Finally, some action from CMA on fake reviews – but is it enough?
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has announced today (8 January 2020) that Facebook and eBay have “signed up to agreements to better identify, investigate and respond to fake and misleading reviews”, after being told by the CMA to address this issue.
According to the CMA, “more than three-quarters of people are influenced by reviews when they shop online, and billions of pounds are spent every year based on write-ups of products or services. Fake and misleading reviews are illegal under consumer protection law.”
However, most of us have stories where someone we know has been offered an item for free in exchange for a review, or a Facebook group which shares such “opportunities”. Trip Advisor and Amazon have their issues too. I even know someone who advises businesses how to grow, who asks colleagues to write favourable reviews for his friend’s restaurant.
Bad News about fake reviews
Fake reviews are bad news for both businesses and their customers. While someone may be thinking they have just helped out a friend of a friend or got something for nothing, the results can be damaging.
Small firms have been put out of business as competitors write fake reviews. In early 2019 Which? undertook expensive research and uncovered thousands of members of fake review groups, fake reviews where people had been paid or given the item for free.
It revealed its findings in July 2019 in the report Bribery, hacking and gaming the system: the tactics used to post fake reviews online. At the time the CMA announced that Facebook and eBay must tackle the issue. Facebook even claimed that the groups had already been removed. However Which? found 20 groups clearly labelled as review groups soon after Facebook’s announcement.
Consumers can’t trust reviews in this growing area of fake reviews.
Indeed, Claire Roach, who runs Daily Deals UK, says that she gets at least 10 messages a day (all from sellers in China) asking for various things. They ask if she can post their deals and if they can send free products in exchange for reviews. She says they are different Facebook accounts every time and that she must have received over 1000 such requests in the last two years. “I welcome a crackdown, as a consumer who has been duped many times by substandard products on Amazon which have good reviews. It’s such a waste of money and has put me off purchasing from there.”
But therein lies another problem, although Facebook groups have increased the problem of fake reviews on Amazon, Amazon does not appear to be part of the CMA’s process thus far. When I asked the CMA for clarity on what part Amazon has played in its work undertaken with Facebook and eBay, a spokesperson said “On background, our work so far has focussed on disrupting the market for the trade of fake reviews on Facebook and eBay. This announcement is part of ongoing work regarding fake online reviews. The next stage will be considering the role that review sites play. The CMA has not yet decided on its scope of work, but we expect to make an announcement about this in the coming months.”
Facebook says that it has so far removed 188 groups and disabled 24 users’ accounts, and eBay has permanently banned 140 users, according to the CMA. But if one was to look just at Ms Roach’s experience, this is perhaps just a drop in the ocean.
Both organisations have pledged to put measures in place that will help prevent this type of content from appearing in the future. This includes Facebook agreeing to introduce more robust systems to detect and remove such content and eBay improving its existing filters to better identify and block listings for the sale or trade of online reviews.
The CMA also highlighted new examples of fake and misleading reviews for sale via Instagram, and reported these to Facebook which operates Instagram. Facebook has committed to investigate the issue. The CMA will be seeking a commitment from Facebook to take action to tackle these further issues. Ms Roach was so sick of receiving messages through Facebook she turned the facility off but has now started to receive them through Instagram!
Andrea Coscelli, CMA Chief Executive, said:
“Fake reviews are really damaging to shoppers and businesses alike. Millions of people base their shopping decisions on reviews, and if these are misleading or untrue, then shoppers could end up being misled into buying something that isn’t right for them – leaving businesses who play by the rules missing out.
We’re pleased that Facebook and eBay are doing the right thing by committing to tackle this problem and helping to keep their sites free from posts selling fake reviews.”
Future for fake reviews
Yes, the CMA is certainly taking action, but I still think a lot more work needs to be done to clean up the world of online reviews. Clearly Amazon. and many other online retailers, should be part of this work!