A travel reviewer complained about a hotel experience on TripAdvisor. Problem is, he never stayed in the hotel, it's reported, which seems unfair to the hotel--but is it libel?
The Irish Independent reported that Wicklow, Ireland, hotel owner Joe O'Flynn contacted a reviewer unhappy with his stay at his hotel. The reviewer criticized the management of the hotel and the food provided. O'Flynn, "surprised" by the comments, reportedly asked in the review's comments section for the reviewer to contact him "so he could address the issues raised."
In response, the reviewer "lambasted Joe for making direct contact," but then fessed up to never having stayed in the hotel. O'Flynn said he told TripAdvisor, but TripAdvisor still hasn't removed the review, despite the fact it is a violation of TripAdvisor's rules.
"This man admitted in an email that he had never stayed with us in his life," O'Flynn is quoted as saying.
"This is a breach of the TripAdvisor rules which state that reviews must be based on personal experience, not hearsay. I reminded TripAdvisor of that but they didn't want to know," O'Flynn is quoted as saying.
That is just one instance of an alleged inappropriate review posted on TripAdvisor, a travel website that hosts reviews. TripAdvisor has been accused of having up to 27,000 defamatory reviews on its site.
The website has nearly 42 million users monthly, according to The Guardian. "Anyone can post a review, without having to prove they've stayed in the hotel they're commenting on."
TripAdvisor spokesperson Emma O'Boyle explained, according to The Guardian, that "It's illegal to post fake reviews on the site in the UK, the US, and a number of other countries, and we do penalise hotels that have been found to be manipulating it." She also stated:
"We have a number of measures in place to make sure that the reviews on the site are legitimate, we've got a whole content team that's responsible for finding and eradicating the fake reviews . . . If the reviews people read didn't match the reality, and the experience, people wouldn't keep returning, and we wouldn't have 53% year-on-year growth."
But, KwikChex, "an online reputation services" company, claims that Trip Advisor is hosting at least 27,000 defamatory posts, The Guardian reported. It appears that KwikChex is like the libel version of Righthaven, a company which seeks to protect copyright on behalf of other organizations like the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Denver Post. See StinkyJournalism's coverage of Righthaven and its copyright protection lawsuits here.
While The Guardian stated that KwikChex is "acting on behalf of more than 1,000 hoteliers," The UK Daily Express reported that KwikChex represents "around 800 hotels and restaurants."
StinkyJournalism wrote to Emmins, KwikChex's co-founder, asking what the correct statistic is. He wrote: "The media tend to use various different figures, sometimes just repeating previous (and then outdated) information. "
"We have received over 3,000 enquiries" of which "currently around 70% of enquiries come from the hospitality industry, mostly from hotels. We are currently representing in one form or another 1,069 businesses.
"This representation varies in nature from complex bespoke projects (typically where a business has been the subject of a substantial, malicious campaign), through to standard memberships."
Emmins explained to StinkyJournalism that KwikChex represents businesses worldwide. "Currently our largest market (in terms of enquiries and members) is the USA, second is the UK and third is Australia."
How does KwikChex define defamatory posts though? Emmins explained to StinkyJournalism:
"We class defamatory reviews as those being false and malicious and likely to affect the livelihood of the businesses attacked. generally, this means allegations of criminality (theft, racism, assault etc.), behaviour likely to cause injury to customers (health and safety type issues, including hygiene) and allegations that are more personal such as accusing someone of being a 'pervert'. We also take action on comments that are simply untrue, such as the location of a business, the facilities the provide, their licensing, and wildly inaccurate descriptions that could only be intended to damage their reputation. "
Emmins is reportedly "in the process of contacting TripAdvisor about some of these specific comments," asking that reviewers "reconsider their comments" because the reviews are being called into question. Then, Emmins can "take further legal action against the defamatory reviews that haven't been taken down," according to The Guardian.
Emmins told StinkyJournalism by e-mail that "there is no real timeline for our actions" -- rather, it depends on each case and where it is based. "In some cases, the comments have been removed already, but a huge number still remain."
Emmins also reportedly told the Irish Independent that “The effect particularly on small businesses of a fake or completely untrue review can be devastating. Our estimate is that there are at least 27,000 legally defamatory comments on TripAdvisor, allegations that are false and should if necessary be tested in court."
StinkyJournalism has written to TripAdvisor for comment and will update with any response.
UPDATE: 2/3/2011 3:52 PM EST: TripAdvisor's Kevin Carter, manager for business & trade relations, responded to StinkyJournalism's e-mail inquiry. Here is Carter's complete statement:
"Thanks for your email. Regarding your inquiry, TripAdvisor does not comment on threatened or pending litigation.
"TripAdvisor takes review accuracy very seriously. Every review is screened by our proprietary site tools that are continuously upgraded, and a team of quality assurance specialists investigate suspicious reviews. Once on the site, a review can be reported as suspicious by our large and passionate community of visitors, and hoteliers always have the option of posting a management response to any review on their property – good or bad, and therefore giving the hotelier the opportunity to thank the good and offer their perspective on the bad. We also periodically confirm the legitimacy of review authors."