Legal fight against fake reviews — why aren’t we moving forward?

source: stock, obviously

Legislators have been trying to address fake reviews appearing on e-commerce websites and opinion agreggators for at least 5 years. Content is being posted by bots, professional spammers, jealous competitors and, somewhere among them, consumers willing to leave the authentic feedback about their experience.
Research shows that more than 80% of us take opinions about a given product into account before making the final purchase. In turn, the British consumer office claims that in the United Kingdom alone, online reviews affect transactions worth £23 billion. Annually.

As we can see, the Internet reviews shape our shopping preferences and determine a market position of entrepreneurs. The conclusion is that the fake reviews distort market competition and therefore might affect demand and supply indicators . As a consequence, price levels can be dramatically manipulated. Unfortunately, the law remains helpless.

The basics of fake reviews

Feedback posted on websites is a well-known, common thing and probably everyone has benefited from it at some point. Especially, if you had ever bought something online, booked a room or picked a restaurant — you were certainly using user reviews. Even I did it two days ago — I trusted a restaurant’s good rating so much that for more than an hour I had patiently waited to get an appetizer. Without complaining! I also regularly read user reviews while researching cosmetics, electronic stuff, books and Airbnb. I was disappointed many times.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the definition of a fake review set out by European Parliament Research Service in a report from 2015 :

Any (positive, neutral or negative) review that is not an actual consumer’s honest and impartial opinion or that does not reflect a consumer’s genuine experience of a product, service or business.

According to the Consumer Focus typology, this is where you can find fake feedback:
- sites with a primary purpose to sell but that include a review feature — for example Amazon,
- opinion aggregators where feedback is the main purpose — like Tripadvisor,
- platforms with a prime purpose to provide information and consumer advice but which also include feedback and forums — like for example websites designed to compare banking services,
- bilateral sites where people buy and sell to one another — like eBay,
- ‘second generation’ third party services where the business model is based on the commercial and reputational value of user generated reviews — like Revoo,
- social media — mainly Facebook and Instagram,
- blogs (hi).

Financial advice from Cracow

Okay, so let’s take a look at one of the above mentioned examples, i.e. a website designed to compare credit loan services. I’ll use anonymously a Polish website to present a general model.

To put it simply, the given website is designed to compile personal loans offered on the market and search for possibly the best deal. The number of positive opinions and stars determines the position of a given loan on the presented list. By clicking on the first of them, you can find out that the Annual Percentage Rate of Charge is 8.83% and the interest rate is set individually, consisting of the WIBOR 3M reference rate and the bank’s margin. You can also check the reviews and discover that Mark from Cracow considered the bank very reliable, michael121 had received the loan quickly and without any unnecessary formalities and Elizabeth D. was very satisfied with the service. And if you don’t work in finance or you aren’t interested in financial markets professionally, the number of stars and opinions of Mark from Cracow will influence your choice similarly to the APRC.

Let’s be honest — the platform analyzing a profitability of loans is a very convenient tool. I would use its services myself if I were creditworthy or if I were born two generations ago and believed that everything can be achieved if you work hard enough.

The fact that worries me the most is that you can manipulate even such a useful tool which is significantly bound to the financial sector. And, as we know, the financial sector is of significant importance to the economy in general.

A drop in the sea — case study

source: vice.com

We could observe the enormous power of fake reviews thanks to Oobah Butler and his hilarious experiment which resulted in Tripadvisor reputational scandal. In a nutshell: the journalist managed to promote his shed as a top London restaurant by manipulating its rating with fake reviews, photos and descriptions. The shed was actually equipped with only one table, and the food wasn’t really served there. Basically, everything posted by Oobah on Tripadvisor was a joke. Of course, the whole thing ended with discreditating Tripadvisor and its rating alghoritms. Moreover, the restaurants’ owners got to know how much they were exposed to manipulation and scam. Although Tripadvisor’s positioning mechanisms have been strengthened since then, and reviews have been subjected to more thorough moderation — Oobah Butler claims that despite the scandal he caused, his account on the site has not yet been deleted.

