A couple of months ago, my father and I stayed at an Airbnb in Moab, Utah. On my way home, I wrote a five-star review of the experience, in which I described the breakfasts (hearty and home-cooked), the rooms (clean and comfortable), the location (quiet yet proximate to downtown), and our hosts (friendly and full of good advice). After much deliberation, I closed out my review with the following line: “At the time of our stay in October 2021, the hosts told us that they were not vaccinated against COVID-19.”
Four hours later, I received a message from Airbnb: My review had been removed because it “didn’t have enough relevant information to help the Airbnb community make informed booking decisions.” When I requested clarification, the customer support representative added: “We do not publish any medical or psychological information about our users.”
I live in fear of being accused of breaking any rule, so my initial response was one of guilt. Our hosts were hardworking people who had been nothing other than kind and helpful to us. They had left us an entirely positive review, even though I’m confident there are plenty of things about me and my dad that are annoying at best. I didn’t want them to believe I was trying to undermine their business or that I was ungrateful for their hospitality.
I felt guilty in part because I was unsure of my own motives for calling out their vaccination status. I’d like to believe that I did so for purely altruistic reasons: to prevent future travelers from being blindsided, as my dad and I were when the topic of vaccines came up midway through our homestay. But was there a judgmental part of me that, on some level, wanted to shame these kind people? To show that they couldn’t just get away with shirking their responsibilities to public health, or simply not leading their lives the way I thought they ought to? Probably. And I don’t like to see that part of myself.
When I told my father that Airbnb had removed my review, his response was far more straightforward than mine. He was confident that I’d been in the right. “We were sharing a kitchen and living room with this family,” he reminded me. “We were unmasked around them. They’re young, I’m sure they think they’d be fine if they got COVID, but what about me? I’m 77. I wish some other reviewer had mentioned that they weren’t vaccinated before we booked this place.”
And that made me wonder: Maybe other travelers had mentioned that their hosts weren’t vaccinated. If my review was removed for this reason, maybe others have been, as well.
Company spokesperson Ben Breit said by email he is not aware of reviews being removed for revealing COVID vaccination information but that it would be appropriate to do so because “revealing another person’s private health status in a public Airbnb review without their knowledge or consent is prohibited per our content policy.” (While Airbnb does have a specific COVID addendum to its content policy in place, it says nothing about revealing another user’s vaccination status.)
Breit added: “We only remove reviews in very limited circumstances, including if they are in clear conflict with our community policies (primarily our content policy or review policy), and this happens rarely. Authentic reviews are critical to the integrity of our platform which means negative reviews stay up unless they clearly violate our policies.”
Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that Airbnb removing negative reviews is common enough. Now, arguably, my review wasn’t negative—it was a statement of fact, not opinion or judgment. But I’ll grant you that the judgment is easily implied: You don’t bother mentioning that someone is unvaccinated if you think that’s a totally OK thing to be. And if we consider any information that might dissuade someone from making a booking to be negative, then sure, my review fits the bill.
Asher Fergusson, who has been studying Airbnb since 2017, said by email: “Based on my research I don’t find it surprising that Airbnb would remove a review for talking about COVID. It’s completely within their normal routine censorship of reviews that fall outside of their community guidelines. I’ve been contacted by countless Airbnb guests who said their review had been censored from the platform.” It’s easy for Airbnb to deem pretty much anything in violation of its review policy if it’s so inclined, because the wording of that policy is so vague.
The customer service rep told me that disclosing a host’s vaccination status violated Airbnb’s “relevancy section.” This baffled me. I could see an argument for it being private information, but irrelevant? This wasn’t one of those Airbnbs with contactless check-in where you never see your host. To those of us who understand that COVID now is largely a pandemic of the unvaccinated, that the vaccinated are nevertheless at risk of breakthrough infection, and that the virus is often transmitted by unmasked people in confined spaces, knowing the vaccination status of anyone whose home you’re sharing seems, in fact, like highly relevant information.
On the other hand, I’ve never discussed with an Airbnb host whether they received flu or MMR vaccines, and if that topic did somehow come up, I wouldn’t feel obliged to mention it in my review. Where should the line be drawn?
According to its review policy, Airbnb can delete any review for being irrelevant if it includes, among other things, “commentary about a person’s social, political, or religious views,” “profanity, name calling, and assumptions about a person’s character or personality,” or “content that refers to circumstances entirely outside of another’s control.”
In the United States in late 2021, getting vaccinated is, thankfully, within one’s control, so that point doesn’t apply. My review hadn’t included any assumptions about the hosts’ character or personality—I stated the fact that they told us they were unvaccinated but offered no theories as to why that might be the case, or what conclusions one could draw from it. So I assume my review was removed for including “commentary about a person’s social, political, or religious views.”
It makes complete sense to police reviews for that sort of commentary. By and large, allowing reviewers to make lifestyle observations like “the hosts were a same-sex couple” or “the host was a single mother” or “the host never got a high school diploma” is just opening the door for discrimination. Similarly, most information about a host’s health is both irrelevant and none of your business. (For example, “The host told me that he takes antidepressants” or “The host was clinically obese.”)
So I understand in general why these policies are in place. I’m just not convinced that COVID vaccination status, when we are in the middle of a COVID pandemic, fits into the same category. Whether you take Lexapro, voted for Trump, or have a mezuzah on your door has no impact on your ability to provide a safe home. Whether or not you got vaccinated against COVID does.
Publicly, Airbnb takes COVID very seriously, which makes sense from a business perspective: If people didn’t believe they were safe in Airbnbs, they wouldn’t stay in them. Airbnb requires hosts to commit to safety and cleaning practices, which include masking and social distancing when required by local authorities, and sanitizing with approved disinfectants. All this provides some protection, but vaccination is better. Sanitizing remote controls and washing hands becomes mere hygiene theater when guests are prevented from sharing with one another the actual risks present in a home.
I don’t envy Airbnb having to decide what sort of information is and is not acceptable to share in a review. Maybe hosts’ vaccination status is useful information about the potential dangers of the household, akin to warning a future traveler that the stairs were steep or the bathtub was slippery. Maybe it is a personal choice that would bias potential customers. Or maybe it is both.
Hosts of course have the right to remain unvaccinated, and they may not want that information made available, either because it could cost them business or because they consider their health choices to be a private issue. I reached out to some short-term-rental hosts who have been particularly vocal about this matter on the community forum and connected with James, who operates an Airbnb in north Minnesota. In a written message, James said: “I think COVID vax status is a personal matter. Everyone who is afraid of COVID should get vaxed, and if they are vaxed they should have nothing to worry about as they are protected supposedly.”
I keep returning to that Moab trip and asking: Did I do the “right” thing in trying to notify future travelers about our hosts’ vaccination status? Did Airbnb do the “right” thing in removing my review? The fact that I’m still not sure makes me suspect this is a situation without a right answer at all. In retrospect, I think the onus was on us long before I started writing my review: If avoiding sharing enclosed space with unvaccinated people was truly a high priority, we should have asked our hosts about this before booking, found a hotel or an Airbnb with contactless check-in, or stayed home. I’ve learned a lesson there. And I’ve also learned a lesson about online reviews: What you read may well be the truth. But it’s not the whole truth.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.