Yelp, Weaponized and Canceled

It was maybe 15 years ago. I was helping with an auction for our local bird sanctuary, and cajoled a kayak manufacturer into donating a pair of “his and her” kayaks. They were to be delivered a few days before the auction through a third-party courier and everybody was thrilled about it.

The day came for delivery and the courier showed up in a van with the two kayaks in the circle in front of Casa de SJ. I asked the driver, who was a black man in his twenties, if he could pull the van around the back to the garages. He told me “no,” he was late and in a rush. We argued a bit about the fact it would take him all of about three seconds, but he grew more adamant, and finally pulled one of the kayaks out of the van and threw it to the ground. He then drove off.

I wasn’t pleased at how things went, and was one kayak short. Not that it was the fault of the fellow who made and donated the kayaks, but he was the only person to contact. So I called. He informed me that he knew there was a problem as he already got a call from the courier, the driver’s employer. I began to discuss the situation and he stopped me cold.

The courier told me that you called his driver a “n****r” and that’s why the driver left.

I vehemently denied it, telling the fellow it was absolutely untrue. But from the tone of his voice, it was clear that while he might not be certain it happened, he wasn’t certain it didn’t. There is nothing one can say to make that accusation go away, and calling the accuser a liar only adds insult to injury. After all, what else would you expect from someone who would call a black man such a word?

Yelp has announced that it will add a scarlet letter, exclamation point actually, to a business’ listing when it is accused of racism.

As the nation reckons with issues of systemic racism, we’ve seen in the last few months that there is a clear need to warn consumers about businesses associated with egregious, racially-charged actions to help people make more informed spending decisions. Yelp’s User Operations team already places alerts on business pages when we notice an unusual uptick in reviews that are based on what someone may have seen in the news or on social media, rather than on a first-hand experience with the business.

The news will often run a story about an accusation. Not a conviction or jury verdict, and often beyond any legal claim. Just an accusation. Social media has elevated unproven, conclusory accusations to an art form. And no denial, even though there’s usually neither an opportunity to deny nor disprove the claim, changes a viral accusation. And making accusations go viral is the rule, lest one be complicit in whatever is being accused. Of course, if it goes viral, then it finds its way into the news, which makes it double real.

Now, when a business gains public attention for reports of racist conduct, such as using racist language or symbols, Yelp will place a new Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert on their Yelp page to inform users, along with a link to a news article where they can learn more about the incident.

Racism is, indeed, reprehensible. So too are false accusations. So too are accusations without the opportunity to deny or disprove them. So too is the damage to a business based on nothing more than a pointed finger screaming “RACIST!!!”

Assuming the best of faith, that the accusation was leveled without malice, was it racism or some wanker’s fantasy of racism, a receptionist wearing culturally appropriated hoop earrings, or a word that sounded somewhat like an epithet? Was it someone’s hypersensitivity on behalf of some marginalized group, or was it a business that has a sign in the window supporting the wrong candidate for office? Rarely are the details of such accusations provided, and if they are, rarely are they provided accurately rather than contorted to create the appearance of the most heinous offense possible.

What if a minority-owned business wants a little leverage in its competition with a white-owned business? What if its customers want to lend it a hand, even if the business is entirely honest and knows nothing about it?

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the opportunity to use this scarlet letter as a weapon to extort money from businesses is obvious. There are many out there, lawyers, activists, advocates, who use the opportunity to demand that a business pay up or be the target of their accusations. When an accusation alone is sufficient to destroy a business, and there’s really no way to disprove that a person wasn’t called “n****r” if they claim they were, the threat is not only real, but quite effective. You might not do such a heinous thing, but you can bet that someone, probably many, will seize their opportunity to hold a business ransom.

It’s certainly true that Yelp, despite whatever intentions it had when it was created, has become something of a cesspool for people who want to harm a business. Sometimes it’s real. Sometimes it’s just a manifestation of individual anger. Sometimes it’s a series of phony positives trying to offset the angry negatives. We all know Yelp is neither reliable nor necessarily legitimate in its publication of reviews. And yet, we still use it, look at it, for lack of any better alternative on a quick check.

