Fake Reviews in e-commerce

Inspired by “Is it My Opinion?”, “The Ease of Online Shopping” – blogs from fellow students – and a New York Times article, I have decided to touch upon the topic of fake reviews for my last blog.

As mentioned in “The Ease of Online Shopping”, there is a plethora of products you can order online, but another interesting aspect of the digital age (and e-commerce) is that you can assess whether a product, a restaurant or a hotel is good by looking at reviews. No wonder there are so many comparison-shopping websites and apps such as Tripadvisor. However, a big caveat is the fact that too many of comparison-shopping websites and e-commerce companies, like Amazon, allow for virtually anyone to post a review. Therefore, as a classic consequence of Digital Media, we end up with way too much information, a lot of which may be poor information. Nevertheless, online reviews are of extreme importance in e-commerce. According to Pattern, an e-commerce consulting firm, an increase of one star in Amazon’s rating system corresponds to a twenty six percent increase in sales.

Considering the motivations, an academic research paper from this year titled “The Market for Fake Reviews” exposed that it is not surprising we nowadays find ubiquitous fake reviews as a way for online sellers to shape their reputations on online platforms. The paper further explains that online sellers recruit people on Facebook groups to write fake reviews. This is clear from the fact that once the Facebook promotion has ended, the percentage of one-star reviews increases significantly. Thus, consumers are deceived into buying products that are actually not of the expected quality. Furthermore, Amazon seems to be deleting a big chunk of the (fake) reviews online sellers paid for. However, the speed at which Amazon does this is not as fast, allowing consumers to be influenced by those fake reviews. This is where I got inspired by “Is it My Opinion?”, which made me think about how digital media, be it YouTube videos, Spotify algorithms or, in this case, fake reviews in e-commerce influence us. The authors mention at the end that companies continue to perfect their platforms’ manipulation strategies, and that because of its quick development, it is increasingly difficult to detect and eliminate fake reviews.

Another interesting case is the settlement between Sunday Riley Skincare and the Federal Trade Commission from last year. Sunday Riley Skincare sells its products on Sephora and its managers had been writing fake reviews themselves on Sephora and encouraging fellow employees to do so too. At first, Sephora removed the fake employee-written reviews. Then, suspecting that Sephora had found out they were faking the reviews because of their IP address, one of the company’s managers allegedly obtained an Express VPN account to hide their online activity (I guess all of those Express VPN ads have worked). Below you can read some snippets from emails Ms. Riley, the owner herself, wrote to her employees:

  • “Make sure to NOT compare the product to other products, to not use foul language, and to be very enthusiastic without looking like a plant.”
  • “Always leave 5-star reviews.”
  • “Leave a review for a different product every day so you build up history.”
  • “If you see a negative review – DISLIKE it. After enough dislikes, it is removed. This directly translates into sales!”

Needless to say, there are many aspects of e-commerce that have to be improved, not only regarding fake reviews but also the overwork of couriers, for example – a topic that we discussed in a previous episode of the Clowncast.

Lastly, if you are interested, there is a YouTube channel, Fake Review Watch, which is “dedicated to exposing the massive corruption of online consumer review platforms with fake reviews and the culpability of big tech companies in facilitating and covering up this fraud.”

I hope you enjoyed reading this article as I enjoyed writing it!