The Information War is real.
In fact, the title of this article may appear a bit inflammatory—a strong move to contend for the reader’s attention amongst the oceanic barge of ceaseless information. Memes. Sponsored Instagram ads. Photos of your high school theatre teacher’s daughter graduation party (based on a true story).
It’s no secret our brains are being pummeled with information we care about, news we only begin to care about because we’re exposed to it so often (psychologists call this phenomenon the “exposure effect”), and information we definitely enjoy, like Buzzfeed quizzes and “Kardashian Katch-Up” clips.
It’s also no secret about the amount of “fake news” being circulated. Wire wrote an excellent piece covering how Macedonian citizens made significant money by circulating fake articles, particularly about the Republican then-Presidential Nominee Donald Trump.
But where do these binary forces leave small business owners?
The Information Wars affect owners of beauty salons and gyms the same way it affects victims of false allegations.
Alex Jones, the American host of InfoWars, has sprouted theories and allegations about the American political landscape. He’s the man who alleged that Hilary Clinton ran a child trafficking ring through a local pizzeria; a listener, as a result, entered the pizzeria with an assault rifle. Jones has made serious claims about private individuals to large corporations. One of his most well-known claims is that the victims and families of the Sandy Hook shooting were actors.
What do small business owners have to worry over?
In this day and age, people can really say anything about a person or a small business—whether it’s true or not. Under the provision of the First Amendment, “free speech” does not necessarily have to be true. Families of the Sandy Hook shooting are challenging Jones’ statements with a lawsuit. In the suit’s statement, “The First Amendment has never protected demonstrably false, malicious statements like the defendants’”. Jones’ statements have disrupted the lives of Sandy Hook families: threatening emails from those who believe they are actors have been sent, homages to the murdered children have been dismantled and destroyed, and even families have had to relocate due to break-ins. All because of Jones’ statements on InfoWars.
Small business owners can also be the vicim of false allegations or harmful statements. Distrust decreases profits and loses customers. It’s in the interest of small business owners to protect free speech, yes. But business owners possess a special interests that policies are created to fact-find to confirm what is said, is in fact, true.
Otherwise small business owners have two choices: pony up the financial burden of defending their reputation, or shutter its doors. Due to the amount of nuanced evidence needed, defamation cases are incredibly hard to win.
If a small business is the victim of a false allegations, what can an owner do?
Defamation is when someone creates a false story about you or your business and the story damages your reputation and life. Defamation is the umbrella term for two kinds of false allegations. If someone writes something false, it would be legally termed libel. If someone verbally defames you, it is termed slander.
Ensure what was said or written is a lie
A negative comment is not defamation. If a customer writes on Yelp about feeling unsatisfied about their experience at your salon, it is often their opinion of a situation. This is protected free speech. It’s not purposefully trying to harm the salon, but of course, it doesn’t make your business look too good. If an opinion is meant to harm the reputation of the small business owner, or simply completely outrageous (“They were so slow in getting me to my haircut. It’s because they were outside giving animal sacrifices to Elvis Presley’s vampire ghost in the backroom”), then it could be called defamation.
Show the damage the statement caused
Defamation is a two-part puzzle. The first is the alleged statement, the second is revealing how that particular statement caused disruption in your life or business. Now someone may say animal sacrifices are made to Elvis Presley in your backroom, but if no one believes them, no real damage is done. It may be an impolite or completely weird thing to write, but no one thinks differently of your business. However if confused animal rights activists showed up at your door and protested the shutting down of your salon and blocked customers from entering, there is clear damage. If a person makes a website about how your business condones animal sacrifices and posts your personal information, it’s harming your reputation. Think of actions that cost your business money, time, or customers. Think of actions or statements that have caused stress and health problems. These could be termed damaging consequences from an allegation.
Collect the evidence
Slander is more difficult to document, as it may be illegal to record audio in some states. If it is legal, record conversations they’ve had with you or have friends record them saying untruths. With written defamation, take screenshots of misleading Tweets, photos of documents, or keep threatening notes. All of this will be used for your case in showing that the person made these false statements.
Talk to a lawyer
Since defamation cases are incredibly complex, an experienced lawyer will provide you peace of mind when dealing with slander and/or libel. Speak with a personal attorney, ideally a lawyer who has experience with defamation lawsuits. The first step an attorney will take is send a cease-and-desist letter. The defamer will have a chance the stop their allegations and issue a retraction and/or apology.
In the era of Information Wars, small business owners need to think seriously how their reputations are viewed and used online. With billions of customers finding local businesses through Facebook and instant marketing via Instagram Stories, a false allegation can make or break a small business. Acting quickly and knowledgeably is the only way a small business can aim to survive amidst the world of fake news and online influencing.
At Shore, we streamline the entire process of managing a business.
We handle the daily, so you can focus on the grind.