Until this week, First American Fried Chicken was an obscure family owned restaurant tucked between a beauty salon and a computer store in downtown Elizabeth, New Jersey.
On Yelp, reviewers seemed to like it. “Everything from here is amazing,” said one user in 2013. “You could feed ya whole family w those deals they have,” wrote another.
Then, overnight, it became a symbol of domestic terrorism.
Authorities on Monday arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami, the 28-year-old U.S. citizen and Afghanistan native the FBI says is responsible for the bombings in Manhattan and New Jersey over the weekend.
Rahami’s family has owned the chicken joint since 2002, according to court records, and Rahami lived in the apartment above it.
When Yelp users found out, they mobbed it with bad reviews. As of Tuesday morning, the First American Fried Chicken’s page – which previously had just three reviews – was overrun with hundreds of negative comments, many of them hurling anti-Islamic insults at the restaurant’s owners, and one even calling for “ethnic cleansing.”
Yelp has posted a “cleanup alert” and disclaimer to new visitors saying the business has “made waves in the news” and has disabled new reviews.
“While we don’t take a stand one way or the other when it comes to these news events, we do work to remove both positive and negative posts that appear to be motivated more by the news coverage itself than the reviewer’s personal consumer experience with the business,” the disclaimer read.
The number listed for the restaurant appeared to be disconnected. Police had blocked off the restaurant with police tape Monday, and Google had classified it as “permanently closed.”
Yelp users were unsparing in their comments, with some of them attempting to connect the restaurant itself to the bombings.
“Terrorism cell coverup,” wrote LaDonn W., a user from Jasper, Alabama. “They need to be closed down.”
“If you eat here, you are contributing to terrorism,” wrote Lora P., California-based user with more than 400 friends on the site.
Authorities have searched the property and Rahami’s apartment, but have not said the restaurant is linked to the bombings.
Other users tried to blame Rahami’s family for the explosions in New Jersey and New York.
“We are sick and tired of your terrorist kind wanting to come here and start a ‘business’ and only find out your [sic] actually breeding terrorists such as your son,” California user Daniel P. wrote.
Another user, in a post that has since been deleted, called for an “ethnic cleansing here.” Users also uploaded FBI photos of Rahami to the restaurant’s yelp page, which is littered with other crude jokes and racist remarks too offensive to publish here.
Rahami’s father, who was listed in court records as a cook at the restaurant, told MSNBC in an interview outside the business on Monday that he had “no idea” his son had planned an attack.
Vicious criticism and trolling on Yelp have become par for the course when a business finds itself at the center of a public controversy.
Earlier this month, when a mattress company spoofed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in a commercial for a “Twin Towers sale,” Yelp users bombarded it with criticism and negative reviews, The Washington Post reported. And last year, when Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer shot Cecil the Lion during a hunting trip, more than 1,500 users descended on his office’s page, leaving excoriating comments and 1-star ratings. One reviewer even suggested he commit suicide.
Yelp, for its part, is unlikely to be held liable for what its users write, if recent court rulings are any indicator. But in one closely watched case, a court did order the site to take down defamatory statements.