Content Moderation: The First Step to Protecting Your Business from Online Misinformation

July 23, 2020
Brandon S. Harter

The ability to quickly share information with a large number of people is one of the powerful things about the Internet. But with great power comes great responsibility.

Or at least it should.

Particularly for the major tech platforms, content moderation – making sure the information being shared is accurate – is vital. But for many years, a variety of actors have taken advantage of the lack of oversight to disseminate information that lacks factual basis or distorts the truth. It is a new form of propaganda that can change political thought, what we believe about science and technology, even our behavior with each other.

So how can you protect your business from misinformation being spread about you? You have to learn the rules of content moderation.

Facebook’s Supreme Court

Recently, several tech companies have started looking for ways to prevent or reduce the impact of misinformation spread by users on their platforms. Twitter, for example, prohibits the promotion of political content.

Facebook is taking a different approach.

In November 2018, Facebook committed to creating a supreme court of sorts to be a decision-maker on certain content moderation issues. While the board will be independent, including being funded by a trust, certain types of posts will not be moderated. And Facebook has clearly stated that the board’s decisions will not create binding precedent as would be expected from a court of law.

Then, a few weeks ago, Facebook announced the names of the twenty individuals who make up its content moderation board. Whether these measures will work is anyone’s guess. They are finally taking actions to address the impact their platforms are having on our society, but is it enough?

What Misinformation Can You Stop?

Unfortunately, from a legal perspective, it can be difficult to stop users from spreading misinformation online. However, you can prevent certain types of misuse, like:

  • Content that steals a business’s trademark or copyrighted content
  • Posts that contain objectively false statements (like “I got food poisoning from this restaurant” when the person has never eaten there), and
  • Fake posts by a competing business trying to drive your customers away

But many other statements do not rise to the level where the law can help, like:

  • A negative review from a disgruntled customer, even one that is being unreasonable
  • Posts with subjective statements (like “this is the worst business ever”), and
  • A competitor comparing the quality of its services to your business’s services

Even when you have content that you could stop, enforcement can be difficult if you have to first unmask an anonymous user. And it gets even tougher if the user is based outside the U.S.

Protecting Your Business

So what can you do to help protect yourself? I suggest trying these steps to do your own content moderation:

  1. Make sure you are aware of what is being said about you online. Saving a Google alert for your business or name is a great start.
  2. If you find harmful content, take a close look at the terms of service for the platform where that content is posted. Many companies have their own procedure for trying to get reviews taken down.
  3. If you can post a response to the criticism, think about doing so. But do not argue with the reviewer. Instead, acknowledge the negative feedback and try to take the conversation “offline” by asking them to call you or contact you directly to try to resolve the situation. Remember, you are not responding to try to convince the complaining customer… you are doing so that other people seeing the review see how you responded.
  4. If you are suffering economically because of the post, contact a technology attorney you trust to get more information about whether you might have the basis to file a lawsuit.

For even more information, check out our other blog posts about Technology Law here at the Lancaster Law Blog. Or contact me directly for a consultation about your online criticism nightmare.

Brandon Harter is a litigator and technology guru at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He received his law degree from William & Mary Law School,  advises clients on issues of Civil Litigation & Dispute ResolutionMunicipal Law, and chairs the firm’s Tech Law Group.