Sting of fake online reviewers shows how easily sites are manipulated; let’s save them!

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.

I was an early adpoter or Internet commenting, and reviews, and I still believe in their power. Writing consumers stories for MSNBC.com, it was incredible how quickly I would learn about the next gotcha or hidden fee when comments piled up lambasting corporations. To this day, I never buy any product of substance without checking Amazon reviews from my smartphone to see if there’s anything I’ve overlooked. But if you are among the majority of Internet users who now hate comments because they largely represent the theatre of the absurd, and who doesn’t trust reviews because they seem increasingly manipulated, well, I have no defense. You are right, and I am wrong. At least, for now.

The Wisdom of Crowds, at the moment, is losing to the Cult of the Amateur, and being crushed by mob rules, and it breaks my heart.

New York state’s sting of fake reviews is probably the best thing to happen to crowdsourcing since someone invented the term. Businesses around the city were paying for positive reviews — sometimes $1 apiece — and also getting employees to submit reviews under false identities. Let’s get this out of the way first: Endorsing any product without disclosing a financial relationship is against the law, as is endorsing a product under false pretenses. The law is broken far more often than folks realize, so this serves as a good refreshers. Many bloggers don’t know it’s not ok to get a free camera and then write good things about that camera, for example. Here’s a set of guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission, but the concept isn’t complicated, only the rationalizing is.

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This problem of fake reviews — and bad reviews — goes much deeper, however. I never book a hotel without browsing comments on Expedia and Travelocity. But find me any hotel in the world, and I’ll find you 20 people who say the towels are too scratchy. I hate them all; they get in the way of the important information, like, “it’s NOT really walking distance to downtown, or “A hidden gem is the mom and pop breakfast place across the street.” Likewise, one of my favorite games as a reporter is to see how commenters can make any news story — say, about a baby panda — and turn it into political commentary with a chance to blame Obama or Bush.

But that’s just noise blocking signal. The outright fraud that’s long been rumored to dominate review sites like Yelp is even more disturbing. It’s not hard to manipulate review sites with paid endorsements, and its easy to image review sites manipulating their own results for financial gain.

Like so many things Internet, this a beautiful tool of openness and democracy is in danger of being forever ruined by commercialism, corruption, and banality.

Don’t give up on reviews yet! One of my favorite tricks: I go right to the 3-star reviews in a five-star system. Manipulators and towel victims usually stick to the endpoints, and I find really honest reviews from fair-minded people in the middle.

Meanwhile, more law enforcement stings, please!

 

About Bob Sullivan 1344 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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