A Black Lives Matter yard sign. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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Yelp announced this week that it will flag businesses that have been accused of racist behavior, so long as there is “resounding evidence” of “egregious” activity such as the use of a racist slur or a racist symbol that a “credible media outlet” has documented. The same alert will be used if a business is the target of racism. 

The new alerts will look similar to the “public attention alerts” the online review platform has used for years to tell users that a business is getting noticed in the public sphere, including the press, that could attract reviews from individuals who have not, say, actually dined at a restaurant that’s under fire. 

Yelp posted such a public attention alert when City Paper contributor Sidney Thomas covered a pattern of accusations of racist behavior toward Black patrons at Alero on U Street NW in 2019. If such a story surfaced today, Yelp would presumably escalate the lower-level public attention alert to the more serious one denoting racist conduct. That is if Yelp deems City Paper a credible media outlet. The online review platform is positioning itself to be an arbitrator of what constitutes legitimate news. The racist behavior alerts are required to include a link to an article describing the situation. 

These new alerts will not be applied retroactively to a business’ page and are only applied when there is an unusual uptick in activity to the business page going forward.

While a Yelp spokesperson tells City Paper that the company “unequivocally rejects racism, whether it’s happening on or off the platform,” the public statement released announcing the new alerts is somewhat confusing when it comes to discerning Yelp’s overall intention. 

“As the nation reckons with issues of systemic racism, we’ve seen in the last few months that there is a clear need to warn consumers about businesses associated with egregious, racially-charged actions to help people make more informed spending decisions,” the statement reads.

Then it takes a turn: “This policy is critical to mitigating fake reviews and maintaining the integrity of content on our platform,” it says. “We don’t allow people to leave reviews based on media reports because it can artificially inflate or deflate a business’s star rating.”

So is Yelp trying to steer consumers away from spending their money at businesses accused of racist behavior, or are they trying to protect all businesses from having their coveted ratings (and therefore revenue) plummet for reasons other than the quality of services they provide?

“Maintaining the trust consumers have in Yelp is a top priority,” the Yelp spokesperson tells City Paper when asked about the goal of the new alerts. “To that end, we take measures to protect the integrity of the content on our platform, and level the playing field for hard working business owners who rightfully earn their great reputation.”

There’s pressure on moderators to get this right. Yelp isn’t relying on computer algorithms; it’s relying on human judgement. While businesses that are racist and fail to create an inclusive environment for all customers should be called out publicly, what happens if Yelp gets it wrong, especially when nearly every small business in America is hanging on for dear life?

There are exceptions, but many restaurateurs already don’t trust Yelp, citing what they believe there’s a pay-to-play component, among other grievances. The company’s roll out of its health scores feature wasn’t exactly smooth or transparent.

Asked what recourse business owners have to fight back if they feel an alert is unwarranted, a Yelp spokesperson says: “We stand by our Public Attention Alerts and Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alerts because they help inform consumers as they become increasingly conscious of the types of businesses they patronize and support.”

Chef Rock Harper, who owns Queen Mother’s inside Ghostline in Glover Park, has questions about Yelp’s latest move after reading over the company’s statement several times. He’s a local hospitality professional and podcaster who has been outspoken about the need to create a more racially equitable dining scene here and across the country.

“Quite frankly, I have trust issues with Yelp,” Harper says, describing instances where he says positive reviews of his ventures have been mysteriously flagged and removed. “Their credibility with me is just shot.”

While Harper, who is Black, says he is always in favor of empowering consumers with more information so they can make better buying decisions, he’s confused by how a review site he already doesn’t trust is going to define racism and carry out such a complex mission.

“If they’re trending in the right direction, that’s good,” he says. “But there are a lot of potential flaws. They got shit to work out.”

He, too, wants to know what counts as a reputable news outlet. He ponders whether an Instagram influencer with 100,000 followers would count, or a respected food blogger.

Harper says he has a bold prediction about the racist behavior Alerts. “This will either not make it off the ground or it will go away in a short amount of time,” he says. He thinks labeling businesses as racist opens Yelp up to “all sorts of litigation.”

More so, Harper is concerned this is another hollow move by a corporation to boost its reputation as a backer of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Black trauma has been made profitable, made into a commodity so much this summer,” Harper says. “This could be another way of just putting something out there to get traffic.”

Yelp says it’s seen a 133 percent increase in the number of media-fueled incidences on Yelp in 2020 compared to the same time last year. Between May 26 and September 30, they say they placed more than 450 alerts on business pages that were either “accused of, or the target of, racist behavior related to the Black Lives Matter movement.”