How to deal with fake online reviews

By Emma Eversham contact

- Last updated on GMT

How to deal with fake online reviews
Nigel Tait, managing partner at law firm Carter-Ruck, discusses the steps pub, restaurant and hotel owners can take when faced with fake or libellous online reviews.

A quarter of consumers want better technology in pubs​, according to the latest Greene King Leisure Tracker report. The reason? They want to be able to work more effectively away from home.

There’s more. Apparently fewer than one in 10 pub visits are now solely to have a pint of ale or a glass of wine. Pubs will always provide this function, of course, but they’re changing and becoming ever more diverse.

So supposing you install wifi-linked printers, phone chargers and USB ports, along with free superfast broadband, in a bid to meet consumer demand. All well and good, and doubtless a smart move, but what if a slew of comments suddenly appeared on TripAdvisor, saying that all of your printers were stolen property?

Fake reviews

Negative reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Facebook are as much a facet of modern life as the technology used to create them. In many ways, they’re a good thing, providing genuine customer feedback which is useful for other customers and businesses alike. But as recently acknowledged in June by the Competition and Markets Authority​ (CMA) in its investigation into the publication of fake reviews, sometimes all is not as it should be when it comes to online reviews.

This trend – known as astro-turfing – is worrying for all business owners but especially those in the hospitality industry.

Consider this: 54 per cent of adults – that’s 25 million people – use online reviews. The CMA estimates that £23 billion a year of UK consumer spending is potentially influenced by online reviews. If some of the reviews are bogus, and published with the express intention of bringing down your business, it’s no wonder that the CMA has begun an investigation.

What should you do?

The law of libel is designed to protect not merely individual reputations but those of commercial entities, too. Anything that is likely to make reasonable people think less of you or your pub would be construed as defamatory; it then needs to be shown that it has caused or is likely to cause 'serious harm.'

This might mean showing actual financial loss if your business is suing, though the threshold is not so high if you, as the pub owner or landlord, are the claimant. Better yet, libel actions can be brought on a no win, no fee basis.

It may not be easy to identify who is really posting the reviews, though help from forensic IT experts can yield their identities. Even so, websites hosting the reviews ought also to be contacted. They have special protection if they were not responsible for the posting, but that protection may be lost if they do not respond to a formal notice of complaint and make an effort to pass on the complaint to the poster with a view to getting the post removed.

The host site should in any event remove the reviews.

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 are also relevant. These prohibit unfair commercial ‎practices, especially misleading and aggressive practices. The regulations make it clear that companies must not falsely represent themselves as a consumer, or pay for endorsements without the fact that money has changed hands being made clear to consumers.

If, then, you believe that your business is being targeted by a rival, you could complain to the CMA. Paid-for fake reviews would undoubtedly come within the definition of an unfair commercial practice, and Trading Standards may be able to bring a prosecution for breach of the Unfair Trading Regulations.

A genuine bad review is another matter. The law may treat it as an expression of honest opinion, and unless there is clear evidence of a false allegation of fact it would not be wise to sue. But remember – if you’re targeted by a campaign of fake reviews, you can do something about them.

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