WASHINGTON — As if running a restaurant during a pandemic wasn’t tough enough, Christopher Wong also had to contend with a racist troll.
“I will not have my dog eat in this place because they might cook him,” read the Yelp review of Wong’s eatery, the Curry Up Cafe in suburban Los Angeles. “The owner works for the Chinese government.”
Yelp removed the review after Wong and several regular customers complained, but not before it had already been seen by an unknown number of potential customers.
“If one person read that and decided not to come in, that’s someone who could have been a satisfied customer for years,” Wong told The Associated Press.
Last year, Yelp, which is based in San Francisco, removed more than 2,000 racist business reviews before they went online — a nearly 10-fold jump over the year before.
It’s a sharp increase that reflects improved efforts by Yelp to combat racist content and shows how even a site known for reviews of restaurants and repair services can become ensnared in America’s ongoing battle over online civility.
While the content included hate speech targeting Black, Latino and LGBTQ people, too, the largest increase was seen in reviews denigrating Asian Americans and Asian American-owned businesses, according to Yelp, which included the figures in its annual trust and safety report, released Feb. 1.
In 2021, Yelp proactively removed only nine posts that included anti-Asian hate. In 2022, it removed 475.
Yelp first began tracking racial hate speech on its platform in 2020, just as Asian Americans experienced a rise in racially motivated hatred related to COVID-19, which was first identified in China. Then-President Donald Trump added to the controversy, referring to the coronavirus as “kung flu” and “ the Chinese virus.”
In that context, an increase in racist restaurant reviews isn’t surprising, according to University of Michigan marketing professor Justin Huang, author of a recent study that found Asian restaurants saw an 18% drop in customers compared with non-Asian restaurants in the same communities in 2020, equating to more than $7 billion in lost revenue.
“We’ve seen an increase in violent incidents, in random attacks,” Huang said. “Anti-Asian stigmatization during the pandemic really runs the gamut.”
In total, Yelp said, it removed 26,500 business reviews last year that violated its rules about hate speech, threats or lewdness, an overall increase of 1,300 over the year before.
Similar to the increase in anti-Asian content, Yelp proactively removed hundreds of reviews containing anti-LGBTQ hate speech last year. Similar content has thrived on social media, both on fringe sites popular with extremists as well as broad platforms like Twitter, which has experienced a rise in racist posts following its purchase by Elon Musk.
Yelp has fine-tuned its efforts to identify and remove racist content since the pandemic began. In 2020, the platform started allowing businesses to identify that they had a Black, Latino, Asian or LGBTQ owner. As part of the designation, Yelp proactively assesses customer reviews for hate speech before they are posted online.
Noorie Malik, Yelp’s vice president of user operations, said the company is “aggressive” when it comes to taking down “unreliable” reviews, including those that contain hate speech.
“The trust and safety of the Yelp community is a top priority,” Malik wrote in a statement.