Over the weekend, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to have a meal at the Red Hen in Lexington, Va. The restaurant’s owner asked her to leave, saying that because Sanders works for an "inhumane and unethical" administration, the Red Hen wouldn’t serve her. Sanders got her cheese plate comped, left, then opened Twitter:
“Last night I was told by the owner of Red Hen in Lexington, VA to leave because I work for @POTUS and I politely left.,” Sanders wrote. “Her actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”
Monday morning, President Donald Trump started his day (and all of our days) by tweeting his own review of the restaurant:
“The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing to serve a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders,” Trump wrote. “I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside!”
This series of tweets sent a troll-horde to Red Hen’s Yelp page to write negative reviews, protesting the owner’s refusal to serve Sanders. Now, the page displays an “active cleanup alert” popup, which explains that the business is under review after it “made waves in the news.” (Another, unaffiliated restaurant called the Red Hen, in DC, is also being harassed by people on Yelp who’ve mixed it up with the restaurant Huckabee was asked to leave):
A statement attacking a small business is gross and absurd when it’s coming from the virtual maw of the president of the United States, but on Yelp, it would fit in just fine. It’s exactly the kind of thing people use Yelp for now, anyway: Firing off baseless reviews out of their asses.
Vindictive Yelping is not new, and neither is the review-as-protest. One of the first notable instances Yelpers used the platform for protest en masse was in September 2012, after the owner of Big Apple Pizza bearhugged Obama in the restaurant. Obama critics flooded the page with negative reviews. In 2015, Memories Pizza in Indiana closed down after Yelpers descended on the restaurant’s page following the owner’s refusal to serve gay people. Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado bake shop that said it wouldn’t cater to gay weddings, was slammed with negative reviews after its owner won a Supreme Court case defending its First Amendment right to refuse service for religious reasons. Masterpiece Cakeshop’s page also displays a review-in-progress notice from Yelp.
Read more: Yelp Reviews Are Like Psychological Selfies
But even without a media-blitz egging reviewers on, Yelp’s rating system stopped being useful long ago. The platform has 30 million average monthly users on mobile alone. Since its launch in 2004, people have written 155 million reviews—many of which are not interested in sharing a good faith review as much as they are in settling a personal score.
I asked Yelp how it responds when angry mobs descend on businesses like the Red Hen.
“Media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines, one of which deals with relevance,” a Yelp spokesperson told me in an email. “Yelp reviews are required to describe a firsthand consumer experience, not what someone read in the news. Our user support team ultimately removes reviews that violate these guidelines.” According to a support page specifically for news-related reviews, removals kick in “over the course of the week after the issue is brought to our attention.”
On that support page, Yelp tries to encourage people to use the Yelp Talk forums for Discourse instead of the businesses’ own pages. But if your goal is to be the sand in a small business’ gears, you probably don’t want to have a dialogue about the news—your goal is to to carpet-bomb a page with one-star reviews, make it harder for that business to get new customers, and in cases like Memories Pizza, shut it down altogether. Because many businesses use Yelp exclusively to advertise online instead of using a separately-hosted website, a dogpile of reviewers can be lethal to a business. Yelp ranks results based on stars, and users can filter to see only the highest-rated businesses in search. Once your business tanks in ratings, you fall off the map.
Nothing in the process of writing a Yelp review requires you to verify that you’ve actually been to the business, eaten the food, or experienced the service. As a result, many reviews are some variation of “couldn’t get in, one star,” or “didn’t try anything but the bathrooms were gross, one star.” These sorts of reviews don’t follow Yelp’s content guidelines for personal experience or accuracy, but they stay up. This lack of quality control makes it easy to use Yelp as a protest platform.
To try to inject some kind of verification into ratings, Yelp gamified the reviewing experience with the “Yelp Elite Squad,” a rewards program that gives power-reviewers access to things like soft opens, discounts, and invitations to exclusive cocktail mixers. Members of the Elite Squad also get a badge that shows up on their reviews, that verifies them as a members of the YES. Yelp says that this is a “a mark of trust.” But as Consumerist points out, what Yelp gets in return for this program is free labor—and what the rest of us get is an insufferable virtual class who thinks that service is a meritocracy, trading “trusted” reviews for special treatment.
Yelp has become a platform for people to go when they have a score to settle. Whether they feel personally attacked by a restaurant owners’ politics, or feel entitled to their own specific expectation of service, or just walked in to use the restroom and didn’t like the wallpaper, or are pissed because they couldn’t get a table on a busy night—they're not reviewing the restaurant in a way that's useful to who just wants to have a good meal. They’re getting even.
In this way, Trump and his followers who are review bombing the Red Hen’s Yelp page are representative of the typical Yelper. They’ve never been to the Red Hen and never will, but they’ll continue to pan it. They need to air their grievances somewhere.