Anyone who regularly uses Yelp's rating service knows that user ratings should always be taken with a grain of salt. Far too often, user reviews are published by accounts that haven't been to the location, are associated with the business or a competitor, or over emphasize the negative impact of their experience. We've all seen a user rate a restaurant 1 star because the place setting was missing a fork, or because the server was a little slow to get water for the table during a busy service.
We've also seen a business get flooded with reviews from a social media mob trying to destroy the company because of a minor or unrelated issue. There are even businesses that, for a fee, will add negative reviews to a listing in order to damage its reputation. As we often say, whenever you create rules you create a game, and all games will have professional players.
It is those professional players which worry us with Yelp's newly announced feature. The company will now add a warning label to listings that have an uptick in reviews pointing out racist behavior, speech, or symbology. According to Noorie Malik, VP of User Operations,
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. 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.
Almost all tech companies (except maybe Coinbase) have spent the last 6 months trying to show how connected they are to the struggle for racial justice. However, whenever a company makes decisions quickly and without regard for the business model or user experience, bad things can happen, and that is where the potential for trouble comes in here. Professional or organized nefarious actors can easily use this new feature to completely destroy a business without any real evidence.
According to the company's own announcement, if a nefarious actor can get an article published about a negative experience and an uptick in negative reviews referencing racial discrimination, this warning could go into effect. Over the past 6 months, we have seen a huge influx in inaccurate racial accusations against individuals and companies, including attacks at restaurants across the country.
Because of the sensational nature of the events, the news covers these events on the local and national level. When "protesters" harassed and attacked restaurant patrons here in Saint Petersburg recently, it made the national news because of the nature of the event. Those attacking the patrons claimed that they were racist, without even knowing who the diners were. But, the event did create articles on reputable news sites referencing the racial nature of the complaints. If an uptick in Yelp reviews were to accompany this event, these restaurants, which were already defamed publicly, could see their reputations ruined forever because of a warning that has no basis in reality.
Of course, this has always been the problem with crowd-sourced ratings. However, there is a difference between knowing that a location's rating is based on user reviews, and seeing an official stamp from the company. The warning represents an official position from the platform itself. The problem is that there is no way that Yelp has a team that can accurately verify each one of these accusations. There won't be Yelp lawyers or compliance officers showing up to a restaurant to verify racially charged speech, or racially insensitive symbology. That task will fall to operations employees in Yelp offices.
The other issue at hand is the ever-changing definition of racism. Merriam-Webster defines racism as the belief that one race is better than another or the behaviors that support the belief. Today, the definition is fluid, meaning something different to different people. As such, not having a clear working definition of what constitutes racist speech or behavior means that it will be open to the interpretation of the employee reviewing the listing. Inconsistency in this area, which can directly affect the livelihood of dozens of people, should not be acceptable to anyone.
In addition, the company has been unclear about the process for a business to clear the alert and any media coverage from their business's listing.