A business can take years or even decades to build, only to be brought to ruin by an anonymous and malicious person or organisation that decides to tarnish their online reputation without any foundation.
Yes, local businesses are also the victims of fake news — and with little options for redress.
The digital age presents enormous opportunities for businesses. Businesses have become increasingly reliant on large platforms to engage customers from distant suburbs and even distant countries, depending on the kind of services they offer.
This has become even more true during COVID-19, as the decline in foot traffic in malls has left many brands relying on their online presence for income.
In this context, reviews left on Facebook and Google by anonymous people with malicious intent — and no direct experience of the business they’re targeting — can become a nightmare for business owners.
The power imbalance between small businesses and giant tech platforms like Google, means that businesses and sole traders have limited abilities to take down fraudulent reviews themselves, particularly when the reviewer has used a fake name or an anonymous account.
The process of getting Google to remove reviews is slow and almost always requires the services of a legal professional.
Recently, a Melbourne dentist sought legal permission from the Federal Court of Australia to force Optus to reveal the identity of a person who gave him a terrible online review so that he could launch a defamation action against the reviewer. This kind of double-barrelled legal action shows how complex this digital situation can get.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of clients my business Xugar, a digital marketing agency, deals with in these situations do not have the resources to pursue legal action in court, especially when seeking damages would first require a subpoena to identify the person they are seeking damages from.
Engaging a digital marketing agency like mine also imposes an extra cost burden on businesses — that have often already suffered a downturn in revenue due to the fraudulent reviews.
Worryingly, the lack of consequences for this kind of behaviour is encouraging companies to engage shonky marketeers to post fake, negative reviews on competitor sites as a service. This is an obvious sign the system is broken.
There’s also a trend of miffed customers asking their friends, family or online community to post fake, negative reviews to bolster their own negative comments on a business’s Google profile. A recent client I worked with saw a 15% reduction in his usual takings as a result of a dozen anonymous, fraudulent reviews left on Google in a coordinated attack arranged by a single unhappy customer.
Why should small businesses bear the brunt of this kind of behaviour? People’s livelihoods are at stake and the legislative framework, as it is, offers few solutions. Anything seems permissible in terms of digital damage.
Some platforms, including Airbnb and Uber, have implemented systems that guarantee reviews have been left by a real-life customer.
If Google and Facebook cannot come up with their own method of limiting the appearance of dodgy reviews, they should be forced to take some responsibility for the fallout. The government should also put laws in place that outline penalties for this kind of fraudulent behaviour by individuals.
The post-COVID-19 economic recovery is going to be hard enough for local businesses without having to deal with digital subterfuge. It’s lawless, it’s unfair, and it’s high time that people doing that type of thing were held accountable and disreputable digital practices were cleaned up in Australia.
While we are calling on Mark Zuckerberg to limit the publication of fake news on Facebook, we should also be putting pressure on the government and digital platforms like Google and Facebook to protect businesses from online slander.