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The big picture: Yelp is the new battleground for political warfare

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders answers questions during a White House briefing June 25, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Huckabee Sanders at a White House Press Briefing in June. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty

With the press of a button, users can remotely post reviews of businesses or rate them with low star counts when they are embroiled in media controversies. The Red Hen in Lexington, VA is the most recent victim of this behavior, receiving 15,000 false reviews after the restaurant asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave the restaurant.

Why it matters: When these illegitimate postings take over, they have a real impact on businesses. Meanwhile, the regulation of reviews falls on the shoulders of companies like Yelp, which have been criticized for not doing enough to banish fake posts from their sites.

Other big controversies that led to a spike false online activity:

  1. The Red Hen made waves last weekend when co-owner Stephanie Wilkinson asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to leave the establishment. Yelp is now parsing through 15,000 reviews of the restaurant, up from less than 100 before the incident. Many even posted poor reviews for restaurants named The Red Hen in other locations, even though they have no affiliation.
  2. Obama's bear hug: A pizzeria with only two reviews (both five stars) came into the spotlight after their owner posted a picture with then-president Barack Obama. Yelp had to remove 200 fraudulent comments, both positive and negative.
  3. "Pizzagate": In 2016, conspiracy theorists suspected the owner of Comet Pizza in D.C. of working with then-presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta to run a child-slavery ring in the restaurant's basement. The theory was repeatedly debunked, but the restaurant took a sustained hit on Yelp and Facebook, and a gunman entered and fired an AR-15.
  4. "Checking in": More than a million Facebook users "checked in" on the site at Standing Rock Reservation, where protestors tried to block the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Rumors had circulated that police were targeting users who had checked in, but the police department dismissed them as completely false.

How it works: Companies like Yelp, Facebook, and Google are all vulnerable to media-fueled fake activity.

  • To fight it, Yelp deploys an "Active Cleanup Alert," in which their support team flags and removes fraudulent reviews.
  • In a statement to Wired, a Google representative said that they also have a team that identifies incidents of fake reviews, and uses automated and manual screening to sift them out.
  • Yes, but: These companies must try to strike a neutral attitude in managing postings. Several platforms, Facebook in particular, have been accused of favoring liberal voices when removing content from their sites. All big social media companies still use teams of people in conjunction with algorithms to address these issues because of the nuanced nature of human activity and media controversy.

Don't forget: While politically-motivated online actions (sometimes called "slacktivism") often seem empty, bad reviews can result in real danger for those targeted.

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