TripAdvisor. Or, as I like to call it, tourism’s kangaroo court

Even after all these years and rivers of ink, TripAdvisor still can’t see it: it’s being used by people and companies who aren’t exactly – how shall we say this? – honest in their intentions. And that’s not because people will always be nasty: it’s because TripAdvisor won’t examine itself.

Martin Hatchuel
Martin Hatchuel

You’d almost be forgiven for invoking Dunning-Kruger. (Wikipedia: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is.”)

TripAdvisor’s CEO, Steve Kaufer, went on the (apparently uncharacteristic) defensive after The Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin published a piece called, ‘Five stars – says who? My trouble with TripAdvisor,’ on the 8th of July.

“Personally,” wrote Ms O’Loughlin, “I don’t hate TripAdvisor because of the bully-boy tactics or rapaciousness with which it is associated. I don’t hate it because it enables reviews of and tickets for cruel animal attractions, or for its climate of blackmail-enabling entitlement. I hate it because it’s shit.”

Mr. Kaufer disagreed, of course: “I feel very lucky – we have built a business that helps travelers, and continues to grow every year. And it also helps hospitality businesses large and small get more customers, improve their experiences, and in more cases than not, get the property and its team well-deserved recognition. And yet, I still hear some people question whether a model that is built around transparency and democratizing opinion can really work.”

Wait. Did you see that?

“A model that is built around transparency and democratizing opinion.”

That’s exactly what TripAdvisor isn’t – for one glaringly obvious reason: reviewers are allowed to remain anonymous.

TripAdvisor’s reasons

TripAdvisor is frustratingly opaque in many ways, so I turned to its member forums to find out why it sticks so stubbornly to the practice.

According to member MuftiVancouver (oh, the irony!) writing on the thread, ‘Why do you allow anonymous reviews?’ “There are often reports in Support of owners figuring out who the reviewer is and threatening them or offering incentives to them in return for removing their reviews.”

MuftiV goes on to list members’ desire for anonymity (but who gives a damn about the properties, right?), the fact that spouses might find their exes on TripAdvisor, and personal safety as reasons for allowing users to post reviews without identifying themselves. (“People ask questions in the destination forums about up coming holidays, especially when they are planning them. A real name and city would allow anyone to know when the house would be empty.)

Valid concerns, no doubt, but, TripAdvisor’s privacy policy makes no mention of all of this – and it could be argued (if you had the time. We don’t) that its privacy policy protects only its *own* privacy.

Approach the question from the journalist’s point of view, though (and everyone’s a journalist these days), and the question of anonymity takes on a different hue: the Centre for Journalism Ethics points out in its article, Digital Media Ethics, that, “Codes of mainstream media ethics caution journalists to use anonymous sources sparingly and only if certain rules are followed. The codes warn journalists that people may use anonymity to take unfair or untrue ‘potshots’ at other people, for self-interested reasons.”

Right to confrontation

The right to confrontation in the law courts is an old and venerable one.

Speaking during the trail of the Apostle Paul, the procurator of Judea, Porcius Festus, famously recognised the right to confrontation when he said, according to Acts 25:12, that, “It is not the manner of the Romans to deliver any man up to die before the accused has met his accusers face to face, and has been given a chance to defend himself against the charges.”

“The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that ‘in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right… to be confronted with the witnesses against him.’” (Wikipedia)

… And our own South African Constitution (SS. 35 – 36), holds that “Every accused person has a right to a fair trial, which includes the right (a) to be informed of the charge with sufficient detail to answer it; (b) to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defence; (c) to a public trial before an ordinary court.”

And yes, TripAdvisor isn’t a court of law – but since it *is* a court of public opinion (and it is that: even Steve Kaufer recognises that many, many small businesses live or die on its reviews), it needs to end its policy of allowing anonymous reviews.

Marina O’Loughlin missed the point when she wrote that, “A huge number of otherwise sensible people give credence to the aggregated opinion of, at best, unqualified strangers.”

In fact, that body of otherwise sensible people is giving credence to anonymous strangers. And *that’s* what makes TripAdvisor the biggest kangaroo court in tourism.

  • But what do you think about anonymous reviews? TripAdvisor in general? Please share your opinions with the world online at

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I’m Martin Hatchuel, a tourism practitioner with more than 30 years of experience in the sector, and I write and publish This Tourism Week as an informed, insightful look at issues affecting tourism in South Africa. (And I’ve been doing it since August, 2002.)

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Martin Hatchuel
Chartered Public Relations Professional

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