One of the really valuable things about the Internet and social media is immediate access to thousands and thousands of people with a single click of the mouse.

One of the really dangerous things about the Internet and social media is immediate access to thousands and thousands of people with a single click of the mouse.

The Internet has radically changed the way we communicate with family, friends, and customers—with everyone. But with that change comes added responsibility. A few years ago a disgruntled customer would complain to her friends, who might tell a few of their friends, who might tell a few others. We thought that malicious rumors spread like wildfire, but actually things moved slowly. The filter of time often tempered the gossip, both in the telling and in the spread.

For many years the only way to reach a large number of people in one fell swoop was a letter to the editor. In my family, at least, those letter writers generally were dismissed as part of the lunatic fringe, those people who walked around with shifty eyes and tin foil inside their hats.

Now, though, thanks to e-mail, and Facebook, and Twitter, and other social media outlets, the filter of time doesn’t work very well. For all practical purposes the gap between thinking something and sharing it with the rest of the world has vanished. Customers and clients have enormous power to praise or criticize a business, and whether the complaints are valid or not the effects can be devastating.

The horse business and the Internet is a match made in heaven—until things turn nasty.

During the summer of 2006 more than two dozen horses at Carousel Acres Equine Center in Brazos County, Texas died mysteriously. An initial e-mail suggesting that the horses’ deaths were the result of being fed a particular brand of feed, a Purina product called Strategy, quickly became a snowstorm of innuendo and speculation on the Internet. Horse owners panicked and started returning bags of Strategy to their feed dealers.

There was no real proof that Strategy was the culprit when the flurry of e-mails started, and there never was any evidence to support the rumor. Researchers at the Texas A & M College of Veterinary Medicine quickly identified the cause of the horses’ deaths as phosphine poisoning resulting from the improper handling of a toxic pesticide. Bad news travels fast, good news not so much, and it took Purina longer to rehabilitate the reputation of Strategy than it did for the feed to be trashed in the first place.

One thing that the Internet has not changed is the law of libel, slander, and defamation. If you post statements that are false, and if those statements harm the reputation of a business, the owner can sue you for damages. You might win if the statements can be verified as truthful but the cost and emotional toll of a trial might make it a pyrrhic victory.

This doesn’t mean you can’t complain about poor quality tack, or a dishonest trainer, or fraud when buying or selling a horse, or any of the countless other things that can go wrong in the horse business. Whistleblowers often uncover fraud and corruption that would not come to light otherwise. It does mean you should get your facts straight and then think twice before hitting the "SEND" button. President Calvin Coolidge said: "I never have been hurt by something I have not said." That’s still good advice.

The horse business is driven by the reputations of the people involved and now more than ever a single disgruntled customer can undo a world of positive public relations. How do you deal with negative postings on the Internet?