The tale of Mike Molson Hart, a toy-seller on Inc.’s marketplace, went viral in Bloomberg in November 2017. His company’s popular disc-shaped plastic building set, called Brain Flakes, had fallen dramatically in popularity among Amazon’s best-selling toys. It came out that Mike’s firm had been “sniped” by rivals overnight. Sniping occurs when one business undermines another by paying individuals to write negative reviews of their products and then marking those reviews as helpful, making them the feedback that customers see most prominently.

In another series of crimes last year, restaurant owners from San Francisco to New York, who had even earned Michelin stars, reported receiving a flood of one-star Google reviews from people who had never dined at their establishments. Additionally, they received emails from a person who asked for a $75 Google Play gift card to delete the negative reviews and threatened to leave more if money was not received.

Ratings race

Ratings are crucial since, according to Statista, 90 per cent of UK shoppers would read online reviews before making a purchase from a specific company.

Even more, customers stated that they frequently steer clear of businesses with a rating below four. Clearly, online reviews can make or break businesses. According to research by e-commerce consulting company Pattern, “an increase of just one star in a rating on Amazon correlates with a 26 percent increase in sales.”

Here come fake reviews, which can be defined as deceptive reviews provided with the intention to mislead consumers in their purchase decision-making, often by reviewers with little or no actual experience with the products or services being reviewed. It might be challenging to distinguish real reviews from false ones. However, 20–30 per cent of all published reviews, excluding those that platforms have actively screened and disapproved, are fake.

The market for fake reviews was examined in a 2022 study published in “Home Marketing Science.” The authors discovered that after businesses stop purchasing fake reviews, their average rating drop and the number of one-star reviews considerably rises, especially for new products, indicating rating manipulation is mostly used by low-quality products.

Machine learning algorithms have advanced significantly in recent years and might be useful for identifying bogus content. To combat fraud and abuse, Amazon invested more than $500 million and hired more than 8,000 personnel in 2019. In 2020, Google reportedly removed 55 million reviews that it believed violated its regulations, and Amazon claims to have actively stopped more than 200 million suspected fraudulent reviews.

Global effort

Global organisations are striving to reduce false internet reviews, including the Federal Trade Commission in the US and the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. In a historic decision by an Italian court in 2018, the owner of Promo Salento, a TripAdvisor reviewer, was found guilty of providing fraudulent reviews to hundreds of hospitality firms in order to boost their visibility on the website.

He was fined €8,000 and given a nine-month prison sentence. The New Deal, an effort by the European Commission to enhance consumer protection, was introduced in 2018.

For businesses like e-commerce players, travel portals, and food delivery platforms that publish consumer reviews online, the Bureau of Indian Standards has published an Indian Standard titled IS 19000:2022, “Online Consumer Reviews – Principles and Requirements for their Collection, Moderation and Publication.” This standard was created as part of the Government of India’s efforts to combat fake reviews. The statement said that “the standard prescribes specific responsibilities for the review author and the review administrator.”

Under the guidelines, platforms will be required to set up review administrators to moderate reviews using automated tools or manually to filter out biases and restrict fraudulent reviews. The structure stipulated that the reviews must include the publication date and star rating.

This is undoubtedly a positive step and ought to be applauded. However, as technology advances, new techniques for disseminating false reviews are certain to appear, given the potential billion-dollar market.

Undoubtedly, the cat-and-mouse game will continue.

The writer is Professor of Statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata