San Francisco, California – Every morning when Fayes cafe and art space opens its doors in San Francisco’s Mission District, an employee writes a message on the chalkboard perched outside.
Usually the message is funny or an ad for coffee and art. But last month, as the war in Gaza erupted, a different message emerged: “Solidarity with Gaza. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.
Fayes co-owner Michael McConnell was out of town at the time the message was broadcast. But when his phone started buzzing with notifications, he knew something was wrong.
One-star reviews were flooding in on popular websites like Yelp. Some complained about the “dirty looks” of the staff, others about the poor table service.
But McConnell was wary. Fayes has no tables at all. And many of the commenters appeared to be posting from other parts of the United States, as far away as New York and Michigan.
That’s when it dawned on him: Fayes was in the middle of a bombing.
Often used to describe coordinated online efforts to bombard individuals and organizations with reviews, review bombardment can have devastating repercussions, particularly for small businesses with few resources to withstand the onslaught.
Death threats and calls abroad
McConnell is the first to admit that the bombing raids pale in comparison to the destruction that has occurred since the war began on October 7. More than 14,800 Palestinians died as well as 1,200 Israelis.
But as he prepares his coffee after the morning rush, greeting some customers by name, McConnell reflects on his meeting with the woman who he says sparked the online protest.
“She said she didn’t know we would get death threats or calls from Israel and abroad, and she didn’t know we would get Yelp reviews,” McConnell said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t know. What did you think was going to happen?’
McConnell added that it was disheartening that the woman did not think through the consequences of her posts on her company or its employees.
But he remains optimistic. Google and Yelp have taken steps to remove critical posts, and McConnell said he had a “pleasant” conversation with someone who contacted him through Instagram to talk about the board’s message and its implications.
He thinks tourists might be put off by poor online ratings, but his regular customers will continue to gather around the cafe, known for its artwork and wall of rental DVDs.
Melissa Ryan, a consultant specializing in countering extremism and online toxicity, said survey participants are aware of the power of their words.
But she believes the onus should be on companies like Yelp and Google to prevent bullying and crack down on fake reviews.
“It’s up to the platforms to put more energy and resources into this, to think about their policies and enforce them,” Ryan said. “It’s one thing to complain about a waiting service that doesn’t exist. It’s another to call someone a terrorist and make threats.”
Ten blocks from Fayes, Palestinian bakery and restaurant Reem’s also faced protests and bombshell reviews when it opened its first brick-and-mortar store in neighboring Oakland in 2017.
Co-founder Zaynah Hindi said she and chef Reem Assil envisioned their restaurant as a welcoming place, giving it the motto “Arabian street food made with a love of California.”
But less than a week after opening, the backlash began. “Google and Yelp were flooded with one-star reviews,” Hindi recalled as she sat at a table in the bakery’s Mission District neighborhood.
“Some openly said: ‘It’s a terrorist establishment.’ There’s children’s blood in their food, stuff like that. Then there are those who tried to cover it up, like, “I went there and their food was terrible” and listed items that we don’t even serve.
Many commenters took issue with a painting inside the restaurant that depicted Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted in Israel of taking part in a deadly attack but maintains she confessed under torture.
Online reactions, however, included threats against staff members, particularly Assil, the chef and owner, who was pregnant at the time.
“Reem received some very vile messages that I don’t even want to repeat, but they were very violent,” Hindi said.
But Hindi credits the community for keeping the bakery open. When protesters appeared outside the store, supporters appeared and locked arms to create safe passage for Reem’s employees and customers, she said.
Now, with tensions over the war in Gaza running high, Hindi hopes the restaurant can offer a safe space in return, especially to Palestinians grappling with the scale of the violence.
“Over the past few weeks, Reem and I, as Palestinians, were absolutely devastated and felt paralyzed to witness the genocide of our people before our eyes,” Hindi said. “It’s just heartbreaking. »
She added that she and her colleagues have no plans to close their doors, regardless of the backlash.
“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “When other members of our community see this, they say, ‘OK, Reem spoke out on this issue, and I feel like I have the opportunity to do so too.’ »
A powerful electoral bloc
Unfortunately, small business owners often struggle to survive protests without strong community support, said Miriam Zouzounis, commissioner of the San Francisco Office of Small Business.
Zouzounis works as an importer for Terra Sancta Trading Company, which distributes Middle Eastern wines and spirits. She saw first-hand how negative online reactions can sabotage sales.
“We have had accounts that have lost customers for highlighting our Palestinian wine,” she said.
“They are regular wine merchants, they make a presentation text, then an event that was going to work with them is canceled. Things like this have monetary consequences, but it’s pretty common these days. »
Zouzounis suspects that the online attacks are part of a broader effort to distract the debate from the conflict in Gaza.
“The Palestinian community does not have the luxury of wallowing in these minute fights,” she said. “That’s their strategy: to distract us on all these fronts. »
She notes that Arab Americans are increasingly recognized as a powerful voting bloc. She wants to use this influence to push local politicians, like city officials in San Francisco, to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.
“Yes, we are being attacked here, but our people in Palestine are being killed,” she said. “We must therefore ask the city to take a position on a ceasefire request for its constituents. »