Anonymous Posters and Defamation Exposure

Message boards, blog comments and chat rooms create a whole new arena for a company to generate good public relations and maybe even spread a marketing message. It’s also a whole new opportunity for defamation. While there’s really no such thing as an anonymous press release, ad campaign or direct mail piece, anonymous posts made to industry blogs and message boards are commonplace.

Most of these online forums allow the commenter/writer to be anyone he/she wants to be. In some instances, the opportunity to work under pseudonym can be liberating and create more honest dialogue. But, sometimes, this opportunity of anonymity just allows the poster to get carried away. Consider the case of Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey. Mr. Mackey posted comments about a competitor, Wild Oats on a Yahoo message board that were uncovered during an FTC investigation regarding the purchase of Wild Oats by Whole Foods. Now, Mr. Mackey didn’t use his own name for the message board posts, he used a pseudonym. And yet, he has been found out.

While Mr. Mackey’s particular comments have only been described as inappropriate, defamation is a key risk for persons and companies posting online comments. It is especially key for anonymous posters as they tend to be a bit more free with their comments. If a post is shown to be a misstatement of fact and that post harms another, there could be grounds for a defamation suit, and even punitive damages if the post is shown to be made with actual malice. And as proven in the Whole Foods case and others (visit CNet for another example), a truly anonymous post is unlikely.