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Yelp, that social media platform where users can find, compare, and review businesses, has announced plans to create a blacklist of companies that have been "associated with egregious, racially-charged actions."
These are not companies that have been tried of the amorphous crime of racism, or any criminal activity with regard to discriminatory practices in employment or service, but those that other users have accused of racism.
Yelp announced "we're announcing a new consumer alert to stand against racism. In the last few months, we've seen 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 does not provide a definition of "egregious, racially-charged actions." Yelp does not use the terms "racism," "racist," or "hate crime" anywhere in their post about this new, incredibly Orwellian plan. Instead, they write in praise of their own influence.
"Communities have always turned to Yelp in reaction to current events, and our User Operations team already places alerts on business pages when we notice an usual uptick in reviews that are based on what someone may have seen in the news, rather than on a first-hand experience.
"Now, when a business gains attention for reports of racist conduct, 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."
In a blog post that further elucidates their plans, Yelp writes that this new plan to label those businesses that have been accused of "egregious, racially-charged actions" is part of its overall attempts to react appropriately to the Black Lives Matter movement.
They note that many users have used the platform to amplify black owned businesses and give a signal-boost to women owned businesses as well. They say that the "new Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert is an extension of our Public Attention Alert that we introduced in response to a rise in social activism surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement." The business page will be labelled with a "Public Attention Alert" that will "warn consumers that the business may be receiving an influx of reviews as a result of increased attention."
"For businesses accused of overtly racist actions, where we can link to a news article, we will escalate our warning with the Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert," they say.
Yelp is, in effect, allowing users to come together and target businesses, and the platform will then amplify, condone, and sanction that targeting of businesses that have been accused of committing "egregious, racially-charged actions." Again, no definition is given for what this means or what constitutes "egregious, racially-charged actions."
Christina Hoff Sommers noted that this kind of targeting, based on accusations, has already done damage to businesses and their owners, such as the incident with Oberlin College in Ohio and a local bakery. And Oberlin was forced to pay damages to the bakery they slandered.
Claire Lehmann, whose Quillette has doggedly tracked the culture wars, including censorship and the danger of false accusations, notes that this policy could be very easy to abuse. All it would take is one dissenting competitor of any business to tar and pixelated feather a business and its owner right into bankruptcy.
In 2018, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman said that Silicon Valley tech companies were focusing too much on their bottom line and not enough on altruistic visions.
"I think we’re waking up to realize a lot of big companies," Stoppelman said, "presumably under pressure to grow and satisfy Wall Street, are focusing more on growth and making money than sticking to some core set of values that are aspirational."
He criticized tech leaders for not implementing corporate values, and perhaps that's what he believes he and Yelp are doing with this new blacklist. "In some ways, Silicon Valley as a whole has lost its purpose," Stoppelman said at the time. "If its purpose really was, 'Hey, we're really trying to have a positive impact,' just focusing on technology and growth might not be enough. You might actually have to make decisions that hurt growth."
To help those businesses that have been labelled as racist, Yelp has created a toolkit for businesses to undertake anti-bias training, under Yelp's auspices. They say that:
"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."
Open to All lists their business partners, who undoubtedly have pledged funding to this enterprise. Yelp is part of the "Leadership Circle." The resources available on the site for businesses to get right with racial equity include a wide range of diversity, equity and inclusion workshops and tool kits, such as "The Equity Lab," the "Empathy Bootcamp," which makes "social science research on empathy and communication actionable in your life and at work." These are not free resources, and the links lead to third party consulting groups in DEI.
Yelp says that "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."
The appeals process for businesses that have been targeted and labeled as being "associated with egregious, racially-charged actions" is not listed. It is unclear what a business would have to do to prove that either they should not have been labelled with the "Business Accused of Racist Behavior Alert." It may be that Yelp will suggest that business undertake their training program in order to lift the label.
But as prominent lawyer Harmeet Dhillon points out, what Yelp has done is create a pathway to defamation lawsuits against themselves:
In 2019, a New Jersey brewery was flooded with false accusations of racism as a result of honouring a contract with a free speech conference.