SALT LAKE CITY — “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all" used to be a code of conduct that parents taught their children. Even Thumper's father drilled the phrase into his family of bunnies in the classic children's movie "Bambi," leading some people to call this "Thumper's rule."
But the internet has made the advice obsolete, at least in the matter of online reviews.
From Yelp to Amazon to TripAdvisor, the negative review has become a public service, with reviewers justifying their disparaging words as a way to warn others of a potentially bad experience or product.
“It’s a great way for people to let other people know what to expect, especially visitors to a city,” said Preston Lamb, a web developer in Roy, Utah, who regularly posts reviews on Google.
But negative reviews cast a long shadow, remaining visible long after the bad experience has become a dim memory. And since more than half of Americans say they consult online reviews before buying a product, a couple of scathing reviews can do long-term damage to a business, even if the problem has been corrected.
In some cases, businesses have successfully had negative reviews removed, as in the case of a Colorado business that was wrongly targeted by people outraged by the widely publicized death of Cecil the lion, killed by one of the company's former clients. Others are still trying.
The California Supreme Court recently ruled that the online review site Yelp did not have to remove defamatory reviews about an attorney who said her practice had been damaged by posts from a former client.
Is it fair to post a negative review that can impact an individual or business for years, when the offending party might just have had a difficult day or, as in the case of Cecil's online avengers, your information might be wrong?
Before sitting down to write a negative review, you might want to sleep on it a night, say ethicists and people experienced at writing reviews.
What constitutes defamation?
The decision in the Yelp case came down to free speech, with companies like Google, Facebook and the American Civil Liberties Union filing amicus briefs supporting the popular online review site.
The woman who posted the negative review had originally retained the lawyer, in part, because of positive Yelp reviews. But after the attorney withdrew from the case a few months later, the woman posted a review that included the phrase “STEER CLEAR OF THIS LAW FIRM!”
When another negative review appeared a month later, the attorney filed suit, seeking to force the woman to remove the reviews, which the attorney said were affecting her business and had dropped her overall rating.
In the original ruling and subsequent appeals, Yelp was drawn into the dispute and ordered to remove the offending posts. But the California justices said the company was “entitled to immunity,” although “our reasoning and result do not connote a lack of sympathy for those who may have been defamed on the internet.”
The justices did, however, say that the woman who wrote the reviews must undertake "reasonable efforts to remove her posts."
Every negative review, however, is not defamation, and few businesses have the money or time to seek relief from the courts even if they believe they have been unjustly maligned. The newness of the medium — Yelp is just 14 years old, TripAdvisor, 18 — combined with the complexity of legal issues facing the platforms means that the companies can get into trouble for not publishing negative reviews.
Last year, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a report on how the Massachusetts-based TripAdvisor did not publish or remove warnings about sexual assaults and other serious problems at resorts in Mexico. It’s “what TripAdvisor does not publish that poses real problems for travelers,” the Journal Sentinel report said.
After the report was published, TripAdvisor apologized and published the review of the Texas woman who said she was raped by a security guard at a resort near Cancun. “We believe any firsthand experience should be posted to our site as a means to communicate to other consumers looking for information on where they should travel,” the company said in a statement.
For its part, Yelp said in a written statement that it uses software that weeds out “unhelpful rants or raves” and multiple reviews that originate from the same IP address. The company also said its software is designed to reject negative reviews that might be written by a competitor or disgruntled employee, or positive reviews solicited from family members or friends.
“Yelp does not take sides in factual disputes; we give business owners the ability to respond publicly to all reviews,” the statement said.
'Objectivity and compassion'
Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University and the author of “Do the Right Thing: Living Ethically in an Unethical World,” said people often leave negative reviews to retaliate for a bad experience in which they felt helpless. Writing a negative review is a way to get back some of their power. But that’s the wrong way to approach it, Plante said.
“We have to start by asking ourselves the fundamental ethical questions for all of us: Who are we and who do we want to become? And if we want to be people who are respectful of others, who treat others with compassion, if those are our values, then that is going to inform how we live online and offline and doing reviews,” he said.
"Thumper's rule" is nice, but it's an oversimplification that shouldn't always govern human behavior, Plante said.
“If, for example, you see some terribly egregious behavior, and you don’t say anything, then that terribly egregious behavior can harm others,” as in the case of Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood filmmaker accused of sexually assaulting dozens of women, he said. “That’s an age-old bit of wisdom that really has its limitation.”
Plante himself writes the occasional negative review, but he tries to write without attacking people personally or demonizing a business.
