Over the weekend President Obama made a campaign stop at Big Apple Pizza in Ft. Pierce, Florida. The owner, Scott Van Duzer, is reportedly a registered Republican but is also a supporter of Obama. During a photo-op he bear-hugged Obama (with Secret Service permission).
The story and the image (at right) received national media attention. Some anti-Obama and anti-Big Apple “protesters” called for a boycott of the place and fire-breathing opinions began showing up on Yelp after the event.
They had nothing to do with the quality of the restaurant’s food or service. Here are a number of examples:
Once the politically motivated reviews were discovered Big Apple Pizza supporters and sympathizers began to flood the site with positive ratings and comments. Most of these also have little or nothing to do with the food and service at the restaurant. Here are two of dozens of examples:
Out of curiosity about how Yelp’s review filter was responding I checked the quarantined reviews (positive and negative) that were flagged as suspect by Yelp’s algorithm.
My guess is that all the recent one-star reviews were political, given the positive history of reviews for the restaurant and the dates they were left. There were also numerous positive reviews filtered out for much the same reason, it appears.
Yet many of the politically motivated five star reviews made it through the Yelp filter. This was an obvious break-down of Yelp’s system. Lots of reviews that had nothing to do with the restaurant itself were posted.
Yelp’s challenge in this case is how to handle all the political and “social” commentary (positive or negative) about the restaurant that has almost nothing to do with its food or service. It’s a big distraction for people trying to figure out whether to eat there. OpenTable uses a system whereby it only solicits reviews from people who it “knows” have eaten there (those who’ve made reservations through its system). With some caveats and limitations, Yelp allows anyone to review any business.
To address this specific controversy I suspect that Yelp editors will need to read each of the recent reviews for Big Apple Pizza themselves and zap those that are just political statements without more. But are these comments illegitimate? Do they violate Yelp’s content guidelines? In some cases clearly yes, in others it’s not as clear.
Clearly people felt passionately about the politics involved and wanted to express that. It’s interesting that it happened on Yelp and not Facebook, Twitter or some “boycott Big Apple Pizza” website. The one-star “haters” knew that Yelp was a place to influence people and wanted to hurt the business owner for his political views. The controversy surrounding Big Apple Pizza may be an extreme or unusual case for Yelp, yet it poses some interesting philosophical questions.
The central dilemma here is how to protect the relevance and integrity of the reviews and the business profile, while allowing people to have a discussion or “dialog” with the business owner and each other on matters that may be indirectly relevant. In other words: how can and should Yelp seek to balance potentially conflicting interests and in doing so not make the rules too restrictive or rigid?
I think Yelp needs to think carefully about situations like this given its visibility and increasing influence and perhaps revise its content guidelines to indicate that discussions that are too far removed from the goods, service or experience provided by the business are subject to editorial removal. But editing for content — especially in the case of political opinions — is a slippery slope.
Below is the CBS news segment about Big Apple Pizza that aired this weekend.
Postscript: Yelp provided the following statement:
“Non-germane, media-fueled reviews typically violate our Content Guidelines. Although most instances like these do not reach the level of media attention received by Big Apple Pizza, Yelp has proven policies in place to deal with such events: once brought to Yelp’s attention, our user operations team will remove reviews determined to violate our Terms of Service and Content Guidelines, including reviews that only attack a business’s perceived political ideologies. This way, people can continue find great local businesses – and even a good slice — based on evaluations of consumer experiences, and not political views.”
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