One-star ratings and threats: How review-bombing is shaping the Gaza war

Businesses in the US are reporting fiery online backlash to Palestinian products and messages about the war in Gaza.

The coffee shop Fayes in San Francisco’s Mission District faced a review-bombing after an employee wrote a pro-Palestinian message on a chalkboard [Emily Wilson/Al Jazeera]By Emily WilsonPublished On 28 Nov 202328 Nov 2023

San Francisco, California – Every morning, when the coffee shop and art space Fayes 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 a plug for coffee and art. But last month, as the war in Gaza erupted, a different message appeared: “Solidarity with Gaza. From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

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Fayes co-owner Michael McConnell was out of town at the time the message went up. But when his phone started buzzing with notifications, he knew something was wrong.

One-star reviews were pouring in on popular websites like Yelp. Some complained about “dirty looks” from staff, others about bad table service.

But McConnell was suspicious. Fayes does not have tables at all. And a lot 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 review-bombing.

Often used to describe coordinated online efforts to bombard individuals and organisations with criticism, review-bombing can have devastating repercussions, particularly for small businesses with few resources to weather the onslaught.

Death threats and overseas calls

Michael McConnell, co-owner of Fayes, was out of town when his cafe became the target of a review-bombing [Emily Wilson/Al Jazeera]

McConnell is the first to admit that review-bombing pales in comparison to the destruction that has happened since the start of the war on October 7. More than 14,800 Palestinians have died as well as 1,200 Israelis.

But as he brews coffee after the morning rush, greeting some customers by name, McConnell reflects on his encounter with the woman who he believes sparked the online protest.

“She said she wasn’t aware that we would get death threats or calls from Israel and overseas, and she didn’t know that we would get the 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 what her posts would do to his business or its employees.

But he remains optimistic. Google and Yelp have taken action to remove the review-bombing posts, and McConnell said he had a “lovely” conversation with someone who got in touch over Instagram to talk about the chalkboard message and its aftermath.

He figures tourists might be turned off by the bad online ratings, but his regular customers will continue to rally around the coffee shop, known for its artwork and wall of rental DVDs.

Melissa Ryan, a consultant focused on combatting extremism and toxicity online, said review-bombing participants are aware of the power of their words.

But she believes the responsibility should lie with companies like Yelp and Google to prevent bullying and crack down on fake reviews.

“It is on the platforms to be putting more energy and resources into that and to be thinking about their policies and be enforcing them,” Ryan said. “It’s one thing to be complaining about wait service that doesn’t exist. It’s another to call someone a terrorist and make threats.”

Zaynah Hindi said her restaurant Reem’s received ‘violent’ messages after opening its first brick-and-mortar location [Emily Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Surviving with community support

Ten blocks away from Fayes, the Palestinian bakery and restaurant Reem’s likewise faced protest and review-bombing when it opened its first brick-and-mortar location in the nearby city of Oakland in 2017.

Co-founder Zaynah Hindi said she and chef Reem Assil envisioned their restaurant as a welcoming place, branding it with the motto, “Arab street food made with California love.”

But within a week of opening, the backlash began. “Google and Yelp were flooded with one-star reviews,” Hindi recalled as she sat at a table inside the bakery’s Mission District location.

“Some were just blatantly like, ‘This is a terrorist establishment. There’s blood of children in their food,’ stuff like that. Then there are those who tried to disguise it, like, ‘I went there, and their food was terrible,’ and listed products that we don’t actually even serve.”

Co-owner Zaynah Hindi credits community support with keeping her restaurant Reem’s open despite protest [Emily Wilson/Al Jazeera]

Many commenters took issue with a painting inside the restaurant that depicted the Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh, who was convicted in Israel of participating in a deadly bombing but maintains she confessed under torture.

The online reactions, however, included threats against individual staff members, particularly Assil, the chef and owner, who was pregnant at the time.

“Reem received very vile messages that I don’t even want to repeat, but they were very violent,” Hindi explained.

But Hindi credits the community with keeping the bakery open. When protesters appeared outside the store, supporters showed up and linked arms to create safe passage for Reem’s workers and customers, she said.

Now, with tensions over the war in Gaza high, Hindi hopes the restaurant can offer a safe space in return, particularly for Palestinians struggling with the scale of the violence.

“In the last few weeks, Reem and I as Palestinians were absolutely devastated and feeling paralysed to be witnessing the genocide of our people in front of our very eyes,” Hindi said. “That is just heartbreaking.”

She added she and her colleagues have no intention of closing their doors, no matter the backlash.

“We’re not going anywhere,” she said. “When other people in our community see that, they say, ‘OK, Reem’s spoke out on this matter, and I feel like there’s space for me to do that too.’”

Miriam Zouzounis, a commissioner with San Francisco’s Office of Small Business, has seen businesses lose customers after highlighting Palestinian products [File: Jeff Chiu/AP Photo]

A powerful voting bloc

Unfortunately, small business owners often struggle to survive protests without strong community backing, said Miriam Zouzounis, a commissioner with San Francisco’s Office of Small Business.

Zouzounis works as an importer for Terra Sancta Trading Company, which distributes wine and spirits from the Middle East. She has seen firsthand how online backlash can sabotage sales.

“We’ve had accounts that have lost business for highlighting our Palestinian wine,” she said.

“They’re regular wine shops, and they’ll do a blurb, and then an event that was going to work with them cancels. Things like that have monetary fallout, but that’s pretty ubiquitous right now.”

Zouzounis suspects the online attacks are part of a larger effort to shift the conversation away from the conflict in Gaza.

“The Palestinian community doesn’t have the luxury to wallow in these ‘minutiae’ kind of fights,” she said. “That’s their strategy: to keep us distracted on all these fronts.”

She notes Arab Americans are increasingly recognised as a powerful voting bloc. She wants to use that sway to push local politicians, like San Francisco’s city supervisors, to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Yes, we’re under attack here, but our people in Palestine are being killed,” she said. “So we need to ask for the city to take a stand on a ceasefire demand for their constituents.”

Source: Al Jazeera