Back in November, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an exposé that revealed how everyone’s favorite hotel review site, TripAdvisor, was whitewashing over assaults that took place at hotels by deleting warnings written by their own users. The Journal Sentinel‘s story featured several women whose hotel horror stories of sexual assaults, blackouts, and robberies were removed from TripAdvisor for allegedly violating the company’s guidelines.
In the wake of the story and the ensuing uproar, TripAdvisor has been hustling to prove to its customers that it cares about their safety. For starters, it promised to allow customers to report assaults and other crimes on the site without worrying that the reviews would be deleted. It also unveiled a system that would alert TripAdvisor visitors about health and safety issues reported at hotels and resorts by placing a warning badge on the pages of those establishments.
But a month and a half after announcing the system, we’ve learned it’s still very much a work in progress. In fact, only four hotels have received the warning badges so far, according to TripAdvisor. That’s four hotels out of the millions reviewed on its site–and three of those resorts are within the same Playa del Carmen region of Mexico. If TripAdvisor’s 455 million users were hoping they could rely solely on its badge system to warn them about potential risks at certain hotels, that’s probably not true.
In actuality, TripAdvisor doesn’t want its users to exclusively rely on its badges. It would rather its users pore through consumer reviews to find the complaints on their own. “Thousands of those firsthand experiences–examples of health, safety, and discrimination issues–are written about within posts that are currently live on our site in review or forum content,” TripAdvisor spokesperson Tara Lieberman wrote in an email to Fast Company.
Relying on users to read pages of reviews to hunt for assault reports seems contrary to TripAdvisor’s initial announcement, when it said it planned to use “credible media reports” to determine whether or not a hotel merited a badge.
On the contrary: A cursory dive on Google unearthed many cases of hotel rapes or assaults involving hotel staff that were reported by credible media outlets in recent months. We sent TripAdvisor three newspaper articles covering assaults that took place at hotels in Austin, New York, and Plymouth, England, and found many more credible news outlets covering resort crimes. None of the hotels in the news stories we found had earned a badge on TripAdvisor, seeming to undermine the purpose of the warning badge.
“Not all businesses receive a notification based on media reports alone,” explained Lieberman, noting that an internal committee looks at each business on a case-by-case basis.
To its credit, TripAdvisor seems to have lived up to its promise of letting users report stories of assaults and robberies on the site–so long as the reports come from a firsthand experience. But that can be tricky (TripAdvisor told the New York Times one review about a sexual assault was pulled because the author mentioned a diagnosis from a doctor, a third party). “Our process entails looking at if there is already information that may be readily available to consumers on TripAdvisor,” wrote Lieberman. “In the case when there are reviews mentioning first hand experiences of health, safety or discrimination issues being reported on in the press, there may not be a need to supplement a business listing with a notification.”
In other words, if you are assaulted at a hotel and write a review about it, TripAdvisor feels that review is sufficient to warn future guests, no badge required. But those stories may not be readily apparent for visitors who aren’t willing to dig through pages and pages of reviews. For instance, TripAdvisor sent a direct link to one review of the Dreams Beach Resort in South Sinai, Egypt, that included a story of alleged sexual assault by an employee. But to find that review without a direct link requires digging through four pages of “terrible” reviews (assuming anyone who was assaulted would give such a rating). Meanwhile, Dreams Beach Resort’s page doesn’t have a warning badge.
Who Does The Work?
According to Lieberman, the company’s badge system is not for individual incidents but a “possible serious, systematic and pervasive health, safety or discrimination issue getting significant media attention elsewhere that is not necessarily apparent in reviews posted on our site.” To make that determination, the company has set up a cross-department committee (Lieberman specified that it does not include anyone from the commerce department) to look at user-generated reports of dangerous activity. When deciding whether a hotel merits a warning badge, the committee takes factors into consideration like whether the crime was reported by credible media, whether it involved a staff member of the hotel, whether it happened recently, and whether any recent TripAdvisor reviews mention the issue.
If they decide that guests do need to be warned about activity at a certain hotel, a badge could go up for up to three months. (“We will continue to evaluate and refine this time period approach as the process matures,” wrote Lieberman.)
However, even that three-month period is somewhat arbitrary. “If the recent reviews on TripAdvisor address the issue, we may decide to take the notification down as anyone reading reviews on the business can make their decision based on the user-generated reviews on our website,” wrote Lieberman. She added the badge may stay up longer if pervasive safety issues are still present and being reported on by the media.
TripAdvisor may also take the notification down early if the hotel can “demonstrate that the reported-on concern is no longer an issue for travelers and that they took appropriate action.”
Punting To Users
While the warning system is clearly still being developed, it seems that TripAdvisor has punted to its users to solve the problem. “Ultimately, we continue to believe the best check-and-balance on the tourism industry is our community of hundreds of millions of global travelers,” wrote Lieberman.
It’s a credo similar to those espoused by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media sites, which often claim it’s up to users to report images or comments that violate the platform’s terms of service. The problem is that more users these days are demanding that platforms be more proactive in protecting consumers–whether it’s taking Twitter to task over serial trolls or pushing Facebook to fix its fake-news problem.
In the case of TripAdvisor, which made a big show about its new warning badge, the site seems to want to have it both ways.
Admittedly, turning a hotel review site into a sexual assault reporting system sounds like tricky work. TripAdvisor likely has no real interest in wading into the messy and labor-intensive business of determining which “first hand experiences of health, safety or discrimination issues” filed by users abide by its guidelines. That’s is a lot to ask of a content site that operates at such a massive scale. However, it opened the door by announcing that it would do just that.
While TripAdvisor’s transparency on the issue is encouraging and admirable, it seems it has more work to do to make the system work both for the company and for its users, especially for those users who believed the company’s initial statement that its badge system would alert users of credible safety risks, instead of asking users to simply Google it.