Trial by Yelp: The Internet Targets the Businesses of DC Riot Attendees

Business owners like James Patrick Riley, Jenny Cudd and Suzi Tinsley have had their businesses targeted on Yelp after attending the pro-Trump chaos in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2020. (Yelp/Twitter)

The Yelp post was forceful. “This THUG, this TERRORIST & White Supremacist joined, organized and terrorized the capital building last night (Jan. 6th) in a Trump Supporter failed coup,” read the review of Sugar Shack. “If you have a sweet tooth for racism, arrogance & ounces and ounces of blind audacity, this is your spot.”

The Menlo Park candy store is just one of many businesses inundated with bad Yelp reviews after Trump supporters invaded the Capitol building last week. Sugar Shack received nine pages of one-star reviews after a photo emerged of its owner Suzi Tinsley outside the Capitol the day of the attack, draped in a Trump flag and giving the thumbs up. That photo—one Tinsley says she only texted to “a few friends”—now dominates her business’ Yelp page. (Tinsley says she left the rally “long before the agitators stormed the building.”)

Sugar Shack's Yelp page is currently dominated by photos of its owner at the Trump rally in DC that turned violent.
Sugar Shack's Yelp page is currently dominated by photos of its owner at the Trump rally in DC that turned violent. (Yelp)

Sugar Shack is not alone. A Yelp spokesperson told KQED Arts that in the five days that followed Jan. 6, 50 “unusual activity” alerts, all directly related to the violence in Washington, were issued for Yelp business pages. “To be clear,” the spokesperson said via email, “Yelp condemns the violent actions at the Capitol last week. That said, we remove reviews that are not based on a first-hand consumer experience, even in situations where we may agree with views expressed in these reviews.”

In the hours during and after the Capitol invasion, the rush to social media was swift. For many people watching, feelings of horror crept in as they witnessed rioters seemingly getting away with the attack. And the frustration of seeing too few officers either overwhelmed or somehow complicit had to manifest somewhere. In the aftermath, the desire to see justice served fanned out from Twitter and onto the pages of Yelp.

‘She’s a terrorist’

Examples of businesses targeted because their Trump-supporting owners were in Washington that day are not particularly hard to find. In Midland, Texas, the Yelp page of Becky’s Flowers received an influx of nearly eight pages of one-star reviews after its owner, Jenny Cudd, gleefully went live on Facebook from inside the Capitol. At the time of writing, the florist’s Yelp page is disabled pending investigation. One of the last posted reviews states: “Flowers were dying and the colors didn’t match. Also she’s a terrorist.”

The Becky's Flowers Yelp page is currently dominated by a photo that appears to show owner, Jenny Cudd, inside the Capitol Building, draped in a Trump flag.
The Becky's Flowers Yelp page is currently dominated by a photo that appears to show owner, Jenny Cudd, inside the Capitol Building, draped in a Trump flag. (Yelp)

This meting out of Yelp justice is, in an immediate sense, undoubtedly satisfying for those doling it out. But since Yelp’s policy is to “remove reviews that are not based on a first-hand consumer experience” it’s unlikely the recent onslaught of negative comments will do much permanent damage to the businesses’ ratings on the site. And it’s by no means guaranteed that this attention will spell their economic downfall.

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At least two of the businesses targeted by Yelp users in the past week have previously received negative attention for the political views of their owners, yet the businesses remain operational. Riley’s Farm in Oak Glen, California currently has a disabled Yelp page because of an influx of 21 negative reviews. Owner James Patrick Riley, who was present at the Capitol on Jan. 6, is already well-known in his community. Last year, the Claremont Unified School District said they would no longer send field trips to Riley’s Farm because of Riley’s social media outbursts concerning nonbinary gender issues and what he called “BLACK supremacy,” among other things. Coverage of the story even reached the Los Angeles Times, a readership far larger than the Riley’s Farm Yelp page.

Similarly, Nathan Nickerson III, owner of Arnold’s Lobster & Clam Bar in Cape Cod, has come under fire on Yelp for participating in a phone interview with a radio show while he was in Washington, in which he referred to nearby clouds of tear gas as “kind of pretty actually.” Twelve one-star reviews subsequently arrived on his restaurant’s page, prompting it to be disabled. But prior to the recent influx, Arnold’s had already received bad Yelp reviews, written by patrons who objected to political table signs at the restaurant.

Troublingly, the negative Yelp reviews seem to have only further solidified the beliefs of some of the participants in the Jan. 6 riot. The Yelp page of Peninsula Company, a Redwood City property management and real estate business, is still active despite being significantly impacted by reviews relating to the Jan. 6 riot, and a report to Yelp from the owner. Posts there specifically target Maria Rutenburg, an attorney and landlord for the company. Four reviewers have posted screenshots of recent social media posts by Rutenburg, including this one:

That tweet now dominates Peninsula Company’s Yelp profile.

The Yelp page associated with Peninsula Company in Redwood City has been targeted by critics because of links to the invasion of the Capitol Building.
The Yelp page associated with Peninsula Company in Redwood City has been targeted by critics because of links to the invasion of the Capitol Building. (Yelp)

Rutenburg told KQED Arts via email that she did not engage in any “trespassing or violence” at the Capitol, but has since been harassed and threatened online and over the phone. Callers to her office have requested she be fired. “All these vicious attacks on me were provoked and encouraged at the highest level of leadership of the Democratic party,” Rutenburg said. “I will always stand up for this exceptional country to make sure that the light of liberty does not die on my watch. I will not be silenced.”

Boycott or boost?

The pro-Trump community exults in the infamy of negative attention. When those outraged by the attack share images of Trump’s supporters at the Capitol—especially their smiling selfies—it plays directly into their hands. In some ways, we’re doing their work for them. That horned QAnon guy (a conscious choice has been made here to not use his name) solidified his place as a minor right-wing celebrity last week, precisely because his image was shared so widely in mainstream media.

Look no further than Riley. He told the Los Angeles Times that the attention brought by the calls for boycott actually benefitted his business, with private schools and parents organizing trips to the farm in support.

Running to Yelp to go after individuals who participated in the Capitol siege and the pro-Trump rally that preceded it has obviously been a source of catharsis for frustrated Americans who see that day’s events as a threat to our democracy. It’s a means to vent and mock and a clear attempt to kick the pro-Trump crowd where it hurts—their livelihoods. But soon, those bad reviews and the photos that accompany them will likely be scrubbed by Yelp. That they haven’t already probably speaks to the number of accounts under review since Jan. 6.

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Negative Yelp reviews aren’t a perfect solution to the current political turmoil—neither is doxxing, or aiding FBI investigations—but it remains one of the few ways those who felt powerless watching the mob’s actions have had to express their condemnation of those actions. And in combination, these online efforts are a rebuttal to the lack of resistance the rioters met on their way to disrupt the Electoral College.