Despite the fact that the journalist explicitly made fun of the rating technology, some take it seriously: fake feedback has caused dozens of legal actions around the world. A few random examples:
- in 2018 the court in Lecce convicted the owner of a marketing company, Promo Salento, which was selling fake reviews to hundreds of Italian businesses (Tripadvisor joined the proceedings as a civil claimant, it also provided some inside evidence from its own investigation),
- in February, as a result of a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission, a company, which paid an external entity to post fake reviews of a dietary supplement, was punished with a fine amounting $12.8 million;
- in June, the British Competition Market Authority urged Facebook and eBay to take actions against people offering fake reviews for money who advertised their services via these sites;

So, as we can see, if there is anyone willing to question fake reviews before court, lawyers will be ready to lend a hand. Too bad that the legislation itself is always behind.

Law vs. fake feedback

source: boredpanda.com

We have already described what fake reviews are, where we can find them, and how they affect our preferences. We also have mentioned some examples of successful court cases. Let’s take a glance at the law now. As I am not from an English-speaking country, I will spare you details concerning Polish regulation because you obviously don’t care.

Anyway, regardless of the jurisdiction area, regulators usually use two legal tools:
- provisions of the binding law — usually acts related to consumer protection or competition,
- non-binding guidelines issued by competition or consumer protection authorities in which they take a position in regard to fake feedback.

Authorities really try to participate. But imagine this hypothetical situation:

John is the president of a modern company offering courier services with headquarters registered in… let’s say, Czech Republic.. John’s main goal is to conquer the Eastern European market. To improve his ratings on the Internet, he rented a group of professional spammers from Lithuania to post thousands of positive reviews on various websites. Payment for the service was made in BTC, and spammers used TOR (anonymous network) to avoid being caught. Short time afterwards, John’s company began to be at the forefront of virtual rankings, which soon translated into its market position. Competitors noticed the unusual change and, worried about the quality of competition, notified European Commission and Czech competition office.

Let’s be realistic: no one, even the highest and most specialized officials in Europe, can afford full investigation of the circumstances that could constitute evidence in this case. The fact that several demonstrative court cases or regulatory interventions were successful indicates rather that in such cases fake feedback and its harmful effects were obvious and easy to investigate.

Not only do fake reviews win with public authorities but they are also much more powerful than websites’ controlling algorithms and systems. For BigTech meticulous moderation of a word of mouth marketing would create probably an unmeasurable cost, and disabling product reviews or depriving consumers of the possibility to share their opinion on the Internet would be a reputational disaster.

If you ever need a helping hand, you’ll find one at the end of your arm. Maybe.

Despite the fact that I am a lawyer myself, I support the view that the law won’t defeat the Internet, and most of the legislative mumbo jumbo in comparison to technology looks just like a chicken after getting out of the tub. This is even more apparent in regard to fake feedback. If we now assume that presumably the majority of reviews appearing on the Internet are completely fake, it means only one thing — you cannot trust them and every purchase and consumer decision you make should be based on your own research.

However, there are some tools designed to help us verify reviews in the scope of their authenticity. The good example is Fakespot, which enables us to paste a link to a given product, and then analyzes the reviews. The result shows what is the percentage of genuine content. Unfortunately, Fakespot is available only for a small number of platforms (including Amazon, Sephora, Walmart, Steam, Tripadvisor, and Yelp ), and it hardly handles languages other than English.

So, I’ll give you four main commandments related to fake feedback:
1. Pay attention only to reviews which are detailed, reasonable, and look genuine,
2. Should you have time (no one has it), check the reviews’ authors — how often they post, or how long they have been using their account,
3. Do your own research,
4. Do not get excited about the lawmakers’ battle against fake reviews on the Internet. The law will never win.

Digital policy analyst, PhD candidate, public affairs consultant, new media enthusiast, information collector. Catch me on Twitter.