Yelp, the local search and review site, said it would post alerts on the pages of businesses where customers or employees have reported incidents of racism, the latest attempt by a U.S. company to introduce a tougher response system to confront discrimination after the police killing of George Floyd in May.
The company, which offers a platform for users to rate places like restaurants, small businesses and popular tourist sites, said in a statement Thursday that it would use a “business accused of racist behavior” alert when there was “resounding evidence” that a business owner or employee had taken racist actions, including the use of racist slurs or symbols. This alert will always link to a news article from a “credible media outlet,” Yelp said, without elaborating on which news organizations they considered to be credible or how it defined “resounding evidence.”
So far, the alert has been placed on “a couple of” business pages, a Yelp spokesperson said.
Yelp’s announcement raised questions about how the company will enforce the initiative — and how it will ensure that businesses were not falsely associated with racism or the target of defamatory reviews, which can significantly damage a business. Companies like Google and Facebook have also grappled with the difficult issues of moderating users on their online platforms.
“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,” said the statement from Yelp, which is based in San Francisco.
The company has already rolled out a lower-level “public attention” alert that flags businesses whose staff members have been accused of racism toward customers or who have been the target of racism by managers. Yelp is, on a daily basis, alerted about discrimination at local businesses across the country, including in towns where the incidents may not make the news, the spokesperson said Friday.
The spokesperson added that if, following a reported racist incident, a business has fired the offending employee or taken other corrective steps, the “business accused of racist behavior” alert could be downgraded to a “public attention” alert.
Yelp’s initiative aims to help its customers find businesses that align with their values, a factor of increasing importance to users, the company said, citing a 617% increase in reviews mentioning Black-owned businesses this summer compared with last summer.
Yelp has waded into issues of social justice before. In 2017, the company said it added a feature so users could filter results by the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms. The site invites users and business owners to identify places that offer single-stall bathrooms available to people of any sex.
In recent years, crowdsourced review sites like Yelp have grappled with how to effectively moderate posts so that bogus reviews and misleading news articles do not unfairly hurt businesses.
In one example in 2018, diners at a popular New York City restaurant emptied out in the hours after HuffPost published an article saying that the restaurant owner’s sister was a firebrand Twitter user who frequently attacked Islam. The owner’s wife said at the time that she and her husband had little contact with her sister-in-law and that her views did not in any way represent theirs or the business.
Still, the restaurant received vitriol from the right and the left on Twitter, Facebook and in one-star reviews on Yelp.
The Yelp spokesperson said that if the company received an unusual uptick in reviews at a business, an automated signal would be sent to a team of moderators who would alert customers that recent reviews may not be based on firsthand experiences. She declined to comment on how many moderators the company had.
Some users welcomed the new initiative, calling it a welcome attempt to root out racism. Others, including figures on the right like Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, warned that the policy had potential for misuse. “What are the odds that this isn’t insanely abused?” he wrote on Twitter.
Reception was mixed from businesses, too. Simon Duchon, a supervisor at the Britannia, a pub in London, said he welcomed the initiative because it could hold businesses accountable for racist or discriminatory conduct. But he also warned about the possibility for abuse — and the prospect that a Yelp notice could continue to harm businesses even after they had taken steps to address racist incidents.
Earlier this year, a customer complained about being called a racist slur by a manager at the pub, but the incident actually happened at a different establishment. Management reported the comment to Yelp, but the complaint still exists on the company’s page.
“I think in many ways it’s a very good idea, but one negative comment can destroy a whole business,” he said.