Are ‘fake’ reviews a growing problem?

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Are 'fake' reviews a growing problem?

There’s a lot of talk currently about ‘fake news’ – usually from people who have a vested interest in the traditional media and who are starting to get uncomfortable as they see newcomers munching away at their audience share. Of course, they don’t put it that way. They like to pontificate about ‘reliability’ and ‘standards’ but the bottom line is they are losing market share and it hurts.

While I agree there is plenty of fake news about, what worries me more in the world of business is the growth of fake, or at least confusing, reviews – and I think it’s something we might want to think about in the MI industry, which is currently falling head over heels in love with ‘social media’.

For most commenters ‘fake reviews’ mean online shopping site ‘user’ reviews which, it is said, are sometimes bought and paid for. Amazon has done a lot to clamp down on these apparently but as we all know, buying anything on Amazon and trying to be guided by its reviewers can be fraught. Ten reviewers tell you the electric toaster you are eyeing-up is a piece of junk, while another ten say it is the best thing since, er, sliced bread. Which group do you believe?

Whether this comes about as a result of really fake reviews is a moot point. My own opinion is that a lot of the negatives come from people feeling free to use online anonymity to sound off in ways they wouldn’t dare in ‘real life’. Whatever the reason, the resulting conflict of opinions isn’t very helpful to anyone, buyer or seller.

Specialist reviewing is different. In the USA it is common practice for manufacturers to insist on seeing a review before it is published – ‘fact checking’ is the euphemism they use – and it’s something British magazines have traditionally refused to do, on the sensible grounds that it would inevitably lead to attempts by the manufacturer to tweak the reviewer’s opinion or, at worst, force a complete rewrite, turning a lukewarm review into a rave. There’s a cultural divide here as deep as the Atlantic and I can’t help thinking that it makes product reviews I read in American magazines pretty suspect.

Are things better in the UK? I believe so, but I’ll admit we’re far from perfect. There is no qualification you can get to be a reviewer. Sometimes they grow into respected and helpful reviewers (Jerry Uwins, sadly now retired, was a good case in point), trusted by readers and manufacturers alike. Sometimes they don’t, but usually, whichever publication is employing them, there is an editor who watches what is being said to make sure it is fair and, as far as possible, accurate. He has to because his job depends on it. This, I hope I don’t need to add, isn’t a personal point – what I’m saying is true of most magazines and most editors. In short, traditional reviewing has checks and balances but these are largely absent in the world of Vlogs, YouTube channels and forums.

If this led to a new generation of fearless reviewers, it could be quite entertaining (older readers might recall Sounds, the weekly that ran from 1970 to 1991!) but, sadly, the opposite seems to be happening. Money and products are changing hands.

Does it matter? I think it does. There is no doubt that reviews sell products but the public isn’t daft and once readers or viewers work out what is going on the game will be well and truly up. In the meantime, of course, the traditional media for reviews will most likely have vanished.

As a result I find myself in an uncomfortable place here – sharing the concerns of ‘professional’ journalists about the proliferation of online media while, at the same time, recognising that ‘professional’ journalists are wide open to the accusation that we are dinosaurs defending our patch of a rapidly dwindling rainforest.

Then again, if reviews are to continue to be a useful sales tool, I’d suggest that it might be wise not to let the traditional approach to reviewing fall away through lack of support. The alternative, as Hillaire Belloc cautioned, might not be so comfortable:

‘And always keep ahold of nurse
For fear of finding something worse.’