An Innisfil restaurant owner is reeling after being the latest target in an online alleged fake review ambush.
For 10 years, Jennifer McKnight has owned and operated the Harbour House Grill in Lefroy, investing her time, energy and money into creating a hotspot for locals and tourists.
But in the past few weeks, her world has come crashing down. She alleges a disgruntled former employee took to the online platform Reddit to make what she says are false claims about McKnight, which incited an abundance of negative reviews about her and her restaurant on various online platforms like Yelp and Google.
The posts have since been deleted, but the comments in the threads are still visible, with many stating they would leave negative reviews of the restaurant in support of the original poster.
There are now a plethora of new negative reviews from random, first-time users on sites like Yelp and Google.
"Literally in a matter of a couple of hours this morning I went from a five-star restaurant on Google to a two-star," McKnight told InnisfilToday. "There's a Google review saying we have rat feces in our Greek salad. It's just insane."
A review on Yelp from user Ricky J. of Redwood City, United States wrote:
"Would be zero stars if it were possible. Management is running this place into the ground and taking advantage of employees."
Another review on TripAdvisor made this week by new user Bjrorn S wrote:
"Horrible experience, the food tastes bad, the staff are rude and its horribly noisy. Do not recommend. Bad food, rude staff, and the manager smelled horrible of sweat and tried to rush me out before i was finished."
McKnight has dealt with a lot of difficult situations working in the fast-paced, demanding restaurant industry over the years but never one like this.
In the past month, she has had to answer to the labour board, health unit and police over reports coming in from the public about the restaurant, stemming from the online attacks.
She and her husband Tom recently invested $100,000 to renovate the restaurant, rebranded it with a new logo and hosted their 10-year anniversary party in April which was well attended by area dignitaries, locals and tourists.
McKnight has worked in the restaurant industry since she was 12, and has owned and operated many local restaurants and eateries, including a fine dining restaurant in Collingwood and an ice cream shop in town.
McKnight says the whole ordeal has caused her a great deal of emotional and physical stress, to the point where she is ready to walk away from the business altogether. Just last week, she listed the business for sale, but worries the new reviews will deter buyers.
"The amount of real people that are destroying a human being and a business... it's disgusting what can happen. I am blown away from the power that can come from this (fake online reviews)," she said.
McKnight contacted Google to see if they could take the reviews down from their platform but was told they were unable to because they are from legitimate users and not bots.
She has not contacted Reddit or Facebook about having the comments and reviews removed yet, and is waiting on advice from her lawyer, although part of Reddit's content policy states:
Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence. Communities and users that incite violence or that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned" and "Instigating harassment, for example by revealing someone’s personal or confidential information, is not allowed.
The only platform that has disabled reviews for the restaurant is Yelp. A pop-up appears on the restaurant's Yelp page, noting due to increased public attention, it has disabled posting until they work to investigate the situation.
This phenomenon of fake online reviews is nothing new, and is something Kay Dean, a former federal criminal investigator in the United States and fake online review specialist has been working to shed a light on with her site 'Fake Review Watch'.
"It's very frustrating for businesses who are getting targeted with negative, fake reviews. It happens, it's very easy to do, you can weaponize and do harm, it's just another insidious aspect to this whole online review world that I've uncovered," she said.
So why do we, as consumers, turn to online reviews before investing in a product or service, if we can't be sure of its legitimacy?
"I think in our culture, we just want instant everything, and a lot of people can't resist the impulse," said Dean, noting there is so much information on the web, that it's hard to discern authenticity.
Dean says consumers put a lot of trust into online reviews but shouldn't.
"I disregard online reviews altogether as a reliable source of information because too many of them are fake," she said. "And the tech companies (review platforms) are not looking out for consumers and honest businesses."
She says the platforms are slow to act when it comes to removing fake reviews.
"They are not on top of it and the consequence of that is consumers are being duped," she said. "These review platforms are not self-policing, because they don't have to...they are protected against liability because it's user-generated content, they are just a host."
Dean believes more needs to be done by the tech companies and regulators to protect business owners and consumers.
"The information they (online platforms) are giving you is distorted and it's impacting people's decision making," she said. "It's not being regulated, nobody's doing anything, it's a total mess'"
She advises any business owner experiencing this type of activity to document everything with screenshots and refer to the Canadian Competition Act, which is enforced by the Competition Bureau and prohibits anyone from making false or misleading claims to promote a product, service or business interest.
As per the Competition Bureau of Canada, consumer reviews often strike at the heart of a consumer’s buying decision.
"Shoppers trust that these reviews are from real customers, just like them. Posting fake reviews online can damage that trust and seriously erode consumer confidence," it reads on their website.
Earlier this year, the Competition Bureau of Canada issued a consumer alert with tips to help Canadians recognize and reject fake reviews. The report notes a sudden spike or dip in reviews is one way to spot a fake, as well as ones made by new or infrequent users.
McKnight will be speaking with a lawyer later this week for advice on the next steps in the process, but for now, the restaurant remains open for business. She is sharing her story as a warning to others to be wary of online reviews, from both a business and customer standpoint.
"This article will help heal some of the pain, knowing it could be helping somebody else," she said.
Anyone who believes to have come across fake online reviews is encouraged to report them to the Canadian Competition Bureau here.