Great news: Yelp will only rely on "resounding evidence" for labeling businesses as racist

Great news: Yelp will only rely on "resounding evidence" for labeling businesses as racist

And where will Yelp get this “resounding evidence”? Why, only from a “credible news outlet,” of course! The New York Times reports that the popular business-review site now feels that it’s their business to announce which businesses are racist.

One has to wonder what Yelp’s lawyers think of this idea, but I’d bet a lot of other trial attorneys will be licking their chops at the thought:

Yelp, the local search and review site, said it would post alerts on the pages of businesses where customers or employees have reported incidents of racism, the latest attempt by a U.S. company to introduce a tougher response system to confront discrimination after the police killing of George Floyd in May.

The company, which offers a platform for users to rate places like restaurants, small businesses and popular tourist sites, said in a statement Thursday that it would use a “business accused of racist behavior” alert when there was “resounding evidence” that a business owner or employee had taken racist actions, including the use of racist slurs or symbols. This alert will always link to a news article from a “credible media outlet,” Yelp said, without elaborating on which news organizations they considered to be credible or how it defined “resounding evidence.”

Yelp’s announcement raised questions about how the company will enforce the initiative — and how it will ensure that businesses were not falsely associated with racism or the target of defamatory reviews, which can significantly damage a business. Companies like Google and Facebook have also grappled with the difficult issues of moderating users on their online platforms.

This raises all sorts of questions, the first of which is — does Yelp need to label itself as racist? Business Insider could be considered a “credible media outlet,” and they reported last month (behind a paywall) that Yelp had been accused of both racist and sexist behavior. That qualifies for the “racist” label, no?

Obviously, Yelp would dispute these allegations, which is the point. Just because accusations show up in “credible media outlets” doesn’t make them true. In fact, given the media’s track record on credulously reporting what later turn out to be hate-crime hoaxes, it would be reckless and negligent to make that assumption. That makes it idiotic to publicly label businesses as racist based on news stories without seeking out evidence independently before publishing what may well be libel. It’s doubly idiotic to leave potential libel published for 90 days until someone demonstrates that the businesses have mended their ways, presumably by finding a way to prove a negative.

What makes this doubly amazing is that Yelp is deliberately leaving the safe harbor of Section 230 to pull this stunt. If Yelp’s commenters post accusations of racist behavior without foundation and even with malicious false intent, Yelp isn’t legally liable for that commentary. Their users can access those comments easily without Yelp doing anything to negate its Section 230 immunity. Now, however, Yelp itself will be publishing these allegations as part of their business operations. And since they aren’t a “credible media outlet” and these businesses aren’t public entities in the Sullivan sense, their liability for libel is going to be enormous.

This is a very foolish example of corporate pandering to a social panic. Racism exists, of course, but it’s not going to get fixed by amplifying accusations without proof or reason, especially by social-media platforms like Yelp. The phase “get woke, go broke” might end up applying in a very real way if Yelp actually follows through on this plan.

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David Strom 5:21 PM on March 31, 2023