TripAdvisor is under siege in the United Kingdom for posting what many angry hoteliers are calling fake hotel reviews. The news comes after KwikChex, an online reputation management company, announced plans to publish a list of thousands of reviewers’ fraudulent and defamatory posts.
“Once the list is published, websites that feature user-generated content—such as TripAdvisor—will have to notify any reviewers on the list. They will be given two weeks to remove their comments. They could face legal action if they cannot prove that they visited the hotels or restaurants concerned,” reports the Mail Online.
In another punch to the gut, editors of the Good Hotel Guide 2011, which rates the best hotels in the U.K., Ireland and continental Europe, slammed TripAdvisor “for being ‘brazen and shameless’ in printing malicious and collusive reviews without checking their authenticity,” according to caterersearch.com.
Far be it from me to step between a victim and the firing squad, but there are a few issues that should be addressed …
1. How can you possibly know what user-generated content is real and what is fake?
Now, I didn’t just fall off the proverbial turnip truck. I’m fully aware that not every review of every hotel comes from an actual guest. Some come from PR firms, others from jealous competitors, and others still from the hotels themselves.
But just because a reviewer says your service was garbage, your bed sheets smelled like Swiss cheese and your bathroom looked like something in a New York City subway doesn’t mean those comments are fake. Guests are allowed to post brutally honest comments as a means to relay their experience at your hotel.
KwikChex says it offers services to help hoteliers remove or respond to malicious and unfair reviews. But who judges them malicious or unfair? I’m sure the hotel’s perspective varies greatly from that of the guest.
Of greater concern is how they determine fake reviews. Honestly, I haven’t the faintest. I sent KwikChex a query and have yet to hear back as of press time. I’ll keep you posted …
2. Do negative, malicious or fake reviews a libel suit make?
KwikChex’s Chris Emmins told Mail Online: ‘‘People who leave these anonymous reviews, which can damage the reputation of both businesses and individuals, need to realize that not only can they be sued for libel but they can also face criminal prosecution.”
Full disclosure: I’m not familiar with U.K. libel law, so I can’t hypothesize as to whether hoteliers would have a legitimate case here.
If this trend spreads to the United States, however, hoteliers would be hard-pressed to argue this case effectively in court. To win a libel case in the States, it’s not enough to prove fault; U.S. jurisprudence requires plaintiffs prove “actual malice”—a legal term that means the reviewer either knew their review was false or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth when submitting the review. It’s an incredibly difficult legal hurdle to overcome. Certain jurisdictions within the U.S. do prohibit review fraud, however.
One other legal note: Notice that KwikChex’s threat of litigation does not specifically name TripAdvisor as a target, but rather the posters of content on the site. In the U.S., a website like TripAdvisor has certain immunities from content submitted from third-parties (in this case reviewers).
3. Is it even possible to authenticate every piece of user-generated content on a given website?
Theoretically, yes. TripAdvisor could devote limitless resources to authenticate and follow-up on every review posted to its site, and then cross-reference those reviews with hotel data to determine if the person posting stayed at the particular hotel during the particular time, and whether there was a shortage of staffing or other hiccups in service that might have resulted in a poor review.
I suppose the site also could require every reviewer to submit detailed personal information and sign legal documents to waive their rights in the event that some element of a review was fictitious or unfair.
But then, TripAdvisor doesn’t want to hemorrhage every cent of revenue on a fruitless, Quixotean witch hunt, nor does it want to drive away the valuable reviewers who made the website what it is today.
In other words, the editors of the Good Hotel Guide may have been a little harsh when they called TripAdvisor “brazen and shameless.” Easy on the caffeine, guys. If you know a lick about sites that subsist off user-generated content, you’d understand such verification is next to impossible.
Besides, TripAdvisor does have a pretty straightforward disclaimer users are required to check before they submit a review. It says, in part:
“TripAdvisor wishes to ensure that reviewers are not affiliated in any way with the establishment they are reviewing. By checking this box, you certify that you are not employed by the establishment, are not related to anyone employed there, and do not otherwise have a business or personal relationship with the owners or managers of this establishment that might bias your review.”
It’s going to be really interesting to see how TripAdvisor responds to KwikChex’s threats. As always, we’ll be here to report on any developments.
In the meantime, have any of you sought legal action against what you thought was a fake review? By the same token, how do you determine whether a review was real or not? Please comment below, or send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. As I don’t know have the time or resources to authenticate user-generated content myself, I’ll ask for real comments only, please.