Mark Twain’s comment that a lie can go half way round the world before the truth can get its boots on is all too apt. Every day torrents of inaccurate, libellous, and collusive information cascades from blogs, tweets, and social media. The early 21st-century internet is like the Wild West. Shoot first and don’t mind the damage.
There is still a semblance of control. Several thousand Twitter users, who smeared Lord McAlpine with false allegations of paedophilia, have been taught a valuable lesson that there are limits to free speech. Newspapers in the wake of the hacking scandal are being corralled by Lord Justice Levenson’s proposal for a system of self-regulation enforced by statute. And if that is rejected, the media will have to live with the threat of large fines from an independent regulator.
Consumer review websites have no such legal boundaries. They are free to publish whatever they want without making the most cursory of checks as to whether the information is accurate, or even that the writer has stayed at the hotel that they are reporting on. There is a further crucial difference. Whatever one thinks of Sally Bercow, the Speaker’s wife, she tweeted her comments about Lord McAlpine under her own name. Her followers knew what they were getting. If they didn’t want gossip from a shameless political exhibitionist, they could ‘;;unfollow’;; her.
The reviews on consumer review sites, by contrast, are invariably anonymous, and it is impossible to tell their veracity. The majority are from genuine travellers but there is a disturbingly high number (no-one knows how many) that are collusive, malicious or simply crackpot. The review sites’ claim that they have systems to detect and protect their websites against abuse has repeatedly been shown to be flawed.
I recently predicted that it was only a question of time before one of these sites was successfully sued for libel. That view is probably wrong. The Defamation Bill winding its way through Parliament gives even greater protection to travel review websites. They will, in future be allowed to publish almost anything they want provided that when challenged in court they disclose the name of the contributor. That is of scant help to an hotelier who believes he has been unfairly maligned. To secure a court order forcing disclosure would cost thousands of pounds, and any subsequent action for defamation would cost much more. Even if successful with damages awarded, such a case would achieve little because invariably the defendant would have not have the means to pay.
The field is thus left open to travel web sites and others to behave as cavalierly as they want. They will have to be shamed by public opinion into conducting their business responsibly. The Advertising Standards Authority has prohibited one such site from claiming that its reviews are trustworthy and come from genuine travellers. As a result, it has had to replace its slogan ‘;;Reviews you can trust’;; with ‘;;Reviews from our community’;;. Media criticism has produced some improvements in the way it operates. For all their faults, travel websites are a powerful marketing force, which is why they have given rise to a host of so-called reputation management companies. For a fee, these companies claim to be able to put up favourable reviews, and remove unfavourable ones, both actions which verge on the illegal. As the Wild West is clearly here to stay, consumers should beware of what they read on the web. It is not always what it seems.