her Lawyer, the general rule of thumb for social media is: never post anything on the internet that you wouldn’t be happy to appear on the front page of Sydney Morning Herald. Words to live by (and get printed on a novelty mug).
Ultimately, Bowie would like to see women supporting women in business – not cancelling each other.
“Disputes are always going to happen in business, but they don’t need to turn into social media shakedowns. I think we should give others a chance to fix their mistakes before boycotting them altogether,” says Bowie, with the wisdom of a lawyer and group admin on Facebook.
This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.