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Yelp’s Crude Social Credit System

Creeping soft totalitarianism alert: Havel's Greengrocer now has to worry about his Yelp profile

What could possibly go wrong?

From the press release:

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.

Yelp’s top priority is to ensure the trust and safety of our users and provide them with reliable content to inform their spending decisions, including decisions about whether they’ll be welcome and safe at a particular business. We advocate for personal expression and provide a platform that encourages people to share their experience online, but at the same time it’s always been Yelp’s policy that all reviews must be based on actual first-hand consumer experiences with the business. This policy is critical to mitigating fake reviews and maintaining the integrity of content on our platform. We don’t allow people to leave reviews based on media reports because it can artificially inflate or deflate a business’s star rating.

Yelp is experimenting with a crude social credit system. That’s bad enough, but this one is completely unmoderated. There is no way to tell if a business owner is the victim of false accusations (say, by a competitor who wants to hurt his sales). Last year, a court ordered Oberlin College to pay a local bakery $11 million when it lost a libel suit over the college falsely accusing the bakery of racial profiling — this, after a handful of black student activists ginned up false stories to hurt the bakery. Hurt it they did, especially when Oberlin joined in the boycott. Yelp is now facilitating the same thing — and I hope Yelp gets the everliving crap sued out of it.

But wait! There’s more:

Many local businesses want to create a more inclusive environment for employees and customers alike, but they often don’t have the resources that larger companies do to access training materials, educate employees, and develop language to share with their customers and employees. That’s why Yelp and Open to All® have partnered to bring local businesses a new toolkit that allows them to take the next step in creating an inclusive community. The toolkit includes a 60-minute unlearning bias training video for employees, outreach language for customers and employees, social media assets, and more. With more than half a million businesses indicating themselves as Open to All on their Yelp business page, Open to All has created resources for small and medium-sized businesses to uplevel their diversity and inclusion practices. Learn more about these new resources here.

Havel’s Greengrocer now has the opportunity to hang a “Workers Of The World, Unite!” sign on his Yelp-profile front window.

I want you to stop for a second and consider the corporate mindset that wishes to turn the Internet onto businesses and make it possible to accuse them of racism, with no proof whatsoever, and attempt to hurt their business. This is what Social Justice Warriors do. They are making our society unlivable. Now business owners everywhere have to live in fear of a false accusation of racism, accepted and magnified on Yelp, that could destroy their livelihoods.

What is “racist behavior,” anyway? The line is constantly shifting. Everything is racist to the activists and their allies. Everything. 

I want you to consider this post in light of this news from Politico, published on October 1, and sent to me by a reader in Virginia. It’s a piece written by a group of scholars:

Like a growing number of prominent American leaders and scholars, we are increasingly anxious that this country is headed toward the worst post-election crisis in a century and a half. Our biggest concern is that a disputed presidential election—especially if there are close contests in a few swing states, or if one candidate denounces the legitimacy of the process—could generate violence and bloodshed.

Unfortunately, we’re not being alarmist about the potential for violence; trends in public opinion that we’ve been tracking provide strong grounds for concern. Our research, which we’re reporting here for the first time, shows an upswing in the past few months in the number of Americans—both Democrats and Republicans—who said they think violence would be justified if their side loses the upcoming presidential election.

This growing acceptance of the possibility of violence is a bipartisan movement. Our data shows that the willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to justify violence as a way to achieve political goals has essentially been rising in lockstep.

Read the story to see their numbers. This is so far a minority opinion on both left and right — but it still entails a shocking number of Americans, and the numbers are fast growing. Note as well that both sides are growing equally in their acceptance of violence. This is not a predominantly left-wing or right-wing thing.


How seriously should we take these expressions of violence? Both history and social psychology warn us to take them very seriously. In Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, a rising tide of armed street mobilization and of violent clashes between rival partisans ravaged fragile democratic cultures, bullied and marginalized moderate forces, and gave rising autocrats an excuse to seize emergency powers. Some of us who’ve studied the rise of authoritarians see strong parallels between that period of European history and factors at work in America today.

Exactly. This is what I talk about in Live Not By Lies. We are living in a pre-totalitarian culture. The prospect of Weimar-style street violence between extremists of the left and the right is just one sign. There are so many more, as I discuss in the book.

Now, imagine that you are a small business owner targeted by Social Justice Warriors, who use an activist-weaponized Yelp to drive you out of business with false accusations. How likely are you to care about keeping the peace in a civil order? You are going to want revenge on the people who destroyed your livelihood.

A couple of years ago, I went to a Pizza Hut takeout store in my neighborhood to pick up a pizza I had ordered by phone. The store botched the order. Standing in front of me, the pizza cook (a black man) told his manager (a black man) that I had called back and cancelled the order. It was a flat-out lie! It was aggravating to deal with a botched order while I had hungry kids at home waiting for pizza, but hey, these things happen, and we deal with it. But this lazy pizza cook lied about me to his boss to cover up his mistake. I was so angry that I tweeted about it (not mentioning the races of the Pizza Hut employees, because it was completely irrelevant). Pizza Hut corporate contacted me, but having had time to cool down, I chose not to press forward. The life of a pizza cook and a takeout pizza joint manager must not be easy, and I didn’t want to add to their travails further. I just resolved never to order pizza from that place again (it closed during Covid, by the way).

Now, imagine that the races had been reversed: that the customer was black, and the manager and the lazy, lying chef were white. It’s pretty easy to imagine a black customer assuming that a white pizza cook lying about him to cover his own backside was engaged in a racist act. I was angry, and went to Twitter at once to complain about the way I was treated at this Pizza Hut — though again, I didn’t racialize it, because there was no evidence that race played a role in the unhappy encounter. Later, when I cooled off, I regretted having done that. I wish I had instead contacted Pizza Hut corporate, and given them a chance to work it out without me making it public. But that’s not how we roll in the era of social media. Had a white manager and pizza cook done that to a black customer, this could have blown up on social media, and caused massive problems for that store — a problem caused not by a racist pizza cook, but by a lazy and dishonest one.

And now, Yelp incentivizes this sort of accusation, and the destruction of businesses and livelihoods — all to get at the devil of racism. All of this is happening in a society that is coming apart along identity-politics lines, with people on both political sides fearing and loathing the Other so much that they are willing to entertain violence to stop them.

My prediction is that we will see violence, one way or the other, and that the regime — by “regime,” I mean the state, corporate power, universities, and the media; the neoreactionaries call this “the Cathedral” — will at some point impose a Chinese-style social credit system to restore order and control. You see with Yelp’s move that the elites, especially tech elites, are eager and willing to do this, all in the name of virtue.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Yelp has make-or-break power over businesses. Adding this tag will not only keep businesses from making a living, but also inevitably subject them to harassment. And it makes me wonder, will Google begin flagging searches this way? Will Facebook begin flagging business pages?

Of course they will. It’s in the logic of the thing. These are therapeutic totalitarians.

UPDATE.2: A reader writes:

Just saw your post about the new Yelp feature and the reader follow up about it coming to other platforms. Below is a screenshot from Google Maps I took a few weeks ago when I was looking for a place to eat for dinner–so it’s already out there. I completely get in our current environment how we’ve gotten here, but nonetheless it’s still baffling to me because I really don’t see how the below designations are relevant to the dining experience. I’m just looking for something good to eat, that’s it! Designating “transgressors” is a dubious practice at best in my mind, but creating a space where folks have to publicly affirm on selected irrelevant issues is a whole ‘nother level.

It truly is the modern day Havel’s Green Grocer.

The irony of me sending this from my gmail is not lost on me either…



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