What happens when the scarlet letter of racism pops up? Many will run away, whether they believe it or not, because why get mixed up with such a company knowing that it’s possible, merely possible, they’re racist? And there’s little a company can say or do to challenge it. Once they’re branded as racists, why take a chance when there are other, non-racist, businesses to use?

19 thoughts on “Yelp, Weaponized and Canceled

  1. Elpey P.

    Time for some think pieces about how Yelp benefits from providing a handy system for white supremacists to harass minority owned businesses.

    1. SHG Post author

      I thought about using this at the end of the post, though I would have used the black and white version for the irony.

          1. B. McLeod

            Obviously not the dragoon model. I think the Army would have reclaimed the sabre and reissued it to someone else, rather than breaking it.

  2. Charles

    Yelp’s policy is self-contradictory.

    They say they will place the label only when there is “resounding evidence of egregious, racist actions” but then the warning notice states, “We have temporarily disabled the ability to post here while we work to investigate the content.”

    So, Yelp, if you already have determined that the evidence is “resounding,” why do you still need to “work to investigate”?

      1. LocoYokel

        Does this create liability for Yelp? They seem to be taking an active role in this with these “warnings” rather than just passing along user opinions and removing any that violate some policy or cross a legal threshold.

        1. SHG Post author

          Unlikely. They aren’t so much saying they’re racist (which, in itself, is an opinion, not a fact), but warning that there is an accusation.

  3. Rengit

    Given how the idea of a “hostile environment” has not stayed limited to the strict definition and in its proper arena as an employment law matter between management and employee, businesses will obviously be accused of “creating a hostile racial environment” on Yelp, and therefore “racism”, if they do not throw out patrons who have been accused of saying things that are racist, as determined by the most sensitive listener of a BIPOC race, such as saying that you think the decision not to charge the cops involved in the Breonna Taylor shooting was the right one. And if the business throws out the customer (or even just a passerby who, say, demands patrons raise their fist in support of BLM) yelling and screaming at other customers that they are racist? Then that just prove that the business is racist, they do not take accusations of racism seriously, which is ipso facto racism.

    Also, given such a risk, businesses will begin to track their customers and notate which ones have been accused of racism, and these lists will be combined into a blacklist shared across stores and restaurants so as to prevent potential accusations of allowing a hostile racial environment. You think some of these critical race theory trainings go too far? Never voice that within earshot of others while getting groceries or having a drink and some appetizers at a bar, you might end up banned from ever entering a store or restaurant again.

    Yes, I am paranoid. Eventually what is becoming de facto rule by corporate policy will end due to its unwieldy and arbitrary absurdity, but unfortunately the only way out of a tunnel is through the darkness.

  4. Gretz

    So is there any recourse to mitigate the libel (and Yelp’s amplification of it), or is it going to be up to those defending themselves to prove they’ve stopped beating their wives? Yelp has money, even if the people flinging around the allegations don’t, and businesses have an interest in protecting their brand from being smeared.

    I’m sure that, like #MeToo, there’s going to be a rational response similar to the “Pence Rule”, that will then be decried as “more racism” as prepping to ‘prove a negative’ means every interaction gets documented.

    I got called ‘cynical and bitter’ for being ready to deal with that crap in family court, now I’m finding that I’m just ahead of the curve, as bad actors learn that you can get away with murder by claiming “domestic violence”, “sexual harassment”, “Used the ‘n’ word”, and likely cash in on it, too.

  5. JRP

    When Yelp came out it seemed for a moment to maybe help winnow down a good location to eat.

    Unfortunately in the last few years they have lived up to and exceeded their south park mocking (url below pending our host’s decision to delete). [Ed. Note: Nah, I’ve been a bit too harsh about vids lately, so I’ll let this one go.]

    I can only expect them to lose what little relevance they have left.

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