Until Sept. 19, if diners had wanted to see Yelp reviews for Elizabeth, New Jersey restaurant First American Fried Chicken, they would have found just two of them, praising the food, wide selection and late hours. Now, the majority of reviews give the restaurant one star, refer to the owners as "terrorists," talk about "72 virgin bucket specials" and mention — repeatedly — that their chicken is "the bomb."
First American Fried Chicken has gotten 13 pages of new reviews since the news broke that the owner's son, Ahmad Khan Rahami, was the suspect in last weekend's Manhattan and New Jersey bombings.
Before Yelp was founded in 2004, reviewing was the domain of professional critics. In the past decade, the public has discovered social media is not just a way to connect but a great way to air grievances. Once, if a business or business owner did something members of the public didn't like, they had little recourse besides protesting in person or to their local Better Business Bureau. Now, through Yelp, the average person can easily try to put someone out of business. The site is so popular — especially when people are trying to find a place to eat — that too many low reviews can keep hungry patrons from ever considering the restaurant.
Past victims of Yelp attacks have come from both sides of the political spectrum — ranging from a restaurant whose owner was photographed giving Obama a giant "bear hug" to a bakery who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Airing political views through Yelp has become such a popular (and unwelcome) pastime that the site had to create a "cleanup" alert, which was first implemented last year in response to the numerous political attacks. A business undergoing a cleanup will have a large red box at the top of noting that the page is being closely monitored by Yelp staff. The questionable reviews aren't actually removed at first. Instead, they are covered by a pop-up window (users can click out of it) that goes into greater detail about the media-related nature of the cleanup.
"Our goal is to be transparent with the actions we take to protect the quality of content on our site, preserve consumers' freedom of speech, and shield businesses from online harassment," a Yelp spokesperson said. "These media storms are complicated situations that create a dilemma for Yelp, but we've chosen to take a strong and consistent stance on managing them."