A Peek into the Fake Review Marketplace

A personal account of someone who was paid to buy products on Amazon and leave fake reviews.

Fake reviews are one of the problems that everyone knows about, and no one knows what to do about -- so we all try to pretend doesn't exist.

Posted on July 13, 2020 at 6:21 AM • 20 Comments

Comments

jbmartin6July 13, 2020 7:37 AM

I'd like to see some sort of reputation filter for reviewers. Perhaps also a bit of a 'this reviewer seems to have similar tastes to yours' kind of logic.

rrdJuly 13, 2020 7:45 AM

No one can give a person integrity. We must claim it for ourselves.

Being truthful is a virtue that pervades one's life if we choose that path. Not only does being untruthful lead us towards unhappiness, it keeps us from seeing others' lies clearly.

Put another way, if we don't care to represent the truth, how can we see the truth of others? The first step in not falling for others' lies is to stop lying to oneself and others.

My parents' journey towards full-on Trumpism started with their not giving a crap about the enormous crimes of the Catholic Church. The pope simply cannot be taken seriously when he claims to care about people or the teachings of Jesus, seeing as how there are 1200+ Catholic priests still free to rape because their paid-out victims were muzzled by NDAs.

The late Robin Williams said it best, "It's not just a sin, it's a FELONY."

The CC chose to risk our communities' safety to keep their coffers flowing. It's the amoral nature of most large corporations.

Paid fake reviewers are just selling out their integrity for a small price. Our politicians and the CC are doing the same, just for a much larger price, both monetarily and societally.

"For the love of money is the root of all evil." I certainly agree that it's the cause of the vast majority of *systemic* evil. Nazis, Trumps, GOP, Bezos, the CC. Greed is selfish, generosity is selfless and therefore happiness-producing first in the beneficiaries, then in the heart of the giver. It's the nature of the universe, at our top layer of the bubble of potential, where we human beings exist, with the subtle responsibilities of our minds, free wills and tunable sense of morality.

Fake reviewers are merely lying for greed, callous to the unhappiness their behavior causes in others. Such is the nature of all vice: selfish disregard for others. We can never rid the world of such people for it is our nature; the best we can do is to recognize it in others and treat them appropriately.

The place my wife cooked had 4.8/5 in Google Reviews, but would have competing restaurants' owners come in to not only do competition research but to write a poisoned review. She knew exactly who they were (such non-McDonald's-restaurants are a niche market around here) and then knew exactly who wrote the 1-star reviews forthwith.

The solution ended up happening naturally: the excellence of the food led to many, many customers writing honest 5-star reviews, thereby delegating the fakers to the long tail of the outliers.

Ultimately, only honesty can defeat deceit.

There is only truth in the universe, it's just that the truth is that many of our fellows are completely willing to lie through their effing teeth if it gains them anything. Yes, they are free to ignore their consciences, but they are not free from the consequences of their vice-driven actions, however subtle and time displaced karma's retribution.

Here in America we are witnessing the results of having utterly deceitful leaders in the face of an epoch-changing pandemic. I hope enough people realize that their lies have led to thousands upon thousands of deaths; they deserve the full force of the law.

"When a man lies, he murders some part of the world." --Merlin

With systems as large as the US govt or Amazon, that becomes a sad truth with supporting statistics.

BillJuly 13, 2020 8:06 AM

I have given up on reading 5 star reviews on sales sites. I read the low ratings and take them with a grain of salt about the size of salt lick. I saw a one star review claiming "I bought the wrong size."

There is one independent review site; ht tp: // eham[dot]net; that also asks "how long have you owned this product?" Since it is not selling and you know that someone has actually used the item, it is more reliable.

JonJuly 13, 2020 9:13 AM

I look to see if the sell/vendor responds and offers to help with any issues. I've had great results from vendors like that.

It is often clear when the vendor is lying too. Just look at any of the new projector listings with questions answered by the vendor. Lies are common or they don't actually answer the question.

Clive RobinsonJuly 13, 2020 9:53 AM

@ Bruce, ALL,

Fake reviews are one of the problems that everyone knows about, and no one knows what to do about -- so we all try to pretend doesn't exist.

There is another reason we pretend.

If you go and buy something you can be in one of three states about it, unhapy, as you expected, or surprised. In these days we are more likely to be unhappy than surprised. In part because of "marketing 'managing expectations'", or "over egging the pudding". Which is why we have so many jokes about real estate vendors.

Also as an overly general rule people like to hear bad things not good about others, in part because it makes us feel better about ourselves. You only have to listen to gossip or jokes to understand that.

But we also tend to feel agrieved if we think we have been cheated or in otherways feel unhappy about something we've purchased, and thus want to blaim others, not ourselves.

So in reality we are more likely to write bad reviews than good, thus we effectively expect to see bad reviews predominate. The fact it's mostly the other way around makes us feel the review process is "phoney" from begining to end, thus we look for faults in it, and unsurprising often we find something, after all it is just another form of marketing...

