Yelp and Data Scrubbing

Popular online review site Yelp found this out the hard way. In 2015, Yelp faced an ethics crisis after users learned that the company accepted money from companies in exchange for “scrubbing” or removing bad reviews from their profile. Although the practice was legal, public trust was violated and many users deleted their accounts and publicly criticized the site. Scrubbing as a public relations practice was legal in digital media, however, the public’s reaction and crisis deemed it unethical. Just months later, Yelp announced it would eliminate scrubbing on its site and created a variety of initiatives aimed to make the site and its revenue sources more transparent.

The digital practice of scrubbing is one example where the public’s reaction deemed it unusable and unethical. Prior to the crisis, public relations experts were unclear if scrubbing was a good or bad use of digital technologies. However, after seeing and measuring the public’s negative opinion of the behavior, experts advised Yelp to stop “scrubbing.” Those experts have now labeled it as an unethical use of digital technology because of its violation of the public trust. Even though a later court case ruled that companies are allowed to “scrub,” today’s public relations experts warn against the practice.

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