On the first hot weekend of the summer, Richard Knapp put up a sign outside Mother’s Ruin, a bar tucked in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. It had two arrows: one pointing vaccinated people indoors, another pointing unvaccinated people outdoors.
The Instagram post showing the sign (above) quickly went viral among European anti-vaxxers on Reddit. “We started receiving hate mail through the Google portal,” Knapp says, estimating he’d received about a “few dozen” emails: “I’ve been called a Nazi and a communist in the same sentence. People hope that our bar burns down. It’s a name and shame campaign.” It wasn’t just the emails. Soon, his bar started receiving multiple one-star reviews on Yelp and Google Reviews from accounts as far away as Europe.
Spamming review portals with negative ratings is not a new phenomenon. Throughout the pandemic, the tactic has also been deployed to attack bars and restaurants that enforced mask-wearing for safety. As pandemic restrictions have lifted, businesses like Mother’s Ruin have sought to ensure that safety by requiring proof of vaccination using state-sponsored apps like New York’s Excelsior Pass, vaccine passports, or simply flashing vaccine cards at the door — practices that have instigated a second surge of spam reviews.
These spam one-star reviews can be extremely damaging. The default mode for viewing reviews is in chronological order, from newest to oldest, which means a spam attack places fake reviews up top, making the most recent reviews that much more influential if you’re the victim of a concerted campaign.