Weathering the Review Storm: Location-Based Services and Political Discourse

Authors: Will Payne*, University of California - Berkeley
Topics: Communication
Keywords: Location-based services, webmaps, politics
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/9/2020
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Granite B, Hyatt Regency, Third Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Millions of people rely on the informational layer of location-based services (LBS), local review and digital mapping platforms, to understand their social world and make decisions about where to spend their time and money. Like other online forums that rely on user-generated content, however, LBS are vulnerable to coordinated inauthentic behavior, including techniques like "vote brigading" made common on sites like Reddit and 4chan. Using a series of case studies encompassing national and local politics, including the aftermath of the 2016 election and the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, this paper outlines the ways that various location-based services and web mapping platforms use systems combining automated and human judgment to delineate the limits of acceptable political speech in local reviews.

Most notably, Yelp, the leading local review platform in the United States, uses an "Active Cleanup Alert" and locks profile pages in cases where businesses have become enmeshed in national controversy, warning users not to post reviews that don't reflect "firsthand consumer experiences." Kathleen Kuehn has analyzed Yelp's narrow framing of "review democracy" (Kuehn 2013) as a post-political formation of what Jodi Dean calls "communicative capitalism," (Dean 2005) reconfiguring democratic participation in purely economic terms. In this paper, I contrast Yelp's proactive approach to the relatively laissez-faire attitude of competitors like Facebook, Google, and Foursquare, less reliant on local advertising revenue, and consider the consequences of this form of "algorithmic censorship" (Gillespie 2012) for political discourse and online activism.

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