According to numerous news articles, after racking up a $200-plus bill at Smith & Wollensky, Italian attorney Graziano Graziussi realized that he had forgotten his wallet.

He offered his iPhone to the restaurant as collateral. And he offered to be accompanied to his hotel by a member of the restaurant staff. The latter, it would seem, would provide a satisfactory means to resolve the matter.

But for some reason unknown, the staff at Smith & Wollensky opted to call the police, and Graziussi’s nightcap took place at the local jail.

Thanks to the internet, a lie can travel around the world before the truth gets its tweet on

Smith & Wollensky’s apparent bad faith decision to treat a customer who made an honest mistake like a criminal was obviously a poor one, and thanks to the internet and nature of the story, Graziussi’s story spread quickly.

The result, not surprisingly, has been a social media beat-down for Smith & Wollensky. Graziano Graziussi’s tale is making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook, as well as on popular blogs and mainstream news outlets.

And on Yelp, an important site for many restaurants, Smith & Wollensky has seen its rating drop to three stars, not what you’d expect from an upscale steakhouse. There are dozens of reviews lambasting the restaurant for its treatment of a tourist and while some have obviously been written by individuals who never patronized Smith & Wollensky, a number claim to be from past customers who won’t be returning lest they forget their wallets.

There’s just one problem: the story that sparked this social media firestorm may not be accurate.

According to New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, when police arrived at the scene, Graziussi had in his possession a wallet containing $118. And an Italian-speaking officer who interviewed Graziussi concluded that Graziussi “simply did not want to pay” his bill. A CBS New York article reports that Graziussi was arrested for theft of services, later released and will have to settle the matter.

Smith & Wollensky’s Facebook posted this information on its Facebook page, linking to the article containing the details. But this obviously won’t eliminate the damage already done, and even if it turns out that this was truly a case of the customer being at fault, some individuals aren’t willing to accept that reality differs from what was originally reported.

Case in point: despite official statements from the New York City police department, some Facebook users simply don’t believe that the story adds up. Graziussi must have been the victim and even after it has become clear that, at a minimum, there is more to this incident than meets the eye, they continue to blast Smith & Wollensky.

Business as sacrificial lamb

This raises perhaps one of the most difficult questions for businesses operating in the age of social media: should we do what’s right even thought we know we might be portrayed as doing wrong?

If we assume that the Smith & Wollensky incident was one in which a customer refused to pay a bill, which, as it apparently stands right now, is the official story according to law enforcement, it would seem that the restaurant’s decision to involve the police was a reasonable one. After all, most restaurants are not going to let customers walk out the door without paying simply because they don’t want to pay. Nor should they.

But doing the right thing can be a social media liability, and at the end of the day, it’s important for businesses owners to remember that we live in a world filled with injustice, perceived and actual. In the commercial realm, customers are frequently treated poorly, some companies do take advantage of and exploit, and so on and so forth. So when a story breaks — inaccurate or not — that feeds into this, businesses like Smith & Wollensky become perfect sacrificial lambs. That often leads to backlashes that are more fierce and angry than one might otherwise expect given the circumstances.

Frankly, there is nothing businesses can do about this. There are no easy solutions, and few best practices for responding. But companies should never apologize for doing the right thing. Instead, they should continue to do the right thing because living in fear of the social media mob is no way to run a business, even if the mob is capable of taking its pound of flesh.