As I write this column, the federal government is shut down in part because there has been a communications failure among the men and women who represent us in Washington. Meanwhile average citizens are expressing their frustration with the direction of politics in all sorts of novel ways. Politics is spilling over into the comment sections of commercial webpages.
I recently wrote a report for the Corporate Reform Coalition, Boycotting the President’s Brand, that many voters are using their wallets to express their political preferences by supporting some brands and boycotting others. Some have been more creative in their expression such as the Light Brigade which projects political protests messages on federal buildings and Trump Properties. And one of the more recent frontiers of political protest is the Yelp! review.
The Yelp! reviews today remind me of the time Amazon reviews went political. In 2013, Texas State Senator Wendy Davis conducted a nearly 11-hour talking filibuster against a legislation that made it harder for Texas women to obtain abortions. She did it wearing pink Minuzo Wave Rider running shoes. Amazon’s page for this shoe became flooded with reviews from supportive women including those lauding them for their effectiveness in “kicking legislators out of office” and “excellent support for your arches and morale.”
The legislation Wendy Davis was filibustering was later enacted. But Davis was no fool. A Harvard law graduate, one of her arguments was that the law would not pass constitutional muster. And that’s exactly what happened when the Supreme Court overturned the measure 5–3 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
The activism that supported Wendy Davis’s sneakers, and by extension Wendy Davis, five years ago, has now evolved into snarky Yelp! reviews of Trump properties. The latest spasm was, of course, touched off by Trump’s use of scatological invective to characterize refugees from Haiti and African countries. The fall out from the President’s racialized comments derailed a bipartisan deal that would have addressed the status of Dreamers, among other immigration matters. When the pact fell apart, the government shut down followed in its wake.
The fake Yelp! reviews pick up on the President’s salty language and turn it against his flagship properties. When I last checked in late January 2018, the Yelp! rating for the Trump International Hotel in DC had a 2-star rating down from 4-stars before the kerfuffle. The rating was dragged down by multiple falsified 1-star reviews trashing the hotel. Sample political protest reviews of the hotel include: “The management seems to despise anyone who isn’t white.” Another said, “I tried to make a reservation here, but since my family isn’t from Sweden or Norway, they told me that they don’t want me.” And another ended darkly, “I would have been better off at the Watergate.”
(In fairness, politics seems not to have infected the widely-used tripadvisor.com, in which 90 percent of the reviews rate Trump International Hotel Washington D.C., “excellent” or “very good.”)
The overly political message prompted Yelp! to post the following warning:
Active Cleanup Alert. This business recently made waves in the news, which often means that people come to this page to post their views on the news. While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business.
But snarky Yelp! reviews aside, Trump’s racial statements like his bogus claim that Haitians “all have AIDS…” or that Mexicans are “rapists” are already having an impact in court. For example a judge that put a stop to the president’s ending of the DACA program for qualified Dreamers noted, “[p]laintiffs are entitled to learn of all flaws, if any more there be, lurking in the whole record. One such possibility suggested by plaintiffs …is racial animus. These theories deserve the benefit of the full administrative record.”
And the President’s professed anti-Muslim sentiments have been considered in cases ruling his travel bans of majority Muslim countries out of bounds. Courts that have ruled against the three iterations of these travel bans have offered reasoning as varied as a lack of due process, to exceeding presidential power, to violating existing immigration law. But frequently the opinions also point to the President’s own statements such as in the Hawaii v. Trump decision: “They [the Plaintiffs] note that the President ‘has never renounced or repudiated his calls for a ban on Muslim immigration.’”
In a case in Maryland called the International Refugee Assistance Project v. Trump, the Court noted the statements of candidate Trump in deciding whether his travel ban violated the Establishment Clause which protects freedom of religion: “On December 7, 2015, then-presidential candidate Donald J. Trump posted a ‘Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration’ on his campaign website in which he “call[ed] for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States…” The court then concluded that “Plaintiffs have established a likelihood of irreparable harm arising from their Establishment Clause claim at the time the Proclamation [the travel ban] takes effect.”
We live in odd times. I doubt judges care about the vox populi as expressed in the comment section of webpages. But every now and then, the vox populi points to the correct legal conclusion.
(Photo: Sorane Yamahira / Bellvisuals.com)
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.