In the internet age, we all rely on the feedback of others to help inform our choices. From Google Reviews of restaurants to film rankings on Rotten Tomatoes, there are many platforms specifically designed to facilitate the sharing of both positive and negative experiences to create helpful guides and resources.
Such sites demonstrate how, when people pool their opinions, knowledge, and experience, even the most negative event can become an incredibly positive and important thing. Bad reviews can help us figure out when something is all hype, a scam, or not worth the time or money.
At Resolver we always try and get as much feedback from our users as possible, so that their experiences of complaining can inform other consumers’ choices. We also have systems in place to uphold the principles of transparency, honesty and integrity when it comes to feedback.
However, this is not the case with all platforms. Increasing reliance on online feedback means that there are novel forms of dishonesty and disillusionment beginning to emerge.
The anonymity of the internet, combined with emerging technologies like AI and social trends like influencer culture, muddies the waters of online feedback.
On Amazon, you’ll find millions of fake reviews, mostly created by bots tasked with promoting products which may not even exist. On Instagram, TikTok and other social media platforms there are millions of real people who use their status as influencers to give positive reviews of products for pay – a practice that has led to calls for a crackdown.
In 2017, Oobah Butler went viral by making his shed a top-ranking restaurant on TripAdvisor using fake reviews. This case showed how it has never been harder to verify the accuracy and honesty of reviews.
Across the internet, the need for moderation and fact-checking far surpasses the number of people that are available to do it. And just like fake news, fake feedback or reviews have distorting effects in the “real world”.
Trustpilot has recently been at the center of the conflicts playing out in the scene of online feedback.
They recently raised and won two lawsuits against companies it accused of posting fake reviews. According to this lawsuit, Trustpilot had used specialised software to detect fake reviews by tracking the IP addresses from which the feedback was posted. They accused two firms – Euro Resales and The Dental Exerts – of posting more than 2000 fake testimonials from fictional customers praising them.
There has long been criticism of Trustpilot’s inability to tackle fake reviews. Going to the courts may seem extreme, but as their chief trust officer Carolyn Jameson said: ‘Manipulation of reviews doesn’t just undermine the efforts of those businesses who do seek to improve for their customers – it also has the potential to mislead consumers, leave them shortchanged and even impact their mental health.’
The two firms were ordered to pay thousands of pounds in damages which, a Trustpilot representative said, would be donated to Citizens Advice. After the successful case, both companies now have warnings on their Trustpilot pages.
Not only was Trustpilot successful but this is not the end – there are another seven cases being worked on.
While Trustpilot continues to champion consumer rights and free speech, there is another side to this coin. As reported by The Times, a man was recently ordered to pay libel damages by a business he had posted a negative review of on Trustpilot.
In his review of Summerfield Browne, a London-based law firm, Philip James Waymouth described them as just ‘another scam solicitor’. Summerfield Browne says that this is a false and defamatory description and is seeking libel damages of £25,000.
In the wake of this action, Trustpilot put a warning on Summerfield Browne’s profile. A message at the top of the page stated: ‘Please be aware that this business has taken legal action against a consumer for a review left on this profile.’
Yet this did not deter people who had feedback to share. Publicity around the case generated even more reviews and, eventually, Trustpilot had to temporarily suspend the page.
Speaking about this case, a Trustpilot representative said: ‘If consumers are left fearful of leaving negative reviews, this could result in consumers being misled about the quality of a business and businesses being deprived of valuable feedback from which they can learn, improve and grow. It is much better for businesses to engage, respond and improve upon the feedback they receive, rather than using legal action to silence consumers.’
These legal cases suggest that, in lieu of moderation, the court system is being used as a means to hold people and organisations to account for giving fake reviews.
This may seem like a positive development when it comes to tackling businesses that post fake reviews to cast themselves in a positive light. Yet the use of legal action to silence consumers’ freedom of speech and allow businesses to refuse to engage or respond to bad reviews is a cause for concern.
While the vast majority of companies are responsive to negative feedback, if some are using their financial resources to target outspoken consumers who have left negative reviews of their products and services, this sets a worrying precedent.
It is more important than ever to leave feedback that is clear, constructive, and honest. And platforms like ours have an important role in upholding the transparency, honesty and quality of user feedback.
In the next article in our complaints and well-being series, we will delve deeper into what makes great feedback, how to spot and report fake reviews, and how we can make individual bad experiences become the basis of collectives and communities of consumer champions. We will also be bringing you some further assessment of how Resolver cultivates transparency around consumer issues.
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If you have any comments, questions, or experiences of fake reviews that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch with us at email@example.com