Increasingly popular Facebook buyer beware groups are changing the way people review local businesses. While experts say the groups can be helpful, they can also put well-meaning reviewers at risk of getting sued.
People tend to learn about the quality and service of large businesses and products using traditional review services such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) or Yelp, but Facebook groups are filling a niche for reviews of local small businesses and individual sellers.
These include groups such as Buyer Beware NL_NO-RESTRICTIONS and Buyer Beware Newfoundland, which is one of the more popular groups with over 15,000 members.
Members post about negative experiences with businesses or local online sellers, often providing the full name of the person or business they are complaining about and detailing the experience.
It’s meant to help others avoid similar situations, but some comments can form the basis of a defamation lawsuit.
On local buyer beware groups, a sample of some comments includes one post in which a person’s full name, photo, and business name are provided and he’s called “human garbage”, “homophobic” and “racist”.
Another post includes screenshots of Facebook conversations in which a person’s full name is provided and the person is called “a scammer”.
One recent post details a negative experience with a local business and the reviewer wrote, “This man is a crook.”
Groups pose risks for businesses and reviewers
BBB Serving the Atlantic Provinces president and CEO Peter Moorhouse said these groups “worry” him.
“I think there’s a lot of risks for businesses, but I think that some of the posters in some of these groups also don’t realize that they’re leaving themselves potentially open to some legal liability.”
St. John’s lawyer Erin Best said defamatory or libelous comments on Facebook can constitute defamation for which damages are owing.
“If anybody thought that they could just put whatever they wanted on Facebook and it’s not going to count as a defamation, they’re certainly wrong about that,” she said.
Best said people who write a post that is defamatory can also be liable for the comments that others make on the post.
“To say that someone is a crook – that’s a bit malicious. To say that certainly someone did something and it’s a fraud, that’s malicious. Whereas, if you’re saying that something is an opinion based on a fact that you can prove, then it’s not a malicious comment, but the more it gets malicious, the more risk you have of being found liable in defamation.
“If you’re just making these comments and these defamatory statements and they’re really angry, and if they’re personal especially, if you’re just venting – I mean, that’s exactly what you do not want to be doing. You want to be making a comment that’s level-headed and that you have the evidence to show that it’s based on something that actually happened or based on a fact.”
Best said she sees such posts on social media “all the time” and she’s “surprised people don’t push back.”
Groups meant to be helpful
Ryan Parsons said he created the Buyer Beware Newfoundland group about three years ago after he was nearly scammed.
He said he was interested in purchasing something from a seller “supposedly in Corner Brook” but he was suspicious, so he asked in a Facebook group whether people had any information about it and he was told it was a scam.
“We have had posts like this (in the group) that ended up with 10 or more people being ripped off by the same person,” he said. “They all decided to take them to small claims and won. I don't think any of this would be possible without a community to discuss such things.”
Sherwin Flight is one of the admins on the Buyer Beware Newfoundland group.
He said many people have received refunds or had situations resolved because they posted about their experience in the group.
“I think it gives people a way…to deal with the more local and the smaller issues. You know, buddy down the road ripped you off $25 but now you see he’s got the same ad up for sale on Kijiji. Well, it seems more of a better fit for a social media group as opposed to, ‘I’m going to Yelp and leaving a review.’ So, I think it just fills in sort of a gap in the field of reviews that are available online.”
As for potentially defamatory comments in the group, Flight said admins “can’t take responsibility for what other people say.”
“It’s for a court to determine who’s right and who’s wrong, not for us to figure that out. We don’t know either party in a complaint, we don’t know who’s right, we don’t know who’s wrong.”
“We’re not trying to send a message to say every single thing posted is 100 per cent factual. We’re saying this is just another avenue, another opinion, another tool that you can use when you’re deciding what to purchase or if you’re deciding to do business with a certain person.”
But Best said admins could be in a “precarious position with respect to the other things that other people would be posting.”
“If they are reading the comments and they are defamatory and they’re allowing them to stay up in some cases, then that may be problematic.”
‘Three sides to every story’
Moorhouse said he is concerned about such groups because of the effect they can have on small businesses.
“There are always three sides to every story, and when somebody posts their side of the story in a Facebook group, you are literally hearing one third of the story. You are not hearing the businessperson’s version of events, and you’re also probably not hearing the sort of middle ground where the truth actually lies.
“It bothers me because I think there’s a lot of potential for an innocent misunderstanding or an innocent mistake to kind of catch fire, and all of a sudden an innocent mistake turns into a business’ entire reputation being undermined.”
Moorhouse said the BBB deals with dispute resolution regularly, and usually businesses want to hear from dissatisfied customers so they can resolve the issue.
“Very few businesspeople want dissatisfied customers, so sometimes you just want to get it off your chest, but if you actually want something done, it’s actually much more helpful just to go directly to the business or work with BBB to try to get that resolution.”
Still, he sees Facebook groups being helpful particularly because they can be “highly local”.
But in terms of protecting reviewers from legal liability for potentially defamatory comments, he said larger review services, such as BBB, will redact information in a customer review that they see as potentially putting the reviewer at legal risk.
Facebook groups, on the other hand, tend to take a more hands-off approach, so it is up to the reviewer to be mindful of how they phrase their complaint to avoid turning a well-meaning warning into a legal predicament.