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Monday, September 23, 2013

Reviewing the Review Reviewers

There was a voluminous response to my article Monday morning that said Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, had gone after 19 companies for fake online reviews. His investigation was the largest such action by regulators to date, indicating how the problem is now becoming a law enforcement issue.

Here is how I would sum up the tenor of many of the comments: A good beginning, but in essence a slap on the wrist, with the total amount of fines reaching only $350,000. Regulators should do much more.

The problem is pervasive and getting worse, commentators believe. As Jeremy in New York put it:  “Sadly, this is where ‘free-market capitalism’ is going. It’s not about creating a better product for the consumer, but about tricking consumers into thinking ‘yours’ is so much better than ‘theirs.’”

One reason that good reviews overwhelm the less enthusiastic is that bad ones are hunted down and removed. Consider the experience of RK in Boston:

“I had occasion last year to discover that people who post negative reviews can be harassed until they delete the reviews. After an independent seller I ordered from via Amazon messed up the order in multiple ways and did not respond appropriately to my communications, I posted a straightforward negative review of the seller (my review was just factual, no invective). What followed was a series of emails, texts to my cell phone at 2 AM (!), and emails from the seller, all purporting to be from the employee who had messed up the order but now feared losing his job because his boss would fire him when the boss saw my review. I was contacted many times over multiple days with requests to remove my review from Amazon. Given that this person now had my name, street address, email address, and (somehow?) my phone #, and was claiming he would lose his job because of me, I took the path of least resistance and deleted my review. Yes, I could have stuck to my guns … but the whole thing was starting to feel crepy and I didn’t have time at that point to research how to complain to Amazon.”

Charles H. Green of West Orange, N.J., tied the problem of fake reviews into the bigger issue of flattery, which the Internet makes so easy. “What do you say when an acquaintance asks you and 20 other “friends” to write a positive review of their new book? What about automatic following â€" endemic on Twitter and now messing up LinkedIn? What about Triberr, where dozens of people agree to automatically tweet and like every post every member puts up? A lie by any other name pretty much smells the same. This is the tip of a very large iceberg.”

The article received a bad review or two itself. Polymath in British Columbia wrote: “Although I hate phony reviews and would love to see them abolished, I have a hard time seeing just what law most of them violate. In fact, they seem to be protected by the 1st Amendment. Especially since they typically just use adjectives and other words that can’t be nailed down to a level of true or false. I mean, who’s to say that an employee who posts a review didn’t actually find their employer’s goods or services to be ‘wonderful’ or whatever they say.”

Mr. Schneiderman was clear on this even if the article perhaps was not. Preparing or disseminating a false or deceptive review that a reasonable consumer would believe to be a neutral third-party review is a form of false advertising known as “astroturfing,” and it violates several New York laws. Businesses have a moral and legal responsibility to present things as they are. Otherwise we’re going to be ordering lobster on the menu and we’re going to get hamster.

Polymath wasn’t done with me. He or she added: “I’m sorry to say, I find this sentence from the article utterly hilarious: ‘Fake reviews undermine the credibility of the Internet.’ Just exactly what credibility is the Internet supposed to have?”

Which is the saddest comment of all.