Robert PlamondonJuly 13, 2020 12:35 PM

I like keying on the number of reviews. The more reviews, the more interest (of some kind) there is in the product and the less likely the reviews are dominated by shills or trolls.

This seems reliable from companies that don't spark much passion and products that are of little interest except from actual users.

For a product with few reviews, it's hardly worth reading the reviews for the value judgments they contain, since they'll be little better than luck of the draw, but they might contain useful facts.

HumdeeeJuly 13, 2020 2:43 PM

"Fake reviews are one of the problems that everyone knows about, and no one knows what to do about -- so we all try to pretend doesn't exist."

IMO fake reviews are usually easy to spot.

(1) They usually only offer generic responses, "It works, I guess".
(2) They rarely offer any criticism of the product and if they do it is always some very minor thing.
(3) People who post them either have zero other reviews or dozens if not hundred other reviews.

One thing the article did not mention is fake negative reviews, designed to drive down the ratings of the competition.

Sheilagh WongJuly 13, 2020 3:29 PM

Fake product reviews are nothing new. Before the internet, we had something called magazines. When one read a magazine review of a product, any product - but especially cars, it was often an ad, bought and paid for, but masquerading as journalism. There is always going to be lying when there are gullible people with access to money.

DroneJuly 13, 2020 5:59 PM

"...so we all try to pretend [it] doesn't exist."

Speak for yourself, not for everyone else. I KNOW fake reviews are everywhere, and I'm pissed-off about it.

Fortunately, I've been getting pretty good at forming a decent baseline feel for the true quality of a product by slogging through reviews. But that only works when there of lots of reviews to slog through in the first place. So on Amazon for-example, I'll start by searching for something based on the number of reviews or the "Amazon's Choice" criteria.

En passant...July 13, 2020 6:13 PM

Magazine reviews, whatever their field, were (and *possibly* still are) driven and written out of three reasons : mere incompetence ; gifts from advertisers ; and orders (direct or not, but never, never written) from the powers-that-be as to promote a specific advertiser. Yes, there were/are (unfrequently) a fourth reason : real competence, but honest reviewers don't stay employed for a long time, unless they lower their standards of integrity. About 90% of the money comes from announcers, not from readers/buyers : "'nuff said".
The computer press (general or gaming) was among the worst -- I've heard of exactly three honest computer journalists in my country, but one is no longer a journalist, and no one knows exactly where the graves of the other two are. ;-) Yet, it was nothing compared to the feminine press (as told by a press agent who worked for both). The unfrequent honest papers attacked products by non-advertisers or very small biz, as to create a fake image of honesty.
As for products advices from the internet, it's rather easy to seperate the wheat from the chaff provided one knows how to read. As for printed magazines, negative advices should be more numerous than positive ones -- almost no one bothers to write in order to approve a paper (I would say 1 out of 100 but this is optimistic), and in fact few people bother to write in order to denounce a bad paper (in order to estimate the real number of angry readers, one multiplies the number by 10 or 12). Of course, it's easier to leave an advice online than to write a letter to an editor.

MKJuly 13, 2020 6:32 PM

But sometimes the best reviews get lost in the noise. Consider this review from 2000:

Reviewed in the United States on January 25, 2000
PING! The magic duck!
Using deft allegory, the authors have provided an insightful and intuitive explanation of one of Unix's most venerable networking utilities. Even more stunning is that they were clearly working with a very early beta of the program, as their book first appeared in 1933, years (decades!) before the operating system and network infrastructure were finalized.

The book describes networking in terms even a child could understand, choosing to anthropomorphize the underlying packet structure. The ping packet is described as a duck, who, with other packets (more ducks), spends a certain period of time on the host machine (the wise-eyed boat). At the same time each day (I suspect this is scheduled under cron), the little packets (ducks) exit the host (boat) by way of a bridge (a bridge). From the bridge, the packets travel onto the internet (here embodied by the Yangtze River).

The title character -- er, packet, is called Ping. Ping meanders around the river before being received by another host (another boat). He spends a brief time on the other boat, but eventually returns to his original host machine (the wise-eyed boat) somewhat the worse for wear.

If you need a good, high-level overview of the ping utility, this is the book. I can't recommend it for most managers, as the technical aspects may be too overwhelming and the basic concepts too daunting.

Problems With This Book
As good as it is, The Story About Ping is not without its faults. There is no index, and though the ping(8) man pages cover the command line options well enough, some review of them seems to be in order. Likewise, in a book solely about Ping, I would have expected a more detailed overview of the ICMP packet structure.

But even with these problems, The Story About Ping has earned a place on my bookshelf, right between Stevens' Advanced Programming in the Unix Environment, and my dog-eared copy of Dante's seminal work on MS Windows, Inferno. Who can read that passage on the Windows API ("Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous, So that by fixing on its depths my sight -- Nothing whatever I discerned therein."), without shaking their head with deep understanding. But I digress.

