Only a few hours after White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ tweeted this weekend that the Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Virginia, had refused to serve her, negative reviews began flooding the Red Hen’s Yelp page. First came the comments skewering the restaurant for political bias and underwhelming ambiance, and then — because this is the internet — came the user-uploaded images of swastikas. Within 24 hours, the number of reviews tripled from 5,000 to over 15,000, and by Sunday evening, the restaurant’s aggregate star rating had dropped from close to five stars to just two. To combat the influx of fake reviews, Yelp began monitoring the Red Hen’s page and posted an alert on it that warns users that the restaurant’s rating is currently affected "more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer's personal consumer experience with the business."
Over on Trip Advisor, the backlash was so intense that the site chose to temporarily freeze reviews for the restaurant. On Twitter, the Red Hen — as well as other DC-area restaurants with the same name — are weathering a wave of angry, trolling tweets from conservatives, including the president himself. A small subset of conspiracy theorists have even begun to bandy about reckless, unsubstantiated Pizzagate-style claims that the restaurant is run, in part, by a sex-offender, and they've posted that person’s personal information on Twitter.
None of this behavior is unusual in 2018. Just last week, LinkedIn, Medium, and the programmers' social network GitHub were embroiled in an online campaign to post the personal information of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in response to the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" child separation policy at the border. Similarly, Twitter found itself in the position of censoring links to a national news organization after the publication posted the private phone number of White House adviser, Stephen Miller — the reported architect of the zero tolerance policy.
Though the brigading of review sites and doxxing behavior isn’t exactly new, the speed and coordination is; one consequence of a never-ending information war is that everyone is already well versed in their specific roles. And across the internet, it appears that technology platforms, both big and small, must grapple with the reality that they are now powerful instruments in an increasingly toxic political and cultural battle. After years attempting to dodge notions of bias at all costs, Silicon Valley’s tech platforms are up against a painful reality: They need to expect and prepare for the armies of the culture war and all the uncomfortable policing that inevitably follows.
Policing and intervening isn’t just politically tricky for the platforms, it’s also a tacit admission that Big Tech’s utopian ideologies are deeply flawed in practice. Connecting everyone and everything in an instantly accessible way can have terrible consequences that the tech industry still doesn’t seem to be on top of. Silicon Valley frequently demos a future of seamless integration. It’s a future where cross-referencing your calendar with Yelp, Waze, and Uber creates a service that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an appealing vision, but it is increasingly co-opted by its darker counterpart, in which major technology platforms are daisy-chained together to manipulate, abuse, and harass.
An example of this came Sunday night when conservative activist Charlie Kirk went on Twitter to enlist his 600,000 followers to flood Red Hen’s Yelp page with “another 100,000” negative reviews, thereby moving a targeted harassment campaign from one social network to another. Once on the Yelp page, a number of the reviews link back out to tweets or screenshots of tweets accusing the owners of everything from Nazism to pedophilia; similarly, brigading reviewers have posted Google Street View pictures of the building and the phone numbers and personal information of potential owners and employees. It’s a digital trail that leads from Twitter to Yelp to the business and its employees’ front doors — a seamless integration of technology that makes it easier than ever to spill targeted harassment over from the digital to the physical world.
Yelp had policies in place to protect against trolling, but the reviews are still up. Yelp’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy Luther Lowe told BuzzFeed News that, while employees are actively monitoring the page, “we can't get in and do surgery on the page until the cycle of trolling ends.” Still, there’s a frustrating lag in response time. Given that Yelp has been through the cycle of high-profile troll brigades numerous times in the last decade, it’s perplexing that the company didn’t foresee the impact of Sanders’ tweet and proactively monitor reviews well before they tripled and spilled public information out into the world.
The tech industry likes to talk, with increasing zeal, about the power of machine learning. Yet when it can’t prevent something simple, like a sudden influx of restaurant reviews from people hundreds or thousands of miles away (identifying users’ locations is trivial), it plays into the hands of those who want to wage information war.
Meanwhile, pro-Trump trolls, as well as supporters of Sanders and the administration, are accusing Yelp of “censoring” reviews. Kirk suggested that brigading restaurant reviews was a just consequence of refusing a diner service. “This is the market at work,” he tweeted (Kirk’s rationale knowingly misrepresents Yelp’s role as a site that should reflect customer experience, not the political opinion of any outraged bystander).
Rhetoric like this is why Yelp’s decision to protect its users after it's already been gamed is inevitably viewed as Yelp taking a political stance. The same goes for Twitter, which, after years of taking shit for not enforcing its rules, found itself the target of ire for enforcing its doxxing rules (those opposed argued that Stephen Miller’s political transgressions made him fair game to have his phone number publicly disclosed).
It doesn’t have to be this way. Platforms both big and small have both the ability and responsibility to stop their sites from becoming a battleground in the information war. And it’s not just Facebook and Twitter and Google or even Yelp that need to prepare for Red Hen–style trolling or doxxing campaigns — second-tier networks and even obscure platforms need to start thinking about the information war and how they’ll handle when it comes to them. Because it will.
Angry users bring up the issue of political bias largely because the platforms themselves have so consistently and nervously shied away from anything that could be construed as censorship. But in 2018, ideas of political bias and censorship feel almost irrelevant, given the reality of how these platforms actually operate. The discussion of complete neutrality is now a quaint notion when nearly every discussion that takes place on these networks is weaponized toward a political end. It’s a luxurious philosophical debate that the platforms have little time for. Instead, they should be focused on preventing harm.
That’s because there are real people involved. When a fight breaks out in the physical world, it will spill over into the digital one, where the outrage and toxicity will amplify, before spilling right back into the physical world. Damage control is the reality, and policing and taking a stand are the necessity, whether the companies like it or not.