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Social media, public outrage and the danger of censorship

Posted by elisabethneary on July 31, 2015 at 7:55 PM

Like many people around the globe this week, I was personally sad and angry to hear about an illegal poaching incident in Zimbabwe that took the life of a beloved (and monitored and protected) lion. I can’t recall a time that worldwide furor and outrage have reached this level in recent months. Twitter was ablaze and even Jimmy Kimmel angrily weighed in during his" target="_blank">monologue. The incident struck a nerve. The level of emotion in national media coverage, online petitions and social media chatter on this topic is the highest I’ve seen it in years.


As a lifelong animal lover and environmentalist, I myself felt compelled to sign a few petitions and make my voice heard on social media. I certainly wasn’t alone. Facebook and Twitter have been blowing up all week with people around the globe who are voicing outrage; many have included death threats. Though I certainly don’t condone vigilantism, I do believe that the Web can and should serve as a global forum for people to voice their views in a civilized way, to be heard. And sometimes, as I hope will happen in this case, all this “noise” will make a real and lasting difference.


Which brings me to Yelp which, as you know is an online forum, founded in 2004 to “help people find great local businesses like dentists, hair stylists and mechanics.” Yelp’s homepage brags about the fact that they get 83 Million visits per quarter, and that the site boasts over 83 Million reviews. I myself routinely consult Yelp when choosing restaurants, and other service businesses and have posted a few reviews in the name of helping my fellow consumer-citizens make a more informed decision. Yelp also makes it clear that advertisers can never “change or re-order reviews.” Regarding the illegal poaching incident, perpetrated by a dentist in Minneapolis, I posted my opinion on Yelp, as did so many others. It was a cacophony of outrage, and it felt like the very best of social media and freedom of speech.


So it was with great dismay and disgust that I and many others discovered that Yelp was practicing blatant and continuous censorship this week. Many thousands of people took to Yelp—their trusted go-to place to voice their opinion---to voice their anger and disgust about Walter James Palmer, the man named by the Zimbabwe government as the hunter who paid $55,000 to lure the famous lion out of the sanctuary and kill him for “sport.” Throughout the week, members’ reviews were deleted by Yelp employees. One estimate puts the number of reviews that Yelp deleted on this topic at over 20,000. Given that members kept reposting multiple times after being deleted, it could be many multiples of that number. Looking through the reviews, you’ll see that many members doggedly kept reposting their reviews---five, six, seven times----defying Yelp’s censorship and refusing to be silenced.



Yelp has built its brand as a place that consumers can go to hear fellow members’ opinions. Its user-friendly interface enables people to post ratings and share their thoughts about businesses. This week, Yelp had a decision to make---honor the integrity of the social media forum and allow people to voice their opinions, OR use the heavy hand to squelch dialogue. In choosing the latter, Yelp has angered thousands of members on whom they depend for content, and seriously harmed their brand and reputation in the process. Yelp believes in free speech, but then, no-not-really-never-mind?


By repeatedly deleting thousands of members’ reviews, Yelp made itself not only part of the news story, but the enemy of the members who trusted it to be a safe and trusted forum. Yelp’s members rely on it to be a social media platform for an exchange of ideas and opinions---good or bad. By inappropriately inserting itself into the conversation, I believe Yelp has seriously disappointed a passionate chunk of its member base and done some serious damage to its brand.

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