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Why is MIT Technology Review Propagating Misinformation?

Over the weekend, MIT Technology Review ran a story by Tanya Basu that looks at the problem of anti-vaxxers weaponizing online reviews to harm local businesses that are trying to re-open safely by requiring masks or vaccinations. We believe the reporter did a thorough job accurately reporting on this issue, which Yelp takes very seriously. Basu details the extensive measures Yelp takes to protect business owners from these types of reviews. On the other hand, according to her story, Google takes no action to protect businesses and mitigate this malicious review behavior, and the company did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

So why did MIT Technology Review News Editor Niall Firth insist on a misleading headline that singles out Yelp for this problem, while Google is not mentioned in the headline at all? That is a mystery to us. We asked Firth if he believes that blaming Yelp instead of Google in the headline is fair, noting the misalignment with the substance of the story and the misinformation it’s now spreading on social platforms. We will update this post when he responds to that question. 

Based on the headline alone, readers are misled to believe that Yelp allows this type of review vigilantism, despite the story reporting on the ways Yelp actually mitigates this problem, while Google does not. In fact, Yelp was early to implement and enforce extensive trust and safety measures to combat such malicious actions by reviewers. 

Firth needs to look no further than Gizmodo, which also covered this story over the weekend following MIT Technology Review, but with an accurate headline that doesn’t contribute to the misinformation propagated by his own publication. The stories are similar in substance, but Gizmodo’s headline is fair and accurate, and does not mislead.

Both stories detail some of the actions taken by Yelp to combat this type of review activity, with MIT Technology Review noting how Yelp responded to these reviews on the Yelp page of Marshall Smith’s Bar Max in Denver:

Yelp reviews were shut down after the sudden flurry of activity on its page, which the company labels “unusual activity alerts,” a stopgap measure for both the business and Yelp to filter through a flood of reviews and pick out which are spam and which aren’t.

The story goes on to reference other instances in which Yelp placed alerts and removed reviews in response to similar incidents, and notes: 

It’s a practice that Yelp has had to deploy more often over the course of the pandemic: According to Yelp’s 2020 Trust & Safety Report, the company saw a 206% increase over 2019 levels in unusual activity alerts. “Since January 2021, we’ve placed more than 15 unusual activity alerts on business pages related to a business’s stance on covid-19 vaccinations,” said Malik.

With regards to Google reviews, Basu’s MIT Technology Review story reports:

While businesses I spoke to said Yelp worked with them on identifying spam reviews, none of them had any luck with contacting Google’s team. “You would think Google would say, ‘Something is fucked up here,’” Knapp says. “These are IP addresses from overseas. It really undermines the review platform when things like this are allowed to happen.

Google did not respond to multiple requests for comment; however, within a few hours of our call, Knapp said some problematic reviews on Google had cleared up for him. Smith said he had not yet gotten any response from Google about reviews, save for automated responses saying that multiple reviews he had flagged did not qualify getting taken down because “the reviews in question don’t fall under any of the violation categories, according to our policies.

It’s disappointing, and frankly baffling, to see a respectable media organization such as MIT Technology Review purposefully mislead its readers and social media followers with that headline, not to mention the graphic, which is designed to look a lot like Yelp’s five star rating. This is particularly problematic because most people don’t read past the headline (or tweet) – MIT Technology Review itself reported on this as far back as 2006 – and, even more concerning, most will share a story on social platforms without reading it. Sadly, this is how misinformation spreads in the world of click bait headlines and yet another reason why the public’s trust in the media continues to erode.