Bad Google reviews can make or break a business, with a single negative comment enough to turn away a potential customer or client. With some reviews being snarling, negative attacks, it raises the question of whether such a public display of negativity is defamation.
So, when is a Google review considered defamatory? What is the line between someone sharing their honest opinion in the review and that review becoming defamatory?
What is defamation?
Defamation occurs when a statement is published (and is seen by at least one person) and could be considered to have lowered the reputation of the mentioned person or business in the eyes of the public.
Google reviews are therefore ripe for defamation claims, with negative reviews often viewed by multiple people online, which can have a considerable effect on the reputation of the reviewee.
Who can make a claim for defamation?
Not everyone can claim they have been defamed. The only parties who can commence a defamation action are:
- A living person (proceedings cannot be brought by or continued on behalf of a deceased estate);
- A not-for-profit corporation; and
- A small corporation with fewer than 10 employees.
If the review was not made against one of these types of people or businesses, it is not possible to start a defamation claim.
It is important to note a person or business does not need to be specifically named in the Google review for it to be defamatory. The person only needs to be identifiable by the description in the review, such as ‘the Prime Minister of Australia’, ‘the owner of the local McDonalds’ or the ‘shoe shop on Smith Street’.
It may also be defamatory if there is a reference to a class of people. For example: ‘All the shop assistants at shop XYZ are …’.
Are there defences to defamation?
Yes! The two most common defences are truth and honest opinion.
If the claims made in the Google review are true, you cannot claim defamation. This is a complete defence to any allegations.
Honest opinion defence
A person is entitled to publish an honest opinion in their Google review and this cannot be considered defamation. If the person writing the Google review honestly held the opinion and this opinion is based on truth, this is a defence against defamation. Honesty is crucial — it doesn’t need to be proven that the opinion was correct, only that it was genuinely held.
However, even if this honest opinion defence is established, it can still be overcome and the Google review considered defamatory if it can be shown:
- the author of the review did not honestly hold the opinion;
- the defamed person or the business has grounds to believe the reviewer did not honestly hold their opinion; or
- the review was left maliciously to negatively affect the business or satisfy a grudge.
If you believe you have been defamed on the internet or social media, you should seek legal advice on the merits of your claim as soon as possible after the material is published.
Often, a letter from a lawyer putting the offending parties on notice is sufficient for the removal of the review.