Yelp doesn't want to be the 'Making a Murderer' protest site

Pedro Alvarez/FUSION

Ever since Making A Murderer aired on Netflix, viewers angry about the case at the center of the documentary have been flocking to social media to air their displeasure. Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter are happy to see users flood their platforms with #makingamurderer comments. But one site doesn't want to play host to the show's fans: Yelp.

Reputations taking a hit

Steven Avery prosecutor Ken Kratz and Brendan Dassey defense attorney Len Kachinsky, who are both now in private practice, have seen their Yelp pages flooded with hundreds of negative reviews. "You deserve to be castrated," says a one-star review of Kratz. "Inept, unethical, despicable…." wrote one reviewer of Kachinsky's firm. (Show watchers, while enamored of Avery defense attorneys Jerome Buting and Dean Strang, haven't been as motivated to visit their Yelp pages. Buting has just 4 new positive reviews.)

The reviews are usually one star with nasty comments.

The Kratz and Kachinsky pages now have an "active cleanup alert" pop-up that warns visitors that they're subject to reviews based on news coverage rather than personal consumer experiences, and that the reviews may be removed.

Yelp, a decade old, says that its site is increasingly being used by social activists for online shaming and that it has had to come up with new strategies to deal with it. It created the "cleanup alert" pop-up just four months ago, in September 2015, when its site was barraged by visitors who wanted to leave negative reviews for Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the Lion. It's used the button 66 times since then.


(Despite Yelp's putting the pop-up on Walter Palmer's dentistry page and according to a spokesperson, deleting over 30,000 reviews, Palmer's Yelp profile remains a one-star, reputation disaster for which negative reviews continue to be written.)

Some of the more creative reviewers give a higher star rating, hoping to evade Yelp's clean-up of the page.

"Our terms of service have always prohibited this kind of content," said spokesperson Rachel Walker by phone. "It's been trickling in over the years, but now it's constant. It's unusual for it to be at Cecil level but in small towns, a newspaper article comes out about the local doctor and people will write a review and we have to catch it."

Yelp is incredibly influential for small businesses; one researcher found that a one-star increase in ratings can increase a business's revenue by up to 9%. So angry Internet mobs, wanting to cause actual harm to the targets of their fury, flock there, hoping to damage a person's reputation and livelihood.


It's also attractive for social activists because unlike Facebook, where Kratz and Kachinsky's Facebook pages remain in their control, untouched by the scandal because strangers can't comment on their walls, Yelp profiles can't be deleted or pruned by the owner of a business.

Yelp has become the go-to protest site, but it doesn't want to wear that mantle. Yelp's philosophy is that reviews should only be written by people who have actually had an experience with a business. They consider reviews based on hearsay to be equivalent to fake ones.

Yelp says the pop-up has been used 66 times since it was introduced in September

But for some consumers, these types of reviews could be relevant. Some people want to know the political background of services before deciding where to spend their money; it's why there's an app that lets you boycott products from the Koch Brothers when grocery shopping.


"We're an unbiased third party. We want to keep business pages clean," said Walker. "Users though are welcome to share political opinions on Yelp Talk [a conversation forum]."

Yelp has automated systems that scan new reviews for hate speech or ones that look fake, and automatically hides them behind a "not recommended" click wall. It also has a human user support team tasked with looking out for media-fueled reviews and removing them.


Walker says both the user support team and the public relations team are now constantly on the look-out for "pages we might need to protect." She says her boss walked in the morning the Cecil the Lion news began to go viral and suggested they keep an eye on it.

"We want people to use Yelp the right way," said Walker. "I know people want to leave a review to impact their business but that's not what we want here."

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