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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.

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.