When members of the Democratic Socialists of America entered a Washington, D.C., restaurant this week and chanted “shame, shame” at Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen until she scurried away, it was inevitable that the online fever swamps of the right would swiftly condemn these protestors as scum. How rude of them to make it difficult for Nielsen to finish her nachos after such a long, hard day enacting a program of child abuse.
What came next was a reaction that’s become inevitable: People took to Yelp to smear the restaurant, with others appearing to defend the establishment’s honor, based solely on the fact that something politically divisive happened there and not the quality of the guacamole.
Since then, even more ridiculous reviews have been posted, the majority from conservatives attacking the restaurant:
Don’t get me wrong—I am not fretting about the reputation of MXDC, a kind of overpriced Mexican restaurant that caters to the K Street crowd. It will survive, and Yelp has a system in place for filtering out these reviews, so a flurry of targeted negative reviews generally don’t impact the restaurant’s genuine rating, eventually. Nor does the integrity of Yelp particularly concern me, because politics aside, Yelp is a terrible website. Who even leaves a Yelp review? There are the Yelp power-users, who seem to spend their entire lives writing long reviews that usually contain three hundred words of extraneous information about the reviewer’s day, what kind of food they usually like, and some entirely fictional funny thing they said to someone upon entering the restaurant. But for most people, you’re only going to be motivated to spend the time writing a Yelp review if you had a really good experience or a really bad experience, and there’s no way to filter out assholes—the kind of people who give a one-star rating and say “The food was great but I hated the parking!!!” or “The bartender was so rude, she didn’t give me a napkin, this is unacceptable.” In a way, Yelp incentivizes this: It’s not particularly helpful to be told a restaurant is fine. You want to know if it was really great and worth going to, or really shitty and you should avoid it.
But it is worth exploring exactly why people do this very particular, bizarre thing: trying to game Yelp’s review system to tank a business’ standing in response to some news story involving the establishment. Why do people feel compelled to use Yelp as an avenue for this benign brand of political activism?
It can be an understandable impulse, depending on the circumstances. One of the first high-profile instances was in 2015, when an Indiana pizzeria (a cursed phrase if there ever was one) announced it wouldn’t cater gay weddings after then-Governor Mike Pence signed into law a bill declaring open season for businesses to discriminate against LGBTQ people under the guise of “religious liberty.”
As The Verge reported about the online backlash:
The people bombarding the business’s Yelp page with one-star reviews would disagree [with the law]. “Pizza served with a side order of BIGOT. And seriously, who caters pizza for a wedding?” one reads. Another says, “I look forward to the day when Memories Pizza is just that- a DISTANT LONELY MEMORY.” The site currently has more than 1,700 reviews — nearly all negative ones posted since the interview aired, although some satirical five-star reviews are mixed in.
It’s hard to work up much sympathy about a homophobic business owner getting her business ruined because of her bigoted views and equally easy to see why you might want to stick it to her with a nasty review.
More recently, the racist New York lawyer who screamed at restaurant workers for speaking Spanish found his law firm’s Yelp page “pummeled” with one-star reviews. You could fairly argue that knowing about Schlossberg’s racism is relevant to anyone who might have been thinking of employing his services. But then, on the other side, we have conservatives filling their diapers on MXDC’s page because they believe management should have called the cops on Nielsen’s protesters. It’s a tactic easily weaponized by bad actors with worse politics.
Part of this is just trolling. When something happens, people online get disproportionately mad and do dumb shit about it. They maliciously edit Wikipedia pages and rally behind Twitter hashtags, or in extreme cases, harass and abuse their targets off social media entirely.
But in addition to regular online spite, at the heart of the impulse to post negative, made-up reviews on Yelp is the implicit idea that it can create change; that by discouraging people from going to a restaurant because its owner is homophobic, we can discourage people from being homophobic at all.
Yelp activism is a version of a boycott, or a reverse-boycott, where people proclaim their intent to patronize businesses that have done something they find politically pleasing, like when liberals declared they would shop at Nordstrom to reward the corporation for dropping Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, or when conservatives vowed to stuff their faces with Chick-fil-A to trigger the libs. But with Yelp, this activity is limited to one platform and a business’ reputation; it’s not about withholding or spending actual dollars, but an attempt to influence how others spend theirs. This obviously carries far less weight than actually organizing large numbers of people to withhold or spend money—it is almost nothing, just a raging howl into the void with the hope that others hear you. And yet it seems to happen all the time: to the racist lawyer, to the baker at the center of the Supreme Court case on gay rights, and to the father of a terrorist in New York.
In our neoliberal society, which “sees political and social life almost exclusively through the lens of the free market, and asks us to consider ourselves and our fellow citizens primarily in terms of our economic activities,” as Patrick Blanchfield wrote on Splinter, is it any wonder that citizens have turned to a largely useless website to exert some small measure of their ever-more-limited influence in the political sphere? It might be a futile and misguided tactic, often employed by the worst people, but doesn’t that describe pretty much every avenue of online activism?
Turning to Yelp to act based on a business entity’s perceived politics also shows we believe we hold more power as consumers than citizens. It isn’t a coincidence that this is happening yet again in the same moment that it feels like our democracy is crumbling. The right to vote—that civic duty we’re told is our all-important chance to Have Our Say—is rapidly being eroded, as our choice between the two major parties is rapidly boiling down to “a party for racists” and “literally your only other choice if you’re not racist.” Getting the most votes doesn’t necessarily mean you get to be president. Our campaign finance system ensures that the wealthy have a much louder voice, while the rest of us are left with bleated demands to call your congressman, make your voice heard, write a letter.
Does it feel like any of it makes a difference? Do good things ever happen? Sometimes. But where there should be a political contract assuring that activism and civic engagement matter, even if it doesn’t win every time, we’ve instead got a system where politicians are increasingly hard to hold accountable—where the fundamental promise of democracy is broken. Almost everyone supports background checks, and most support restricting assault rifles, but the NRA and the Republican Party’s dominance and extremism have ensured that won’t happen. Most people support a path to citizenship for Dreamers; it’s stuck in Congress. Thousands of Americans died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria thanks to neglect, and it barely causes a blip in the discourse. Call your Congressman; he’ll make a note of it. When any of these things breaks through, it feels like a miracle; it should be routine.
So what are we left with? We’re left to flood Yelp pages. American democracy: one star; terrible service.