Ms. Geek Speaks: Social media lynch mobs

The new lynch mobs won’t necessarily be found on the streets or rioting and burning down buildings. The new lynch mobs are on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Yelp.There seems to be no emergency cyberforce to take on these lynch mob who are burning up the reputations and businesses of people online.

While in the past, lynch mobs, particularly in the American South, were a means of oppression–white society maintaining white supremacy over the emancipated slaves, cyber lynch mobs are a means by which any special interest group can bully and intimidate a business or a private citizen. In the past, white lynch mobs were meant to restore “social order” during the 19th century, by policing and murdering people who were not white (including Jews as well as blacks), it was a form of terrorism. Cyber lynch mobs are a way of exacting revenge and dragging people into the court of public opinion.

The dentist, Walter Palmer, who allegedly slaughtered Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe illegally was the subject of much criticism, but also death threats and his dental office has since re-opened (without him). I have written commentary on Cecil, but I have not written about Walter Palmer on his Yelp page. The person who first opened the Walter J Palmer Yelp page apparently was a protester.  I did not see a single valid entry, but I did see two Yelp Elite (Michele B. from Austin, Texas with a August 22 review and Trevor L. from Brooklyn, NY with a August 26 review). Aston L. of San Jose tells Yelp to keep deleting his review, but he will keep reposting. Then there’s that suspicious review from Steve H. or North Hollywood in the Los Angeles area. Do you believe that he travels to Minnesota to get dental work done?

Elite Yelper Michele B. of Austin, TX also left a “review” of River Bluff Dental in Bloomington. This is a clear failure to adhere to the General Guidelines on relevance.

  • Relevance: Please make sure your contributions are relevant and appropriate to the forum. For example, reviews aren’t the place for rants about a business’s employment practices, political ideologies, extraordinary circumstances, or other matters that don’t address the core of the consumer experience.

The Elite Squad requirements are not specifically spelled out, but they do require an adherence to their Terms of Service and Content Guidelines. The first review for the River Bluff Dental was on Feb. 8, 2012 with an update on July 28 of this year. Many of the newer reviews violate the guidelines in terms of relevance and inappropriate content (including hate speech and colorful language). Some of the language is targeting Yelp for removal of reviews.

I have seen this before on a more domestic level where animal lovers lead a campaign against an alleged animal abuser. The person is then sometimes harassed through social media. Some animal groups will encourage people outside of their state to call their local legislators, animal control officers and law enforcement department with phone calls and emails. In the U.S., however, laws regarding animal cruelty and abuse differ from state to state. For this reason, the local people are serving the culture of the area and not the international interests of animal lovers. Separating the local voters from the people outside of the area may be a tiresome task, thus making such protests ineffective and easier to dismiss.

In social media, race is another unifying factor and there are lynch mobs being successfully led by black interests. Cases in point: The McKinney Pool Party incident and the Napa Valley Wine Train.

The McKinney Pool Party was a pool party advertised on social media, including Twitter. The wisdom of advertising a party on Twitter is highly questionable and Twitter seems to have no firm policy against doing so. Twitter does have a policy that “posting another person’s private and confidential information is a violation of Twitter rules.” That includes people’s personal phone numbers and email addresses as well as addresses and locations that “area considered and treated as private.”

In 2012, a teenager left her birthday part invitation open to the public and 3,000 people turned up resulting in a riot that required 600 riot police according to an account by the Daily Mail. The number that showed up at the McKinney Pool Party is not clear, but it seems at least over twenty. The park at 8201 Riverwalk  in McKinney, TX is public. The pool is not. The most one can invite to an approved pool party at the Craig Ranch HOA is 20, however, the tenant did not file for pool usage and the party organizers were renters and not members. Not everyone feels the police action were racially motivated. This incident didn’t make it to Yelp.

More recently, the Napa Valley Wine Train came under fire when 11 women in a predominately black book club were asked three times to tone it down, but eventually were asked to leave. It seems that before they left, they look a photo of the one person they could identify as complaining and this photo was posted on Twitter, Yelp and Facebook. This goes against general policies because the people do not have the permission of this person and one photo asked for people to identify this woman because she incited hate.