“People can give corrective feedback in a respectful, civilized way. They can say they were disappointed by the service, they were hoping the quality would be higher, without attacking people aggressively. We can offer public feedback with objectivity and compassion.”
Plante also has been the subject of reviews on a website called Rateyourprofessor.com. But in his experience, it’s usually people who are angry who take the time to write a review.
“I’ve taught at Santa Clara University for 25 years and taught maybe 3,000 to 4,000 students, and maybe 10 have chosen to post something. About half are negative, and inevitably, it’s the kid who got the F or the D who didn’t turn in the term paper.”
Yelp, however, maintains that the majority of its reviews are positive.
Of 155 million reviews published on its site, 48 percent are 5 stars, the highest rating; 20 percent, 4 stars; 9 percent, 3 stars; 7 percent, 2 stars; and 16 percent, 1 star, the lowest rating, the company says.
Overall, 72 percent of Yelp users recommend the place or business; 21 percent don’t recommend.
Don't be a 'keyboard warrior'
According to Pew Research Center, younger Americans are the most active reviewers, with 71 percent of people ages 18 to 49 at least sometimes posting product reviews. At 24, Salt Lake City resident Patrick Benson-Kingsland fits into demographic, and he’s been deemed a “Local Guide” by Google by virtue of the number of reviews he’s written.
A master’s candidate in the entertainment arts and engineering program at the University of Utah, Benson-Kingsland primarily writes positive reviews, and has developed his own personal code of ethics for how he deals with the negative.
“I won’t write a bad review unless I’ve had more than one bad experience there because sometimes people working just have a bad day, and I understand what it’s like to work in the service industry," Benson-Kingsland said. "I don’t want to be that one person that hurts your business because I came in the day that your wife dumped you or whatever.”
Similarly, Lamb, another “Local Guide” on Google, will post negative reviews when warranted. He’s criticized, among others, a fast-food restaurant in Salt Lake City for mediocre food and tables he deemed “wobbly and dirty,” and he once gave a Florida car-rental company the lowest rating possible — one star.
But Lamb said he waits a few days before posting a negative review. “I try not to post in the heat of the moment,” he said, saying that he doesn’t want to be a “keyboard warrior,” writing things he wouldn’t say to another person face-to-face.
Despite the common perception that negative reviews prevail, there is no argument that online reviews matter to businesses — they do, as a 2016 report from Pew Research Center found. Eighty-two percent of respondents told Pew they sometimes or always read online reviews, even though only about half of them said online reviews can be trusted.
And Pew reported that more people (54 percent) pay attention to negative reviews than to extremely positive ones (43 percent), showing that negative reviews wield more power. That's why Dan Goldstein, owner of the Colorado digital marketing company Page 1 Solutions, jumped into action when he noticed negative reviews popping up about his business after the death of Cecil the lion made headlines worldwide in 2015.
Goldstein had once done some work for Dr. Walter Palmer, the Minneapolis dentist who shot the lion, provoking worldwide outrage. Although Palmer now uses a different company, his website still carried the name of Goldstein's company as the site's designer, and the company became a target of Cecil's online avengers.
Goldstein solved his problem by reaching out to Google, Yelp and Facebook, and then to the individual reviewers, explaining the situation and asking them if they would remove the negative reviews that stemmed from Cecil's death. Everyone did. (Palmer, however, was not so fortunate. Although it's been three years since the lion died, people were still posting scathing Google reviews about him as recently as last month.)
In advising his business clients, who are largely medical professionals and attorneys, Goldstein stresses the importance of online reviews, and encourages them to ask customers for reviews, although that's a practice that Yelp discourages, saying this could hurt an overall rating because Yelp's software is designed to detect and weed out reviews it deems "biased."
Goldstein, however, believes it's ethical to ask for reviews, so long as you ask everyone, not just people you know are happy, and as long as you don't try to influence what they write.
“Reviews are good because they help people make good decisions,” he said, noting that most online review services have terms-of-service contracts that provide a way to have defamatory or abusive posts removed.
“My approach is, encourage everyone to write a review. You don’t have to be obnoxious about it. But if you do ask everyone, a certain number of people are going to post reviews, and if you’re a good company, a majority of those reviews are going to be positive.”
Goldstein also encourages his clients to respond to every review, good or bad. Like Plante, he also will occasionally post a negative review online, because he believes doing so is a public service.
“I believe if I’m honest and share my experience in a responsible way that it does two things. It advises potential customers who might want to do business with that company, it informs the company that maybe they have some things to work on. Both of those things are good."