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Can you trust online reviews? The impact of competitors using mis- and disinformation on businesses.

Word to mouth advertising has always been one of the most promising strategies. Where before consumers used to ask their friends and family for advice in the past, they now rely heavily on online reviews from other users - people they usually don’t know. Online reviews have become a significant source of information to determine the validity and reliability of a product or service. Around 60% of consumers rely on online reviews for their decision-making when purchasing products and services. But what if such reviews are false or even manipulated by competitors? The heavy reliance on online reviews makes users of online platforms vulnerable to false information and are estimated to cost businesses billions a year. 

Manipulating online reviews is a form of disinformation, a deliberate attempt to discredit an entity and can be circulated through a range of methods and channels designed to misguide people. One example is to pay individuals to write false negative reviews. Some companies offer incentives for consumers to write positive reviews such as discounts or often only pick the positive reviews to display on their websites in what is known as “cherry-picking”. From a self-reporting study of e-commerce websites such as Trip Advisor and Yelp, it was found that around 4% of online reviews were fake.  

Another example is the use of bots to generate positive reviews and increase ratings or to discredit competitors. For example, a consumer watchdog group in the UK uncovered 45 businesses faking online reviews to improve online ratings. A stockbroker with several bad reviews suddenly received 30 “5-star ratings” within a month. Online music streaming platforms, such as Spotify, are subject to what is known as ‘phantom listening’ and fake streams in which bots play a song for the minimum required time for Spotify to recognise it as a streamed play causing these songs to climb rankings and the artists to generate more revenue. Fake streaming can result in several issues, including problems with artists being paid their royalties and a loss in revenue for record labels such as Sony and Universal. 

In addition, misinformation can be spread through social media, which is also susceptible to the rapid spread of false information as it is free to access and unmonitored. The spread of misinformation may not be deliberate; however, it can cause detrimental effects to companies. For example, during the “Yellow Jacket” protests in France, misinformation such as free travel on trains for people wearing yellow jackets was spread across social media, which impacted tourism and train ticket cancellations. In South Africa, during the civil unrest of July 2021, news of shortages of essential supplies spread, which led to mass panic buying and an actual shortage of these supplies.

Fake online reviews have damaging effects for consumers, companies and the websites and platforms which host these reviews. For consumers, fake reviews can lead to discontentment, as false positive reviews for a product or service may lead to high expectations and ultimately be disappointed when they do not meet their standards. For companies, it can result in reputational damage, sales loss, and a decrease in market value as false negative reviews may turn consumers away from their products and services. The websites which host reviews may be discredited. An example of this would be “”, fake reviews on the site caused consumer dissatisfaction, and mistrust. False positive reviews from 3rd party sellers deter buyers from the Amazon brand, as reported by Steven Pope, an expert specialising in Amazon’s operations. False online reviews can be attributed to “vicious cycles of consumer dissatisfaction and defamation among competitors”.

The distortion of online reviews is a complex problem to combat, and websites take a long time to detect fake reviews. Contact TRi Facts to verify your online content and reviews and assist you in developing strategies to combat the spread of mis- and disinformation.