Your Business Gets Slammed on Facebook. So, Who You Gonna Call? Post-busters

Businesses increasingly fight online criticism by threatening to sue people running online communities. It works, and posts are taken down. But the community managers fight back

The Facebook logo seen in photo taken in Nantes, France, July 4, 2019.
LOIC VENANCE / AFP

Tom Landau, who administers a Facebook group devoted to travel in India, was taken aback one day when he received a threatening message from the owner of a travel firm. A day before, one of the group’s approximately 38,000 members had posted some negative remarks about the company and now the owner was threatening to sue – not the poster, but Landau, if he didn’t take it down.

“I deleted it, out of fear and because I had no time or interest in dealing with it. I don’t get paid for administering the group, and it’s not my mess to deal with,” says Landau, who administers several Facebook groups on travel to Asia.

Talia Klein Perez, who administers a Facebook group on foreign travel with children, had a similar experience.

“Two weeks, ago, a post went up on the group, which I personally approved. A woman had flown abroad for a vacation through an Israeli company, came back very disappointed, and wrote a post explaining why the trip wasn’t suitable for her family,” Klein Perez recalls. “The post was far from slanderous. It was written in a practical, businesslike way and got about 40 likes; definitely not one of our most highly read posts. It went up around noon and that evening I received a letter from a lawyer, saying that if I did not remove it within two hours they would sue me for defamation. Due to the pressure, I removed it right away.”

Threatening a lawsuit for slander is neither new nor rare, especially in the era of social media. There’s even a name for it – SLAPP, which stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” It means threatening or actually filing a lawsuit against someone who has the right to express criticism. Usually, the goal is to deter critics and silence public debate. What has changed is that the threat isn’t directed at those writing posts but at the managers of the groups where they were posted. In most cases, the managers remove them without putting up a fight.

There are several reasons why administrators have such light trigger fingers on the delete buttons. As opposed to the poster, who is reacting to a personal affront or injustice, the managers don’t necessarily have any emotional connection to the matter. For the most part they don’t have the resources or interest to investigate the matter. They administer pages for little or no payment. Few want to cover the cost of a lawyer.

Another reason is the increasingly rigorous demands Facebook imposes on community administrators. Last April, the social network said it would from now on deem them responsible for the group’s activity, in effect putting the onus of them for members’ online behavior. “When reviewing a group to decide whether or not to take it down, we will look at admin and moderator content violations in that group, including member posts they have approved, as a stronger signal that the group violates our standards,” the company explained.

Web-based groups, primarily on Facebook, are an important and growing part of people’s online activity. According to the company, about 1.7 billion people around the world are members of Facebook groups, 400 million of whom regard participation in them as meaningful. Since the start of 2018, they have also grown in importance

After Facebook made a radical change in its algorithm to have members and groups appear more frequently in its new feed, instead of businesses and advertisers. The reason for this, apparently, is the inherent advantage of groups: human connections based on common interest. Unlike other online forums, members of Facebook communities, Facebook group members can’t post anonymously.

“At Facebook they recognized that there has to be someone at the head of every community that moves it forward, and they began to supply tools to these leaders,” said Maria Green Povarchik, who founded the Supergirls community and is a co-founder of Community Forward, the umbrella organization of Facebook group managers in Israel, in an article published earlier this year in TheMarker.

No training

Nevertheless, the majority of group managers do their job without any training and on a voluntary basis. This vacuum is exploited by many businesses, which employ threat of legal action to eliminate criticism. With minimal effort, which usually includes a brief letter from a lawyer, the post is deleted.

The problem is that group administrators, fearing a lawsuit, will remove any and every post that includes the name of the company, even if it expresses legitimate criticism. “In real time, I did not know what to do, and in retrospect I somewhat regret removing the post,” says Klein Perez. “With that, I am not sure I am interested in being the face of this conflict, and find myself in lengthy and expensive legal proceedings.”

Klein Perez says she is now learning the law to cope with future threats. “I consulted with three lawyers, and all of them said that if the post provided information and focused on one’s personal taste and the consumer experience, it isn’t necessarily slander. The company in question, instead of taking advantage of the stage it was given and offering a practical response, chose to call a lawyer. They didn’t even approach me beforehand to see if it could be softened somewhat or remove only some of the responses.”

Karin Shai, the group administrator of “Imahot Bat-Yam,” which has 11,000 members, says she received a threat of lawsuit from a lawyer representing the owner of a kindergarten in the Tel Aviv suburb after one of the group’s members sent others members private messages warning them away from the kindergarten.

“I explained to them that I bear no responsibility for messages sent privately, but I did exercise caution and I only approved positive things about the kindergarten. In general, my group is only positive for the simple reason that I’m not a paid administrator and no one would cover my legal expenses if I would had them,” says Shai.

