Just after midnight on Dec. 9, 2010, Kristie Love posted on TripAdvisor about the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, a Mexican beach resort between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. In the post's title, Love included three things: the name of the resort, the date of her stay, and the word “Rape.”
After a night out with friends, Love, now 35, wrote of how she went back to her hotel room to find that her electronic key card had been deactivated. On her way back to the lobby, Love stopped to ask for directions from a uniformed guard. That guard then raped her, she said. Later on, the hotel staff would not call the police.
Love's story was published Wednesday as part of a lengthy investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel documenting repeated instances where the travel and restaurant website, which includes reviews and public forums, removed posts warning of alleged rape, assault or other injuries at Mexican resorts.
Love told the Journal Sentinel that a TripAdvisor moderator spotted her post and decided it went against the company's “family friendly” tenets. TripAdvisor refused to show the Journal Sentinel which posts it had deleted, the newspaper reported.
The post went back up online in October — seven years after Love's original submission. But the post was republished chronologically alongside other posts from Dec. 2010 — on the forum's 2,608th page.
Love was hardly alone.
The Journal Sentinel spoke with more than a dozen travelers who said TripAdvisor blocked their warning messages after they traveled to Mexico. In July, the newspaper began investigating the death of a Wisconsin college student in Mexico. That reporting uncovered widespread safety issues, including those tied to tainted alcohol, at Mexican resorts.
Another woman told the Journal Sentinel that in 2011, she had been raped by a security guard in the same resort complex. Four years after that, Jamie Valeri, now 34, said she was sexually assaulted at the same resort after she and her husband suddenly blacked out in broad daylight after only a few drinks.
Valeri told the Journal Sentinel that she too had tried to write a warning message on TripAdvisor. But her post was deemed “hearsay” and was subsequently removed.
Had Love's 2010 post been preserved by TripAdvisor, “maybe we wouldn't have gone or maybe that wouldn't have happened to me,” Valeri told the Journal Sentinel.
On Wednesday, TripAdvisor posted a statement in response to the Journal Sentinel article, which included an apology to Love, “the sexual assault victim reported on in the article, who had her forum post removed seven years ago on TripAdvisor.”
The company said that seven years ago, “all language needed to be G-rated,” but that the policy has since changed "to allow more descriptive reviews on the site about firsthand accounts of serious incidents like rape or assault."
“We will continue to work to improve and evolve our moderation and publishing guidelines as we work to provide the most accurate information in the travel industry available online,” the statement read.
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Journal Sentinel described another instance in which a woman posted on TripAdvisor asking whether she and her husband should vacation in Riviera Maya. They had read about vacationers who blacked out there and were assaulted, robbed, raped or even died of problems with alcohol.
Fifty-five responses came in. Twenty-four of them were positive, four were irrelevant, and the remaining 27 had been taken down, replaced by a TripAdvisor message saying the deleted posts were “determined to be inappropriate by the TripAdvisor community,” were “off-topic” or promoted language or topics that weren't “family friendly.”
The Journal Sentinel investigation identified other policies that the newspaper said “obscure the public's ability to fully evaluate the information on its site.” Mysterious algorithms dictate the hotels and resorts that appear with each customer search, the article aid. TripAdvisor gets commissions from certain hotels when customers book or travel. And some users have “special privileges” that enable them to delete posts.
The Journal Sentinel said TripAdvisor would not disclose how those distinct users are selected, or how many negative reviews — including those warning of serious dangers — are blocked from public viewing.
“Once we determine that content should be removed and violated our guidelines for publishing, that information is no longer publishable or promotable by TripAdvisor,” TripAdvisor spokesman Brian Hoyt told the Journal Sentinel.
TripAdvisor told the Journal Sentinel last week that the company is creating a new “badge” system used to alert travelers to major news stories warning of health and safety concerns at hotels and restaurants.
Speaking of Love's post warning about safety concerns at Iberostar Paraiso Maya, Hoyt told the Journal Sentinel that “it's the kind of information we absolutely want published.” Hoyt also acknowledged that “about a dozen” deleted posts would be republished.
TripAdvisor's scope is vast. According to its website, TripAdvisor has 390 million monthly visitors and 500 million reviews and opinions. It manages 49 sites in 28 different languages and has 96 million members.
Keeping a grip on such a wide user base has also tested TripAdvisor's ability to screen for unverified posts alleging harmful information. The Washington Post has reported on the risk of users being sued for writing negative online reviews. Another article also noted businesses that taint their online profiles by posting their own positive reviews or paying guests to write similar endorsements.
Hoyt told the Journal Sentinel that the company uses an array of screening aids to weed out fake reviews and has about 300 employees dedicated to that line of work.
“We're not an arbiter of fact, but we're trying to provide the most accurate picture,” he said.
Still, some users maintain that their painful stories of rape, assault, blackouts or other injury were wrongfully taken down.
Those include parents of people who died at Mexican resorts and were blocked from warning others on TripAdvisor.