What Happens When Yelp Restaurant Reviews Turn Political?

September 22, 2016

Until Sept. 19, if diners had wanted to see Yelp reviews for Elizabeth, N.J., restaurant First American Fried Chicken, they would have found just two of them, praising the food, wide selection and late hours. Now, the majority of reviews give the restaurant one star, refer to the owners as “terrorists,” talk about “72 virgin bucket specials” and mention — repeatedly — that their chicken is “the bomb.”

First American Fried Chicken has gotten 13 pages of new reviews since the news broke that the owner’s son Ahmad Khan Rahami was the suspect in last weekend’s Manhattan and New Jersey bombings.

Before Yelp was founded in 2004, reviewing was the domain of professional critics. In the past decade, the public has discovered social media are not just a way to connect but a great way to air grievances. Once, if a business or business owner did something members of the public didn’t like, they had little recourse besides protesting in person or to their local Better Business Bureau. Now, through Yelp, the average person can easily try to put someone out of business. The site is so popular — especially when people are trying to find a place to eat — that too many low reviews can keep hungry patrons from ever considering the restaurant.

Past victims of Yelp attacks have come from both sides of the political spectrum — ranging from a restaurant whose owner was photographed giving Obama a giant “bear hug” to a bakery that refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Airing political views through Yelp has become such a popular (and unwelcome) pastime that the site had to create a “cleanup” alert, which was first implemented last year in response to the numerous political attacks. A business undergoing a cleanup will have a large red box at the top of its page noting that it is being closely monitored by Yelp staff. The questionable reviews aren’t actually removed at first. Instead, they are covered by a pop-up window (users can click out of it) that goes into greater detail about the media-related nature of the cleanup.

“Our goal is to be transparent with the actions we take to protect the quality of content on our site, preserve consumers’ freedom of speech, and shield businesses from online harassment,” a Yelp spokesperson said. “These media storms are complicated situations that create a dilemma for Yelp, but we’ve chosen to take a strong and consistent stance on managing them.”

While there are media-fueled reviews “several times a month” on Yelp, according to the spokesperson, it’s rare that they reach the level of First American Fried Chicken. This very likely contributed to Yelp’s fast response to the fake reviews, which are usually noticed by the support team or flagged by members of the community.

The effects of these politically motivated reviews — and the sentiments behind them — are real and go far beyond lowering a business to one-star status. Sweet Cakes by Melissa, the Portland bakery that was eventually forced to pay the same-sex couple damages for refusing to bake for their wedding, had its stance supported by enough people to raise $66,000 via a GoFundMe page to help with legal fees. (The campaign was shut down by the site before completion, evidently because it violated GoFundMe’s terms and conditions.) Despite a network of supporters over the Internet, Sweet Cakes closed within a year of refusing the couple.

After Pete, the owner of a college-town bar in South Carolina, refused to allow concealed weapons in his establishment, he found himself attacked from anti-gun-control supporters. He didn’t want to use his full name or the name of his establishment because “every time it gets posted, we get another round of hits.”

And it’s not just one-star reviews or angry posts on social media (though those happen, too). “We get so many calls with people cursing us out,” Pete said.

Many of his employees are college students, working part time, and they’d answer the phone to hear people threaten to “shoot you in the head,” Pete recalled. As far as his actual customers, business does just as well or slightly better after one of these attacks, “but it’s just not worth it,” he said.

When Yelp is finished with its cleanup of First American Fried Chicken, most of the political reviews will be scrubbed away. But the outpouring of hate is hard to forget, a permanent stain that no cleanup can fix.

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