While a one star review may be frustrating for the business in question, unflattering reviews are unfortunately part of running a company focused on customer service. A one-star business review which is absent of accompanying text or elaboration will not be a sufficient ground for a defamation claim. This is predominantly due to the difficulty in establishing an objective defamatory imputation and that the publication caused serious harm.

Defamatory Imputation:

Firstly, the meaning that the impugned matter conveys to the ordinary and reasonable person must be identified. This meaning is determined:

(a) within the context of the publication; and

(b)  with regard to the mode and manner of publication.

This meaning must then actually cause the ordinary and reasonable person to think less of the plaintiff. Namely, that the alleged conduct falls below the prevailing views and beliefs held by society at the time of publication.

Regarding Google reviews, the ordinary reader approaches the reviews with a “degree of caution,” as they would know that the reviews are largely expressions of personal opinion. The ordinary reader is therefore not surprised if there are “unflattering reviews” as these are common amongst businesses.

In this case, the readers are merely exposed to a comment that features a one-star review. The absence of any text accompanying the review renders the meaning of the stars a symbolic representation of consumer dissatisfaction. However, for the review to be characterised as more than merely “unflattering,” a more precise meaning must be determined. In Burrows v Houda, the Court held that emoji symbols were capable of carrying a defamatory meaning when considered in the context of the publication. This case featured a twitter thread where a reply to a comment with a single ‘zipper face’ emoji was held to imply that the writer knew some ‘secret’ concerning an allegation of guilt towards the plaintiff. Therefore, the Court will heavily rely on the surrounding context of the publication where the defamatory imputation is implied by a symbol and unaccompanied by text.

However, the chain of Google reviews is distinguishable from a Twitter thread as the submissions are not related or made in response to one another. Where there is no further engagement with the review (in the form of likes or comments from other users), it is unlikely that the ordinary and reasonable reader will regard the review as anything beyond a mere expression of opinion.

Having considered the context of the publication and the approach that the ordinary and reasonable person would take towards Google reviews, the derived meaning is that one particular customer was dissatisfied with the goods or services received from the business.

As previously stated, the Court acknowledges that one-star reviews are common and are approached by readers with caution. Whilst disparaging, the unsubstantiated review lacks the weight and specificity necessary to lower the business’ reputation in the eyes of the reader. Instead, a reader is likely to dismiss the review as merely “unflattering.” The claim will therefore fail in establishing that the alleged imputation was defamatory.

Serious Harm Element:

A recent amendment to the Defamation Act rendered proof of ‘serious harm’ a requirement to establishing a claim. ‘Serious harm’ is defined as harm to the corporation’s reputation that is, or is likely to cause, serious financial loss to the corporation.

It is unlikely that a single one-star review held such weight as to cause serious financial loss. Furthermore, the assertion that someone must have read the review because it was published online will not suffice. Instead, the plaintiff must correlate a loss in business or revenue with evidence (i.e., Google analytics) that the publication was actually read and received by a third parties.

It is unlikely that such a connection can be established here.

Honest Opinion Defence:

Finally, where the imputation is merely a statement of honest opinion a defence applies as to negate the publisher’s liability.

S 31 of the Defamation Act provides a defence for the publication of defamatory matter where the defendant proves that the publication was an expression of genuinely held opinion and not a statement of fact and related to a matter of public interest. This defence is provided to balance the policy interests of protecting the dissemination of free speech.

Therefore, the meaning conveyed by the symbolic one-star review is unlikely to form the basis of a defamation claim.

Disclaimer: This publication contains comments of a general and introductory nature only and is provided as an information service. It is not intended to be relied upon as, nor is it a substitute for specific professional legal advice. You should always speak to us and obtain legal advice before taking any action relating to matters raised in this publication.