Because we live in an age where folks can vent their ill-founded outrage against service providers anonymously, instantly and globally with a few strokes on a computer keyboard, businessmen and women can now add “defamation” to “death and taxes” as a new “certainty”. And there is no shortage of online venues where these oh-so-put-upon umbrage mongers can grind their reputation-destroying axes, Angie’s List and yelp being two of the most popular venues. The Better Business Bureau is another.

A business person who finds his professionalism under assault on one of these sites by some thin-skinned yenta can be forgiven, perhaps, for wanting to defend himself forcefully via the response mechanism that most of these sites provide. In my experience, however, this is seldom a good idea because of a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Streisand Effect, after the well-known stage fright victim.

Ms. Streisand had sued a photographer who had taken aerial photographs of beachfront properties on the California coastline as part of a government project to document coastal erosion. One of the properties was hers and the suit sought suppression of the photograph of her property. You can guess what happened.

Prior to the filing of the suit, the photograph had only been downloaded six times. In the ensuing four weeks, over 400,000 internet users had visited the photographer’s site to gawk at the privacy-obsessed celebrity’s ostentatious crib.

In addition to calling unwelcome attention to the unflattering critique, a response almost never results in the removal of the slander and not infrequently provokes the critic into doubling down on the calumny, thus further exacerbating the situation.

As a business person, the result you want is for the false posting to be removed. And quickly. The rating sites, themselves, however, will rarely agree to remove a negative posting. That is, after all, their stock in trade. In the one instance that I am aware of that a site did remove a false critique, the offender quickly reposted it.

Fortunately, there’s a powerful tool available that provides near instant relief to affected professionals: the tort of defamation per se, which responds to false statements about an individual’s professionalism. Its power stems from the fact that the professional need not show damages. Damages are presumed.

The presumption of damages together with the fact that juries across the length and breadth of the nation have shown no reluctance whatsoever to returning massive verdicts in cases of defamation per se is, in my experience, the reason that these intemperate critics are so easily persuaded to remove their offensive postings.

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