Keyboard Warriors Learn Farmers are a Formidable Foe

Technology isn’t just impacting our ability to repair our equipment; it is also giving consumers a bullhorn platform for issuing opinions—good or bad—about products. False reviews blasted on social media can have steep consequences for businesses. A recent case in Minnesota illustrates it can have steep consequences for the reviewer, too. In this case, a bee business was awarded a $370,000 judgment against one of its customers.

The buyer-defendant bought bees in 2019 but didn’t get to raise them as the entire hive died shortly after purchase. The buyer lashed out on social media, claiming that when purchased, the bees were infested with maggots and suffering from American Foulbrood. After a court battle over the post, the claims were determined to be false, and the buyer-defendant was out his bees and almost $400k.

In the past, businesses were the only entities with the money to develop a platform. Negative reviews from individuals were primarily limited to word-of-mouth, private conversations with limited impact on a business’s bottom line. The ease of posting on social media, coupled with the near effortless large audience the internet provides, has shifted the balance of power.

In many ways, a more accessible platform for customer feedback democratizes the market. However, especially with the anonymity offered by the internet, we can assume that some individuals will abuse the new platforms. With or without that abuse, we can expect businesses to attempt to insulate themselves from a resounding choir of complaints.

As the beekeepers in Minnesota did, one way to fight back against customers who take to social media is to sue for defamation. In a suit like this one, the one filing the lawsuit must prove that the statement was false, that it was published (communicated to at least one person), and that it caused harm. Usually, this is established as economic harm.

Some agricultural businesses have additional protection from negative publicity by virtue of targeted food libel laws (libel is written defamation; if it were merely spoken, it would slander). These laws, passed in thirteen states, make it easier to establish defamation if the subject is perishable food. Some of these laws do this by requiring scientific evidence to back up the allegedly defamatory comments, effectively shifting at least a portion of the burden of proof on the relative truth or falsity of the statement in question to the defendant.

We need tools to fight misinformation online, and businesses need protection from baseless claims about their products. However, we don’t want to become so protective that we discourage honest feedback from buyers on their experiences and concerns over our food supply. In general, defamation suits are on the rise because of social media. As more claims are filed, courts will better define the line between consumer and business rights.

In the meantime, farmers might want to check if your umbrella insurance policy covers defamation. Not a feature any farmer thought they might need, but helpful if you find yourself in the shoes of the beekeeper defendant in Minnesota after a late-night ill-advised social media rant!

Further Reading

Food Inglorious Food: Food Safety, Food Libel and Free Speech

ACLU on Food Disparagement

An article on the Minnesota case