Randie R EnigmaJuly 14, 2020 4:49 AM


@MK LMAO. Thanks for cheering up my day!

@Humdeee "IMO fake reviews are usually easy to spot."
Maybe, but I suspect what you really mean is "Some of the reviews I've seen seem obviously fake". This is similar to people who say that phishing emails are easy to spot. Many are, but some may not be. If you assume that you spotted all of the fakes, then of course you will assume that all fakes can be spotted easily. You might be right. But you should at least acknowledge the possibility that some were good enough to get past you.

Deliberately obvious fake reviews are a thing on Amazon - unscrupulous vendors place a series of obviously fake good review for a competitor's product. Amazon then spot the reviews and downgrade the competitor in search rankings, resulting in the unscrupulous vendor's product moving up the list. There was an excellent Planet Money podcast on this a year or so ago.

keinerJuly 14, 2020 9:51 AM

@Bill: exactly my approach, only look for legitimate 1-star reviews and forget (large and by) about the rest... :-)

ThunderbirdJuly 15, 2020 11:42 AM

Double up-plus for "maybe you _didn't_ spot _all_ the fake reviews." I used to be pretty careful about looking at reviews because I assumed I could filter our the fakes and the ones posted by the brainless (another large segment of reviews). But after having a couple reviews rejected by Amazon for "violating our community standards" (apparently by reporting problems with products) I have come to the tentative conclusion that the majority of "reviews" are probably not from ordinary consumers.

If you don't have some trust in the platform to start with, I'm not sure how you can even carry out an experiment to determine how trustworthy reviews are. Perhaps there is a niche for third-party review sites, but it isn't clear how they'd support themselves without falling into the corruption trap. There was a well-known publication in the U.S. that started as a grass-roots review and now is pretty much just the Better Business Bureau.

echoJuly 15, 2020 11:22 PM

@En passant

Most computer game reviews ten out often scoring systems work on a logarithmic scale and of course whenever the latest game of a series is you can gaurantee it is amazing and makes the previous game look silly and so on.

My person scoring system is also a ten out often system allocating three points to story, creative content, and gameplay respectively with one point for personal tilt. I try to work to a measure by which I judge a game based on itself as a self contained entity within its category and have found I am happy with this scoring system. When considering something like restaurant meals I would use a similar scheme so a burger restaurant meal could be awarded exactly the same score as a three star Michellin restaurant meal. Now if you did want to compare across categories such as a Sopwith Camel versus Concorde then you would have to score froma different starting point but this would be declared as the basis for the scoring so make no difference whatsoever to the relative merits of each aeroplane within its own category and within its own time. In some senses this scheme is fairly atomic and like atoms basically comes down to position and relationship and essential function with a self-declared tilt function which I admit is as arbitrary as the current crisis in cosmology and issues like why is there more matter that antimatter.

My scheme is sciencey-ish but not scientific. I'm not so bothered now but from time totime I would test my original scores against "what the market decided" a year or a few years or more later and am fairly satisfied the original scoring held up as judged by sales and other reviews which compared a new product against the earlier scored product.

Knowing the history of a given reviewer or the "look and feel" of a particular body of reviewers if dealing with arbitrary public comment can help you gauge the usefulness of a given review. Sometimes it's worth taking a step back or taking time to dig deeper to reveal what you may have missed at first glance or missed if you had hurried.

A lot of producers are now leaping on the bandwagon of "lock-in" and "products as a service" either directly or indirectly and various techniques and marketing techniques to create a "no other option" environment. The old wait, and wait, and wait until you can buy something when the initial rush has passed as measured by sales department policy (whether it's a few days, six months, or two years) is also under attack as windows of cultural and social relevance are narrowed and moved but the old "do I really need this junk" question still applies. This doesn't mean we need to stay in the days of crinolines and clay pipes but neither do we need to chase every fleck of glitter on the wind.

The brain stores numbers on a logarithmic scale. Yes, our capability to udnerstand numbers is much higher than a dog which is limited to one, handful, and lots but dogs are also very sensitive to fairness and sniffing the wind. This makes me wonder if something appears a little too logaritmic it may well be too good to be true, and I think you can tell from some reviews especially where there is a bias because of management or financial pressure because these reviews tend to leave a lot out or leak caveats, or tells, as the reviewer is struggling to conceal their own bias. I felt this was especially telling with the Huawei affair and the twists and turns of "security" policy which "changed when the facts changed".

I don't believe the current UK (or US) position is anything to do with either security or facts but simply economic gain and a desperate need of a tiny clique of politicians and nod along officials to cover their own weakness and embarassment. This isn't to say there aren't issues and, yes, security and trade and human rights are part of this, but based on quality, functionality, and appearance and the wildcard bonus point of personal tilt I would award the current policy a flat zero.

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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.