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Let’s Outlaw Dishonest Internet Smear Campaigns

told the audience at the Automotive Customer Centricity Summit that I had vowed to stop making industry-related predictions. Then, about 30 minutes later, I broke that promise.

I told the audience at the Automotive Customer Centricity Summit that I had vowed to stop making industry-related predictions. Then, about 30 minutes later, I broke that promise.

The reason I had decided to stop predicting the future is that my crystal ball has a habit of malfunctioning. I cited some early examples of my errant forecasting.

One was when I had said Hyundai’s days in the U.S. market were numbered. That was back in 1998 when the South Korean auto maker was in a sales free-fall and dealers were turning in their franchises faster that Hyundai could award new ones.

A desperate Hyundai Motor America named a new CEO, Finbarr O’Neill. A group of Ward’s editors had lunch with him shortly after he got the top job at a company at a low point.

I asked him about his background. He said he had been Hyundai’s general counsel. What? An auto company’s house attorney suddenly becomes its CEO? Good luck with that. This company is a goner, I thought.

But O’Neill managed to bring Hyundai back from the brink. One way he did that was to offer an industry-leading warranty. Another way was to visit dealers, one by one, to restore their faith in the brand that they quickly had been losing interest in.

Today, Hyundai and its sister, Kia, are hot brands with good product and healthy sales. Who would have thought? Not me. OK, I was wrong about Hyundai.

Then I told the group how I had entertained serious doubts about the future of Nissan back in 1999 when the Japanese auto maker was $35 billion in debt and looking for a savior.

When the French auto maker Renault stepped in to fill that role, I thought, “Oh no.” I predicted (on a TV talk show no less) that on the first rainy day, when nationalistic Renault faced the prospect of laying off French auto workers, Nissan would go down the drain.

Well, that didn’t happen. In fact, Renault has been good to and for Nissan, which is in pretty good shape today and no longer deep in debt. OK, I was wrong there, too.

But as I moderated a panel at the conference, a topic came up and I couldn’t resist proffering another prediction. The discussion had ventured into how the Internet and social media can pose a danger to the reputation of a business, such as a car dealership.

That’s because Internet users hold the power to trash a dealer and reach a huge audience. It’s one thing if the beefs are legitimate. But what if they are fabricated?

Tom Vann, a Michigan dealer, tells of a dealer who got slammed by a conspiracy of scoundrels using an Internet rating site.

Here’s what happened: A disgruntled customer, vexed that a Dodge Ram pickup conked out shortly after he purchased it, got even madder when the dealership wouldn’t give him a new vehicle.

So he organized today’s equivalent of a poison-letter campaign. He, his relatives and friends all went online to give the dealership horrible reviews, bringing its rating down to 1.4 of a possible 5.

“Most people look at a low rating like that and quickly move on,” Vann says. “I didn’t.” Instead, he clicked on the reviews and figured out the bogusness of what was going on.

“It can be dangerous out there,” Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai Motor America’s vice president-national sales, says of the way some people abuse the power the Internet affords them.

I liken it to a wild-west environment. It is wrong. And it should be illegal. So here’s my prediction after saying I wouldn’t make any more:

Years from now, people will look back at our no-holds barred Internet world of today and wonder, “What the heck was going on?” Their amazement will be like us today unable to fathom how Old West disputes were settled by gunfights in the dusty streets at high noon.

This isn’t a free-speech issue. As a journalist, I believe in giving lots of latitude to that cherished right. But the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the freedom to lie.

If a dealership customer has an honest gripe, fine. But the law should not allow someone to participate in a blatantly dishonest concerted effort to maim a dealer or anyone else.

Violators should be prosecuted. I think they will be, some day, when we have finally come up with some sense and sensibilities to regulate Internet misdeeds.

That’s my prediction. I may be wrong…again. But I sure hope not.

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