Photo of Alta Strada Mosaic pasta by Clark Douglas

Update: After this article was published, Alta Strada Mosaic’s seven-month battle with Facebook came to a close as the social media site removed the 71 spam reviews.

Facebook Alta Stradain Northern Virginia’s Mosaic District is an Italian restaurant most people like. Out of five possible stars each, the pizza and pasta slinger from restaurateur Michael Schlow has a consistent 4.2-star rating on Google; a 4-star rating on Yelp; and a 4.3-star rating on OpenTable. But on Facebook, the eatery only ekes out a score of 2.5. The reason why traces back to Aug. 13, 2018, when the restaurant received 71 one-star reviews.

No, a polarizing politician didn’t dine at the restaurant that evening. Nor did Alta Strada turn away José Andrés at the door, causing a barrage of negative reviews defending the humanitarian’s honor. There also wasn’t a mix-up with another restaurant by the same name, like what happened to The Red Hen. There was nothing out of the ordinary that day, at least not not according to Schlow Restaurant Group executive pastry chef Alex Levin, who has been fighting the low rating head on.

Unlike other reviews that include a few descriptive sentences rationalizing their star ratings, the 71 one-star reviews contain no information other than a score. While the reviews appear to be from real people—when you click on their names they have active profiles with posts and photos—the reviews still feel like spam.

The majority of the one-star reviewers, however, do not live in the D.C. area. Several don’t even live in the U.S. Of course this region welcomes diners from all over the world, but 71 one-star reviews published on the same day doesn’t sit right. It’s possible that the reviews are coming from duplicate fake accounts that the original users may not even know exist. In the second quarter of 2018 alone, Facebook disabled 800 million fake accounts.

Back in May 2018, Forbes published an explainer on a related issue. Instead of focusing on getting spam reviews removed, it tackled what you can do when a competing business intentionally floods your Facebook page with negative reviews for personal gain. While the premise is different, the lack of a solution tracks with what’s happened at Alta Strada Mosaic because Levin hasn’t been able to get Facebook to strike the bogus reviews sinking its rating. And, according to Forbes, “85 percent of people trust online reviews as much as personal recommendation and every one-star increase can lead to a 5 to 9 percent increase in revenue.”

Levin, who is also the restaurant group’s director of new business initiatives, is frustrated. “There’s an implied responsibility that if they’re offering the ability for reviews to be written, whether they’re written or grades, they should make sure they be authentic,” he says. “The amount of time we’ve spent trying to fix this has been a full time job if you add up all the hours over the last month.”

Despite there not being an easy way to contact Facebook, Levin was able to get a hold of a representative from Facebook’s Global Marketing Solutions team by going through Alta Strada Mosaic’s “advertising manager,” which has a chat support tool.

He received the following response from someone named Benjamin. “In regards to the spam reviews they may be taken down if they violate our community standards. To help clarify what those issues are I have attached a link describing what they are. If after you have reviewed the Community Standards and you have seen that the reviews violate them please let me know what the reviews are and how they have violated policy standards.”

All the community standards guide says about spam is that Facebook “works hard to limit the spread of commercial spam to prevent false advertising, fraud, and security breaches, all of which detract from people’s ability to share and connect. We do not allow people to use misleading or inaccurate information to collect likes, followers, or shares.” There’s no information specific to reviews.

An SEO expert penned an explainer on removing bogus Facebook reviews that explains why Alta Strada Mosaic is in a particularly challenging position. “Facebook only allows you to report written reviews. If you receive a low star, there is not much you can do,” Bradley Shaw writes. Levin concurs. “In the reviews that get written on Facebook, there are three dots you can click on,” he says. “If there’s a comment you can flag the comment if something’s inappropriate. But you can’t do that unless someone comments.”

Levin was dissatisfied with Benjamin’s suggested solution. “The part that made my whole day yesterday was when he told me I should deactivate the page, reactivate a new page, and disable reviews,” he says with sarcasm. “And they want me to spend money in the ad manager to broadcast to our followers to follow the new page. They’re holding the business hostage.”

City Paper asked Facebook what recourse a business has when they receive a bundle of spam reviews thus impacting the accuracy of their overall rating. A representative responded with a links to publicly available pages such the Community Standards page, instructions on how to disable ratings and reviews, an explanation of how to report a review, and a page of tips that aren’t germane to this story.

In a meeting with his colleagues yesterday, Levin decided how to proceed. They’re going to deactivate the page and create a new one that disables the ability to review the restaurant on Facebook. Since they’ve deemed Facebook reviews insecure, they’re going to disable Facebook reviews for Schlow’s other restaurants too.

At the end of chat chain where Levin repeatedly asks Benjamin for assistance clearing the spam reviews from Alta Strada Mosaic’s page, he only offered: “I understand that you did not get what you were after, but I am really glad that we could at least get some clarity on the matter. Please consider giving some feedback on my performance, after our chat ends you’ll get a survey.”