Protesters took to Facebook, Twitter and Yelp. Elite Yelpers Valencia W. of Fairfax, Virginia had never been on the train, but commented on August 29. Elite Becky W. of San Jose, Ca had her previous review taken down, so she claims that she is taking a trip down “memory lane” and now wants to talk about her experience a couple of years ago (Aug. 28). She also has to add that she won’t support a business that discriminate although she has no personal experience with this. Elite Marion I of Sacramento, Ca.  had only read about the incident (Aug. 25). Elite Umbert S. of Sonoma, Ca. wrote on Aug. 25 that “This was going to be a really big treat for me at some point,” but then proceeds to talk about what he has read. It is hard to know if you should believe Elite writer Evan R. of New York, NY because from the locations he’s previously reviewed, this would be the only one on the West Coast and he writes, “It was very loud and I had to listen to women talk.” By violating the terms of agreement, you’d think that Yelp would revoke the Elite status of all the people I have listed. Now a week later, all of those Elite reviews except Becky W. and Evan R. (re-worked) have been taken down, but do these people continue to be Elite Yelpers? Both Becky W. and Evan R. continue to be listed as Elite Yelpers.

When people start writing protest letters instead of reviews based on personal experiences, you can flag the entries, however it takes Yelp several days to remove review, 3-4. However, when I noted to Yelp that several Yelpers were not only posting photos that where not their own, but were mean to help identify and harass a person, in this case the one person that the 11 book club members could identify, then the photo can be removed in a matter of hours. Searching on Twitter, the photograph in question has been removed. It might help to contact Yelp’s legal department.

The photo would be two violations:

  • Privacy: Don’t publicize other people’s private information. Please don’t post close-up photos or videos of other patrons without their permission, and please don’t post other people’s full names unless you’re referring to service providers who are commonly identified by or commonly share their own full names.
  • Intellectual property: Don’t swipe content from other sites or users. You’re a smart cookie, so write your own reviews and take your own photos and videos, please!

The Yelpers involved used another person’s photo and some made it clear they where looking to identify this woman for inciting hate. Others added their own commentary.

Facebook, on the other hand, made no move to remove the woman’s photograph from the Napa Valley Wine Train Facebook page when I reported it (I reported the white woman’s photo to the administrator of the Napa Valley Wine Train). Instead Facebook sent me this stock message:

Our update
  • Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the photo you reported for annoying and distasteful humor and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.

    If you think we should take another look, please let us know.

I was only able to report the photo as annoying or uninteresting. The standards of Facebook are quite low when you consider that Twitter and Yelp were more pro-active. This time, I didn’t watch to see how long Twitter required for action, but was surprised when I went to search for the photos being used from Twitter screenshots. There is still two photos of the white woman and despite reporting it as possible targeted harassment, the photo which was posted on Aug. 23, remains up on Aug. 30. So the photo that Yelp and Twitter took down is still up on Facebook.

Facebook does have a special page all about cyber bullying, but its policies likely need to be re-considered in light of the practice of social media lynch mobs. All three, Facebook, Twitter and Yelp need to look at ways of handling situations of social media lynch mobs which are a sort of cyber bullying that could result in cyber terrorism.

When you consider that 11 women in the book club knew there had been complaints against them and took and photo of the woman who complained directly to them and then posted it on social media and that, as can be expected, resulted in that photo being passed online to thousands on Twitter, Yelp and Facebook, the lynch mobs are no longer targeting blacks and oppressing them. The social media lynch mobs can target white people as well.

Before people took to social media, one would write a letter of complaint and send it to the company. With the digital revolution, you don’t even had to find an envelope and a stamp. You can send an email. You wait for a response.

In the case that one is making charges against a venue, one should investigate. While the 11 black women have pointed out there’s another case of Latino women, we do not know if there were also cases of white people also taken off the train. We do not know who complained and by revealing them or even one of them might intimidate future people into being quiet. This is the kind of chilling effect that a social media lynch mob may have.

Since Facebook and Twitter have a constant feed, social media lynch mobs have a more lasting effect on Yelp. If Yelp wants to be taken seriously as a review website, then it does need to exercise the some level of control in these cases. One would want to know whether someone, particularly an elite member, has reposted a negative review in reaction to a non-related media situation, particularly if the first review was taken down and then the reviewer took pains to re-write a negative review to fit within the parameters of Yelp’s review guidelines. This is the difference between professional reviewers who prefer not to be identifiable by a photo of their face and are edited.  This is not to say that print journalism hasn’t attempted to arouse mobs (e.g. yellow perilism in California newspapers), however, newspapers and magazines have more controls and were controlled by certain editorial practices. Yelp is not controlled by editors or publishers, and Yelp, Facebook and Twitter have yet to implement effective safeguards against social media lynch mobs


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