Bars With Vaccine Requirements Are Being Flooded With Negative Reviews

A protest against vaccine requirements.

Photo: Scott Eisen (Getty Images)

With the weather heating up, hot vax summer is in full swing. Unfortunately, that also means anti-vaxxers are back on their faux-self-righteous bullshit, and theyve reportedly been review-bombing bars that attempt to isolate vaccinated customers from unvaccinated ones.

Thats according to a weekend report from the MIT Technology Review. The outlet spoke with several establishments that claimed to have been spammed with one-star reviews on Yelp and Google Reviews after requiring proof of vaccination or instituting separate policies for unvaccinated patrons, such as limiting them to outdoor seating or to-go orders.

So-called review-bombing is a tactic anti-maskers have used throughout the pandemic, attempting to tank the average review score of businesses that enforce mask-wearing and other safety protocols widely promoted by health experts.

Richard Knapp, who owns a bar called Mothers Ruin in Manhattan, told the Technology Review that the negative comments came pouring in after he put up a sign that stated only vaccinated patrons could dine indoors. Unvaccinated patrons would either have to sit outside or order their food to go, the sign reads. A picture of the sign posted to Instagram on June 4 went viral among European anti-vaxxers on Reddit. Not long after, his bars page on Yelp and Google Reviews was bombarded with one-star reviews from accounts as far away as Europe. And with them came the hate mail.

In an interview with the outlet, Knapp estimated that he had received about a few dozen seething emails so far.

Ive been called a Nazi and a communist in the same sentence, he said. People hope that our bar burns down. Its a name and shame campaign.

Were just trying to survive through the most traumatic experience thats ever hit the hospitality industry, Knapp continued. The idea that we are under attack by this community and there is no real vehicle to combat it, thats frustrating.

Marshall Smith, another bar owner the Technology Review spoke with, said he didnt think twice about asking customers to show their vaccination cards at the door to his Denver-based establishment, Bar Max.

I didnt consider the politics, and perhaps that was naive on my part, he said. He instituted the policy in April, and within days the bars average rating on a five-star scale dropped by more than half a star.

We dont do a lot of advertising because people look at our reviews, Smith said. Weve built six years of good reviews thats been chiseled away over a matter of months.

While businesses can tackle this problem on their own websites by limiting reviews to verified customers, widely used third-party platforms such as Yelp and Google Reviews let anyone rate and review businesses. Those platforms are also usually the first results people see when trying to find a place to eat.

Outliers pull down averages, thats math. Its a pretty effective means of attack for the folks who do this, Smith told the Technology Review.

Yelp has said its existing stopgaps to filter out possible spammers have been working overtime throughout the pandemic. Through its Consumers Alerts program, which the company launched in 2012, Yelp attempts to curb the spread of misinformation by posting an unusual activity alert on a businesss page when its systems detect abnormal activity or concentrated campaigns to mislead customers.

According to the companys 2020 Trust and Safety Report, Yelp saw a 206% year-over-year increase in media-fueled incidents, i.e. unusual activity alerts believed to be from a recent news event or social media post rather than an actual customers experience with a business.

In a press statement, Yelps vice president of user operations Noorie Malik said the company has a team of moderators that investigate pages following unusual fluctuations in traffic.

After weve seen activity dramatically decrease or stop, we will then clean up the page so that only firsthand consumer experiences are reflected, she said in a statement shared with the Technology Review and Gizmodo. So far this year, Yelp has placed more than 15 unusual activity alerts on pages related to a businesss stance on covid-19 vaccinations, she added.

The majority of these alerts have been for restaurants and bars, and theres been an uptick in the last month, Malik said, which she attributed to vaccinations becoming more widely available.

As for Google Reviews, the search giant has always been tight-lipped about the inner workings of its algorithms, so while we know its terms of service prohibits things like spam, it remains unclear exactly how its review filter operates. Unlike Yelp, Google doesnt list alerts on pages with unusual traffic fluctuations, so users have no way of knowing if the reviews theyre seeing are the result of a name-and-shame campaign.

None of the businesses the Technology Review spoke with were able to contact Googles team, and the company didnt respond to multiple requests for comment. (Weve had no luck on that front either so far).

However, Knapp told the outlet that after it tried to contact Google, some problematic reviews disappeared from his businesss Google listing. Smith wasnt so fortunate, saying that he only received automated responses from Google that informed him the multiple reviews he flagged did not fall under any of the violation categories according to its policies. Meanwhile, the one-star reviews still keep coming, he said.

With vaccination rates across the nation rising, its understandable that folks are itching to enjoy the summer weather and socialize in person again. Thats why its so upsetting to see a very vocal (and ignorant) minority continue to politicize health precautions that should be no-brainers at this point. If nearly 600,000 deathsin the U.S. and counting arent enough to convince people, I honestly dont know what will.

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