It’s seven in the evening and you’re working late. You’re interrupted by the soft rumble of hunger pangs, an unmistakable reminder that you haven’t eaten dinner yet. There’s this newish fusion restaurant a couple of blocks away that you’ve been wanting to try, but haven’t had the chance to. Every time you’ve walked past, it’s buzzing with activity. So you look the restaurant up on Yelp to see if it’s worth your time and money. You launch the app and search, only to be hit with an alert emblazoned with an ominously large exclamation point:
‘Business Accused of Racist Behavior’
The R word. It’s the new scarlet letter. You’re so taken aback that you almost forget that you’re hungry. Your mind races to find a possible explanation. Could it be that the staff racially profiled a diner? Perhaps, like Starbucks, the staff allegedly denied bathroom access to a non-customer who happened to be black? Then you remember that these days, fusion cuisine itself is often a flashpoint in debates about cultural appropriation. Maybe the restaurant is just racist by virtue of its existence?
Who knows. Luckily, Yelp has kindly provided a link to a news article where you can learn about the incident. Another stomach grumble urges you to stick to your original mission to find sustenance quickly. You’ll do the research later. Instead you order takeout from somewhere that’s familiar, consistent and fast. You’ve seen ads promoting the Travis Scott meal at McDonald’s and he just won BET’s rapper of the year so there’s no way you’re making a racist dining decision. McDonald’s it is.
This scenario that isn’t too far-fetched, thanks to Yelp, a company whose entire business is predicated on crowdsourced reviews about other businesses. Like many other tech firms caught up in the currents of the heightened climate of political activism, Yelp has decided to take a stance against racism by enabling a feature that they claim would arm consumers with information about businesses associated with ‘egregious, racially-charged actions’ to help people make ‘more informed spending decisions.’
In reality, Yelp is introducing a rudimentary social credit system that subjects business owners to the vagaries of the culture wars. No stranger to controversy, Yelp has previously been embroiled in lawsuits alleging that it forced companies to pay for advertising on its platform and withheld positive reviews as leverage until they gave in.
Yelp is well aware of its own power to make or break businesses. Research shows that higher Yelp ratings lead to higher sales, and that this effect is greater for independent restaurants as opposed to chains whose reputations tend to be more well-established. This, combined with the fact that opting out of Yelp is professional suicide for any business who wants to succeed in an increasingly online world, propels many owners to grudgingly participate on Yelp’s platform as a necessary cost of doing business.
Prior to this announcement, weaponized Yelp reviews were already a well-known phenomenon (I’ve written about it here) plaguing both sides of the political aisle. When it was reported that the owner of the Red Hen, a small bistro in Lexington, Virginia, had asked then White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her family to leave the establishment due to her association with the Trump administration, the restaurant’s Yelp page received thousands of fraudulent one-star reviews. This was met with a backlash of anti-Trump supporters’ five-star reviews, transforming the bistro’s Yelp page into a political battleground.
By injecting an official notice based on no more than an accusation of racist behavior, Yelp is enhancing the perverse incentives to weaponize its reviews. There is simply no way to tell if a business is the victim of false accusations, especially given the frenzied pace of social media pile-ons. For an industry that runs on razor-thin margins, every day that a restaurant’s reputation is sullied is a day that edges it closer to financial ruin. Just look to the case of Gibson’s Bakery, which won a libel suit over Oberlin College for false accusations and reputational damage. After the bakery owners caught a handful of black students attempting to steal liquor and gave chase, student activists framed the entire incident as a racial aggravation and organized, with the help of the university, sweeping protests against and online campaigns to boycott the small, 134-year old family-owned bakery.
Further complications involve the vague, ever-expanding concept of what constitutes racist behavior. Does it include the owners of ‘Trap Tea’, the boba tea shop who was accused of ‘stealing black culture’? What about the restaurant displaying a sign in support of the ‘wrong’ political candidate? Already, in response to Yelp’s statement, an antifa group has put out a call to its followers to begin compiling a list of businesses guilty of showing sympathy for the police or that stand against the Black Lives Matter movement. As mantras such as ‘silence is violence’ become more commonplace, how can anyone say with a straight face that such a policy will not backfire?
Yelp and Google also introduced a feature this summer allowing companies to list as a ‘Black-Owned Business’ or ‘LGBT-Owned Business’. In a country where markets thrive based on free exchange, flagging the race or sexuality of the owner to inform a consumer’s decision to shop there (or not!) could cause our riven society to divide further.
We’re rightfully alarmed when we read about China’s social credit system that ensnares its own citizens in a dystopian nightmare of social control. Individuals are monitored in an all-encompassing surveillance system, from real-life transgressions and consumer behavior to conduct on ‘private’ social networks. Based on these inputs, algorithms spit out a numerical score that reflects each person’s trustworthiness and virtue, which then determines what they can and cannot do in society. Now given that these days, the media will often run a story about an accusation of racism on its own, without any due process, what exactly is the difference between a social credit system run by the elites in government versus one run by the mob?