Review Bombing the Smart City: Contested Political Speech on Local Review Platforms

Authors: Will Payne*, Rutgers University
Topics: Communication, Urban Geography, Geographic Information Science and Systems
Keywords: Digital Geographies, Location-Based Services, Platform Urbanism, Critical GIS
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:20 PM
Room: Virtual 37
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Millions of people rely on location-based services (LBS), local review, and digital mapping platforms to navigate their world and make decisions about where to spend time and money. Like other online forums that rely on unwaged user-generated content, however, LBS are vulnerable to coordinated inauthentic behavior, including techniques like "brigading" made common on sites like Reddit and 4chan (Marwick and Lewis 2017). Using close reading of reviews and site policies and GIS-based analysis of case studies encompassing national and local politics, including the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections, the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this paper examines how 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. 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 the subjects of 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 interventionist 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, online activism, and digitally mediated vernacular geographies.

Abstract Information

This abstract is already part of a session. View the session here.

To access contact information login