Review Site Trolls Are Targeting Restaurants That Ask for Proof of Vaccination

Businesses are seeing their star ratings drop as "customers" criticize COVID-19 safety measures.

Photo: Thomas Trutschel / Contributor Editorial #:

If you've recently visited Mother's Ruin, a bar in Manhattan, and want to leave a review on Yelp, you're out of luck right now. Any visitor to the bar's Yelp page will see a pop-up advising them that they'll need to "check back at a later date" in order to post their star rating. "This business recently received increased public attention, which often means people come to this page to post their views on the news," the message from Yelp reads. "While we don't take a stand one way or the other when it comes to this incident, we've temporarily disabled the posting of content to this page as we work to investigate the content you see here reflects actual consumer experiences rather than the recent event."

The recent event that has caused everyone to pay attention to Mother's Ruin-and for Internet randos to post their fictitious "experiences" there-was a sign that was placed outside the bar. The unassuming-looking signage read "Vaccinated Only" above an arrow pointing into the joint, and an arrow pointing toward outdoor seating for "Unvaccinated" customers.

According to the MIT Technology Review, a photo of that sign went viral on Reddit, which has led to a significant increase in negative reviews from anti-vaxxers who may not have been to New York City, let alone to the bar itself. "Don't waste your time or money here," one user from Arizona wrote. "I got food poison [sic]," a Californian added. "Segregating over a 'vaccine' although we are much safer staying away from those who have been," another Californian chimed in-and again, there's no indication that any of these reviewers are sharing real, firsthand experiences.

"We're just trying to survive through the most traumatic experience that's ever hit the hospitality industry," owner Richard Knapp told the outlet. "The idea that we are under attack by this community and there is no real vehicle to combat it, that's frustrating."

The MIT Technology Review reports that anti-vaxxers have repeatedly targeted bars and restaurants that have asked patrons to show proof of vaccination, or that use apps like New York state's Excelsior Pass, which provides a digital record of someone's vaccination status or their negative COVID-19 test. Instead of, you know, finding somewhere else to eat, they've spammed places like Mother's Ruin, Denver's Bar Max, Chicago's Moe's Cantina, and others with one-star Yelp and Google reviews. (And the opposite situation has happened in Australia, where some pro-vaxxers have left one-star reviews for a restaurant that allegedly hosted a group of prominent anti-vaccine protesters.)

As a result, these bars and restaurants have had to try to work with Yelp to remove the spam reviews, especially those that are total works of fiction. These online attacks have only gotten more prevalent during the pandemic; Yelp said that it saw a 206 percent increase in "unusual activity alerts" and that it had already had to place 15 unusual activity alerts-like the one that is currently on the Mother's Ruin page-because of a bar or restaurant's views about the COVID-19 vaccine.

These alerts put a temporary hold on Yelp reviews, and they also give Yelp's moderation team a chance to sift through the new comments, and try to determine which ones are legit and which ones aren't. "After we've seen activity dramatically decrease or stop, we will then clean up the page so that only firsthand consumer experiences are reflected," Noorie Malik, Yelp's vice president of user operations said.

Until then, maybe consider scrolling back a few reviews until you see what actual customers were saying about the food a few months ago.

Update 6:22 p.m. ET: This article's headline has been amended to more accurately reflect the review site ratings that have been impacted.

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