Manitoba Hells Angels target businesses by posting 1-star reviews
Hotel and restaurant policy bans gang colours and paraphernalia
When the president of the Manitoba Nomads, a chapter of the outlaw motorcycle gang the Hells Angels, heard his members had been turned away from a hotel for wearing their trademark logos, he called on them to boycott the business.
They obeyed Dale Kelland in droves.
On March 27, supporters took to social media to express their displeasure with the Marion Hotel. When the small Winnipeg business removed its Facebook page, the bikers and their friends turned their attention to the Marion Street Eatery, the restaurant in the hotel.
Within 24 hours hundreds of people, most of them from outside Canada, posted one-star reviews on the restaurant's Facebook page, reducing its 4.5-star reputation to three stars overnight.
"It's not necessarily new that somebody is boycotting a business by giving them low-star reviews, but a group that is recognized by police for its various criminal exploits, alleged and otherwise, doing so I think is sort of interesting," said Christopher Schneider, a Brandon University associate professor of sociology who has written about policing and social media.
Schneider had never heard of the Hells Angels banding together to attack businesses with bad reviews, but he wasn't entirely surprised that Kelland was able to mobilize support so quickly.
"They're a group that has connections worldwide," he said.
More than a week later, calls for a boycott of the restaurant were renewed, but this time on TripAdvisor. The travel site told CBC News on Monday that they removed the reviews in question from the Marion Street Eatery's listing.
"We refer to this type of fraud as vandalism, which we define as attempts to post fake, negative reviews," Tara Lieberman, a spokesperson for TripAdvisor, wrote in an email. "We fight fraud aggressively and have sophisticated systems and teams in place to detect fraudsters, as well as strong penalties in place to deter them."
A criminal organization
The Hells Angels are an outlaw motorcycle gang with chapters all over the world. Under Manitoba law, they are a criminal organization.
Like many other police services in this country, the Ontario Provincial Police have a group of officers dedicated to investigating their activities. "Outlaw motorcycle gangs continue to be involved in numerous illicit activities. And that includes trafficking, importation, exportation, and distribution of illicit drugs." said Det. Staff Sgt. Anthony Renton, operations manager of the OPP Biker Enforcement Unit.
Renton said the Hells Angels are referred to as one-per-centers, meaning they are among the one per cent of motorcycle riders who are not law-abiding citizens.
"They're known for their regular use of violence, and they've been known to be involved in homicide investigations, intimidation investigations to support their activities," said Renton.
Before attacking the hotel and eatery, Kelland and his supporters targeted the Headingley Sport Shop Ltd./ Indian Motorcycle Winnipeg.
The shop was supposed to be the starting point for the Sadie Grimm motorcycle ride in June. The event is organized by the Manitoba Women's Motorcycle Council to raise money to buy a statue of Grimm, an early 20th century motorcycle rider. In a social media post about the event, organizers said gang colours were not welcome, and that set Kelland off.
Hundreds of people flocked to the store's Facebook page to give one-star reviews, but were later asked to change their rating to five stars after it withdrew from the ride. They did.
Kelland is a full-patch Hells Angel — the highest rank in the gang — and is widely believed to be the president of one of two Manitoba chapters of the gang. He is better known as Dale Donovan.
In 2009 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in a drug trafficking operation and for trying to recruit gang members into a criminal organization.
"I think it's a way of being intimidating without breaking the law. It's a different way to get the result they want," said Toronto journalist and author Peter Edwards. "You know they can do this and … there's no consequence whatsoever to them."
Edwards, who has written 10 books on organized crime, was not surprised that none of the businesses had wanted to talk.
"There was a court case out here where a lot of their souvenirs ... were confiscated and they sued to get them back. And the police's argument, which didn't work, was that their brand is so strong that it's almost like a weapon, it's intimidating," said Edwards. "If someone shows up at a business wearing a Hells Angels vest, that's almost like a threat. So it shows the power of their brand."
Dr. Michele Ybarra, CEO and research director of the California-based Center for Innovative Public Health Research, said, "I wouldn't call it bullying in the sort of traditional sense of the term but certainly this group banded together and sounds like they acted towards these restaurants with the intention of doing harm to their reputation."
Ybarra has published extensively about online harassment and other types of internet victimization. "I think that that unfortunately the internet sort of gives people the potential for a wider voice," said Ybarra.
Schneider of Brandon University said while it's perfectly legal to post a negative review online, it can harm a business. "You want to hit people where it hurts, and where it hurts is in the pocketbook."
The OPP's Renton said while boycotting a business online may not be a crime, the reviews themselves can be.
"If they feel there are actions within those reviews that are criminal in nature, you know, whether they feel they are threatened or intimidated they can always contact the police."
Renton said affected businesses might also consider civil suits to recover any losses they suffer.
Winnipeg social media expert Susie Parker said a string of bad reviews doesn't have to affect a business in the long term.
"There are other people that can jump to your defence. So taking down that page should really be a last resort. And even then you can disable reviews on a Facebook page."
Parker said it's important businesses have a crisis plan, so they know what to do when something like this happens.
"That's something any business should be concerned about in terms of the sheer volume of what you can do when that kind of negativity is coming at you."