TripAdvisor has apologized to a sexual assault survivor after an investigation revealed the website had deleted posts alleging assaults at resorts in Mexico. The belated apology comes seven years after the attack.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel shared the story of Kristie Love, who had posted on TripAdvisor about her rape at an Iberostar resort in Riviera Maya, Mexico. Love said she had her post removed several times.
"Since 2010, when the forum post was removed, our policies and processes have evolved to better provide information like this to other travelers. As a result, when recently brought to our attention, the victim's initial forum post was republished by our staff," TripAdvisor wrote in a statement.
But it wasn't just Love. The several-month-long investigation revealed more than a dozen travelers had their posts on TripAdvisor removed for similar reasons. In fact, three people reported being sexually assaulted or raped at the same resort in Mexico and subsequently had their TripAdvisor posts deleted.
The problem stems from TripAdvisor's content moderation. Other crowdsourced review sites like Yelp and social networks like Facebook and Twitter face similar problems with deciding what violates their policies. Mistakes are frequently made. TripAdvisor also tries to manage any hearsay, but the policy appears to inconsistently enforced.
“To me, it’s like censoring,” Wendy Avery-Swanson told the Journal Sentinel. She had a post about her blacking out from alcohol served at a swim-up bar removed.
TripAdvisor provided several different reasons at the time for why their reviews were removed. One instance claimed the post contained language or was about a topic that was not "family friendly."
According to TripAdvisor, the site does allow for negative reviews and stories like Love's and Avery-Swanson's. Specifically, its interpretation of the family-friendly guidelines has changed since Love's review was removed in 2010.
"We recognized then that our previous guidelines went too far."
"At the time, we had a policy whereby we judged content to be in breach of our guidelines if it did not adhere to family friendly language. More than 7 years ago that meant all language needed to be G-rated. ... We recognized then that our previous guidelines went too far in preventing information like this from being shared," a TripAdvisor spokesperson told Mashable in an email.
"A simple search of TripAdvisor will show numerous reviews from travelers over the last several years who wrote about their first-hand experiences that include matters of robbery or theft, assault and rape," the spokesperson continued.
It's worth noting that TripAdvisor's business model in part relies on users booking through its website. TripAdvisor denied any link between how its content guidelines are applied and its commercial relationships.
TripAdvisor boasts more than 535 million reviews on hotel, airlines, restaurants, and local attractions. Unlike other companies that help with direct booking like Airbnb, airlines, and hotels, TripAdvisor doesn't verify that reviews or forum posts are written by people who actually experienced what they wrote about.
The tech company follows its own publishing guidelines and employs about 300 people to moderate posts and ensure "content integrity," a spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel. TripAdvisor also relies on software to detect fake reviews.
The alleged censorship may fall outside of TripAdvisor's offices, however. As the Journal Sentinel notes, TripAdvisor allows non-employees known as "trusted community members" to remove posts. The company declined to disclose who they are or how they are chosen but said they are "trusted, highly rated users and volunteers drawn from the global travel community."
TripAdvisor added that these privileges can be removed if a member is "overly promoting" their businesses. These volunteers are unable to remove reviews but do moderate forum posts.
After the Journal Sentinel report, TripAdvisor said it is making changes. For example, Love's post has been reinstated. The site is also creating a "badge" notification that will alert users to health, safety, and discrimination issues. This designation will be based on media reports and other credible sources, TripAdvisor said.
"We’re currently going through additional quality assurance testing, and expect it to be launched before the end of the year," a TripAdvisor spokesperson told Mashable.
This post was updated with additional insight from TripAdvisor.
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