A vengeful Internet goes after dentist who shot Cecil the lion

Thursday , July 30, 2015 - 4:14 PM

Caitlin Dewey
Washington Post

There is no Yelp quite like revenge Yelp — and revenge Yelp is out in full force. It has found the business page for Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist who shot a beloved African lion, and bombarded it with more than 1,500 one-star ratings.

Palmer’s other online accounts weren’t spared either, of course: The Facebook page of River Bluff Dental, where Palmer works, also was flooded with thousands of outraged comments. A dormant YouTube account is plastered with all-caps insults and, more disconcertingly, Palmer’s personal address. At some point Tuesday afternoon, someone also managed to hijack River Bluff’s website and link it out to a fake Twitter page, where pranksters posted pictures of smiling lions — and induced further (in this case, misdirected) outrage.

In each of these instances, Palmer and River Bluff have ways to make the drama go away: They can, for instance, close the YouTube account and demand that Twitter take down @RiverBlufDental under the site’s impersonation policy. They have, as of this writing, deleted their Facebook page.

But Yelp is a very special, controversial case. See, even if business owners don’t want their business to appear on the reviews site, there’s absolutely no way they can remove it. Yelp obtains its business data from third-party services, which means owners never actually opt-in to the site. And while Yelp does encourage businesses to “claim” their page, which gives them some measure of control over its content and the ability to reply to reviews, it never lets them go dark entirely.

“Consumers have the right to talk about what they like” and don’t like, Yelp explains in its FAQ section. “We don’t remove business listings, so your best bet is to engage with your fans and critics alike and hear what they have to say.”

Problems arise, however, when the people doing the talking are not actually customers — say, when reviews are planted by competitors, or when the business is involved in a public scandal like this one. Yelp-trashing has actually become a sort of reflexive protest against certain controversial events: Behold the fates of Amy’s Baking Co., Memories Pizza and the clinic where Joan Rivers died.

Palmer, of course, is not a remotely sympathetic character, and it’s hard to feel too sorry for his flagging reviews. But there are other people working in that dentist’s office, and Yelp ratings tangibly affect their livelihoods, too. (In a statement, Yelp said the false reviews violated its content policies, and it appears that they are gradually being removed.)

Meanwhile, Palmer has bigger problems: Zimbabwean police have said that they’re looking into whether his hunt was criminal. Whatever they decide, of course, he’ll already have been punished by the Internet tribunal.

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