The focus on groups, rather than on the individuals who air the criticism on their private walls, stems from the increased power of Facebook groups.

“Subject groups comprise a focused audience that’s relevant to a brand, so when shaming takes place in a group, it reaches nearly all its members,” explains Asaf Shmueli, an expert on shaming and web crises and the author of the blog “The Mashberist.”

“In addition, the Facebook algorithm works in such a way that if a certain post has a larger-than-usual number of likes – even if it is 30 likes instead of the usual five – the post will be moved up and the criticism will appear in the feed over and over. Therefore, 30 likes in a focused group can be equivalent to more than 150 likes on an ordinary post,” Shmueli explains.

Businesses learn of critical reviews through online monitoring tools. “Companies, and even small and medium-sized businesses are very sensitive to their online reputations, so they use a monitoring system,” says Shmueli. “Sometimes it’s a designated service, for instance companies that scan the internet. In some cases, companies have employees who belong to groups and major content providers connected with their market, which makes them sensitive about what’s being said about them.”

Not to mention

Many administrators have developed techniques for fighting back. For example, they may block criticism of a company that threatened a lawsuit but will also block positive comments, too. Another tactic is to drop group members identified as associated with the company.

“They lost my group,” says Klein Perez. “I took down the post in question, and along with it I took down 500 references to the company, including positive comments. Nothing will appear on my group about them. I don’t want to give them publicity, neither negative nor positive, and the other group administrators know not to approve any posts bearing that name. If they would offer me a collaboration or a sales campaign, I wouldn’t agree to it. I’m not going to be taking on any risk with this company.”

Landau adopted a different approach. “Although I deleted the post in question, I myself wrote a different one. Now there’s a post up on the board in which I explain that the company threatened to sue us and we deleted the post with its name. That way, any company considering threatening us knows that the post might be deleted but that everyone will know it had been criticized and how it chose to deal with the criticism. I put it in a prominent spot, so that everyone will see and will take heed.”

Shai, of “Imahot Bat-Yam,” relates that after she received the threat of legal action, she chose to bar from the group anyone issuing the threats. “I removed from the group the owners of the kindergarten who threatened me with the lawsuit. They threatened me as a means of silencing me, so I informed them that that wouldn’t work with me. In the end, they wrote me a letter of apology and I reinstated them.”

Yossi Ettinger, the group administrator of the 20,000-member-strong Datilicious group for kosher food enthusiasts, relates that many of the discussions on his group about slander are framed in a traditional-religious context , not necessarily in terms of legal action. “We often receive threats from restaurant owners, but I also happen to be a lawyer who works at the Meitar Liquornik law firm. I’m not deterred by threats, because I know what is more or less permitted by law, even though the law and the rulings aren’t very clear, and there is some difference of opinion.

“We back anyone who writes even a negative post, so long as it meets the letter of the law – in other words, that the criticism is constructive, expressed in respectful language even if the experience was negative, and that it not include any call for a boycott or statements like ‘Don’t step foot in this restaurant.’ If someone wants to express an objective opinion and say that the steak was burnt or that the service was unpleasant that is just fine. When the post meets the requirements of the law, we completely back the writer. The threat of lawsuit is a method of intimidation that needs to be rooted out,” says Ettinger.

Attorney Ron Lowenthal has worked on both sides on the issue as an adviser to group administrators and as someone who files suits against them. That includes one he filed against the administrator of a group that deals with the question of who really murdered Ta’ir Rada, after the administrator failed to remove posts by individuals who attributed guilt or complicity in the crime to other girls in Rada’s class.

Lowenthal explains that a group administrator is not considered anything more than a “bystander.” This is expressed first and foremost in that according to the legal rulings, he must be available to remove requests, to make a decision if he backs up someone else’s post, and to remove an item within a reasonable amount of time. “He has to be a business owner who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

Defense mechanisms

Lowenthal advises Facebook administrators not to be the sole administrator, and that the contact data of administrators should be clearly stated, in order that it will be possible to reach them. In addition, the administrator should make the rules and guidelines clear to participants in the group – hours during which it is permissible to write on the group, appropriate language, as well as prohibitions on violating privacy or distributing publicity materials. In so doing, the administrator minimizes his exposure to legal action.

Another way, says Lowenthal, to reduce legal exposure when a request is made to remove a member’s post is first of all to remove it. Afterwards he or she can conduct an examination into the matter, contact the writer, determine if he is a real user or merely a troll, and, if there is a need to do so, consult with a lawyer regarding the risk of slander. If it is determined that there is no problem, the post can be restored.