Yelp unveils new anti-racist platform

Yelp announced yesterday that it is rolling out a platform that will flag businesses accused of "racist behavior."

The news comes at a time when, according to Yelp's own data,  the number of reviews for Black-owned businesses was up more than  617% compared to last summer. and support for women owned-businesses saw a 114% increase in reviews.

Communities have always turned to Yelp in reaction to current events at the local level. 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. Yelp’s User Operations team already places alerts on business pages when we notice an unusual uptick in reviews that are based on what someone may have seen in the news or on social media, rather than on a first-hand experience with the business. Now, when a business gains public attention for reports of racist conduct, such as using racist language or symbols, Yelp will place a new Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert on their Yelp page to inform users, along with a link to a news article where they can learn more about the incident.

The announcement goes on to say that "Between May 26 and September 30, (Yelp) 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."

In an effort to try and corroborate these accusations, Yelp will implement Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert when they can link to a news article backing that up. 

Yelp doesn't get specific on what "racist behavior," actually means. But if articles are anything to go by, Yelp could easily be flagged for its own racist and sexist behavior. 

Last month Business Insider detailed the systemic racism in Yelp's Phoenix office, in speaking with nine current or former employees.  

In 2017, a manager in Phoenix circulated a racist meme on a company email list that mocked the names of non-white people shown on a TV news broadcast, using the n-word to do so, according to a former employee who shared a copy of the meme. That manager was demoted, but not fired, and the employees who reported him had to continue to work with him for two years.

It's not difficult to imagine Yelp's culture leading to this kind of problematic behavior in more than one office. Yelp's hypocrisy aside, the review site has not had a great track record of being fair to small businesses since its inception. It has long been known as a place where businesses can take an economic hit over unfair reviews. During the pandemic, this practice only worsened. After the backlash from small business owners, Yelp has taken steps to remove these reviews. 

Ths move also comes at a time when the beleaguered company has made several blunders this year. In March, the company partnered with GoFundMe to create a way for reviewers to donate to their favorite restaurants directly on its platform. The problem was that this was done  automatically and without a lot of restaurant owners' knowledge. 

As Eater points out "...helping small businesses stay open isn’t purely charitable for Yelp, either — it’s a survival instinct. Without businesses, there’s no ads to sell, the company’s main source of revenue. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Yelp has withdrawn its first quarter and full-year 2020 guidance to shareholders. Yelp has also pledged $25 million in relief funds for small and independent bars and restaurants, though not in cash, but in waived advertising fees and free services."

Like any big tech-company, Yelp is all too happy to co-opt a movement if means making a buck figuring people won't bother to look into whether they really believe in the stance they are taking.

The problem with Yelp's latest initiative isn't just questionable timing coming offeight months of bad PR. Yelp's new anti-racism initative is so nebulous it has the potential for widespread abuse that could cause long-lasting devastation.

Their Business Accused of Racist Behavior flag can be removed but only after 90 days and provided the alleged racist behavior stops. Three months is a long time to have your name business name associated with such egregious behavior, especially if it's unwarranted. Moreover, how does a business prove they are no longer racist let alone aren't racist to begin with? And how do they do so in time before they go out of business?

The company is offering any small business who want to be more inclusive to take advantage of its new toolkit through its partnership with Open To All. Some may find themselves taking advantage of it even if they've never had an issue with racism. The last thing anyone wants is Yelp showing up saying "Nice business you got there. Be a shame if someone labeled it racist."

Unsurprisingly, lawyers are already noting the fact this is a defamation lawsuit waiting to happen.

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