Will We Ever Be Able To Trust Online Reviews?

Image - IStockphoto: Natee127
Image – IStockphoto: Natee127

‘Fake Reviews Are Still Rife’

Three summers ago, in August 2012, one of the hottest stories of the year came from the book-retail sector. The author John Locke had confirmed to The New York Times’ David Streitfeld that he had paid for reviews, lots of them, starting with 50 reviews of his books for $1,000. The story, The Best Book Reviews Money Can Buy, was one of Streitfeld’s best-written articles — nuanced, spun out in deepening stages of revelation. Locke, the first writer credited with selling 1 million ebooks on Amazon, was the author of How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in Five Months. That book had not mentioned buying fake reviews, as Streitfeld deftly pointed out.

Streitfeld would follow that outing with another story the following month, His Biggest Fan Was Himself, about UK author R.J. Ellory’s sock-puppetry in which he wrote glowing reviews of his own work under pseudonyms online and gave one-star reviews to other authors’ work.

News of these and other cases played out over weeks: It might be one thing to suspect that the bathroom scales you wanted to buy had a heavy round of consumer-review interest. It was another thing to have respected authors you had read and appreciated now confessing that they’d lied to their readers.

Charles Seife - Virtual UnrealityOne of the better things relative to these events was the publication of the book Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? (2014, Viking) by New York University journalism professor Charles Seife. As Dwight Garner wrote at the Times, Seife was commissioned by Wired to investigate allegations of bad practice on the part of Jonah Lehrer.

In Virtual Unreality, Seife writes that information online “is all a war over who gets the ability to affect your reality, to shape your social interactions, to manipulate your beliefs and control your behavior.” Fake reviews might have a lot of effect on your behavior. Big star ratings might manipulate your beliefs about a book or its author.

Although Amazon began removing some reviews deemed bogus and announced tougher oversight, that August-September period in 2012 remains a turning point. In books, consumer-written reviews have never again been as readily trusted as they once were.

Last fall, as the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) launched its “Ethical Author” campaign at The FutureBook Conference in London, the third point of the Ethical Author Code directly addressed the problem:

Reviewing and Rating books: I do not review or rate my own or another author’s books in any way that misleads or deceives the reader. I am transparent about my relationships with other authors when reviewing their books.

This past April, Amazon sued several Web sites for, it said, producing and selling fake reviews. Reuters’ report of this was carried in the Times:

Amazon said the bogus reviews undermine a system that the Seattle-based online retailer launched 20 years ago to help shoppers using its website decide what to buy…Amazon said the defendants are misleading customers, and through their activity generating improper profit for themselves and a “handful” of dishonest sellers and manufacturers.

London Calling

Last Friday (19th June), the UK’s Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) released a 71-page “Report on the CMA’s Call for Information” on Online Reviews and Endorsements (pdf). The report marks the launch of an investigation in the UK into online fake reviews. It’s unknown whether this investigation involved Amazon; no specific companies have been named.

Ben Fox Rubin
Ben Fox Rubin

But — unrelated, and also on Friday — Ben Fox Rubin wrote at CNET.com about Amazon rolling out “a big change to its customer reviews system in the US, introducing a new machine-learning platform it developed in-house to surface newer and more helpful reviews.”

A part of the new program, Rubin writes, will involve adjusting the weightings of reviews in Amazon sales-page star ratings. Criteria in those adjustments are to include such factors as how new those reviews are; whether verified Amazon purchasers have written them; and whether other site visitors commend those reviews as helpful.

Rubin interviews Amazon’s Julie Law in consumer retail public relations. She tells him: “The system will learn what reviews are most helpful to customers…and it improves over time,”

And as it’s deployed, Rubin writes, the new approach is expected to be largely undetectable for a while. It’s in the training stage:

The change, which started Friday, will probably go unnoticed at first, as the e-commerce giant’s new platform gradually starts altering the star ratings and top reviews on product pages.

Read More

There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Will We Ever Be Able To Trust Online Reviews?

Originally published by Thought Catalog at www.ThoughtCatalog.com



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