Facebook is failing to tackle fake review factories despite a commitment to the competition regulator that it will do more to prevent fake and misleading reviews being traded on its platform, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion’s latest research found that – seven months after agreeing to a clear set of actions with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – Facebook is not picking up on the blatant trading of fake reviews and unscrupulous third parties have been able to easily find ways around any initial action the social networking giant took.
Dozens of groups boasting hundreds of thousands of members have once again flooded the online platform and Which? found they were rife with posts from users often described as “agents,” aiming to boost products on Amazon. They offer refunds, a commission or free products in exchange for users posting reviews, some specifically requesting five-star ratings – with Which? finding direct evidence of their success in doing so.
A simple search for ‘Amazon review’ on Facebook revealed 16 of the top 25 groups were trading in reviews, with more than 200,000 members between them. One group had more than 36,000 members, while several groups boasted more than 20,000.
In one group there were 27,000 members and as many as 6,406 posts in a day, while across the groups there were at least 82,000 posts over a month. This figure could be even higher given Facebook caps the number of posts it displays.
Worryingly, activity appears to have returned to the levels Which? found in its previous research on the issue a year ago. In both investigations the average number of posts in individual groups over the 30 day period was between 5,100 and 5,600, suggesting either Facebook’s action is not working or it is simply not taking any meaningful action.
In one Facebook group Which? found an Enacfire Bluetooth speaker listed with the promise of a refund after review. On Amazon Marketplace, the same product – which wasn’t being sold directly by Enacfire – had a massive 2,558 ratings and a customer score of 4.9 out of 5. It was also appearing as the top result on a search for ‘Bluetooth speakers’, which had returned over 30,000 listings – leaving consumers at huge risk of being duped into buying a product boosted by incentivised, glowing feedback. The blue version of the speaker, which has the same ratings and reviews, was even appearing with an Amazon’s Choice endorsement, which is influenced by high overall star ratings. Which? has previously found evidence of dubious tactics being used to gather positive reviews for Enacfire products.
Which? also found incentives being offered in exchange for positive reviews on two pieces of camping equipment, a Backture Inflatable Camping Mat and a Backture Inflatable Lounger, which both also had the coveted Amazon’s Choice label. This indicates that the artificial five-star reviews obtained through Facebook fake review groups could have helped those pushing the products to not only boost the items up the rankings but also game their way to Amazon’s recommendation badge, which many consumers trust as a mark of quality.
Which?’s findings strongly suggest that Facebook is failing to uphold its agreement with the regulator to “introduce more robust systems to detect and remove such content” and has been ineffective in stemming the tide of fake review factories.
In a much more positive development, eBay’s proactive approach to stopping fake review listings appearing on its platform appears to have been successful and it has honoured its pledge to the regulator by dealing with the problem.
Some Facebook groups were openly posting about refunds for five-star reviews on Amazon, while others were crudely adapting their tactics to avoid using prohibited phrases such as refund, review, or 4 or 5 stars to help avoid detection.
For example, group admins and members were found attempting to game Facebook’s systems by writing coded words such as ‘revie-ws’ and ‘r*efund’ to help them stay under the radar – unsurprising given that posting and trading fake and misleading reviews is illegal under consumer protection law.
The wide range of products seeking positive reviews across the Facebook groups included children’s toys, pet accessories, home appliances such as vacuum cleaners, beauty products, and tech items such as headphones and speakers.
The impact of Facebook review groups on Amazon listings is potentially huge. Which? looked into these groups on two prior occasions and in total has now reported 36 groups to Facebook, which have housed more than half a million members. This means potentially hundreds of thousands of incentivised reviews, designed to mislead shoppers, making their way onto Amazon.
Research by Which? recently showed that fake reviews can make consumers more than twice as likely to choose a product, showing the serious threat of people being misled into buying poor quality or even unsafe products or services.
Which? believes Facebook must now show it is taking the problem seriously and demonstrate what more it will do to meet its commitment to the regulator. The CMA must also ensure it is closely monitoring Facebook, setting out its next steps if the site fails to crack down on the problem on its platform.
The consumer champion also believes that the continued use of Facebook to successfully trade fake and misleading reviews unhindered is further evidence that online platforms must be made more responsible for the content and activity on their sites.
Natalie Hitchins, Head of Home Products and Services at Which?, said:
“Our research shows that review trading groups continue to thrive on Facebook, leaving online shoppers at huge risk of being duped into buying products on Amazon that have been boosted by fake reviews.
“It’s clear that Facebook has not lived up to its commitment to the CMA and must urgently address the spate of fake review groups on its site, or the regulator must intervene again.
“The failure of sites like Facebook to crack down on bad practice underlines the need for online platforms to have more responsibility for content and activity on their sites.”
Notes to editors
- In June and July 2020, Which? investigated review trading on Facebook by analysing a number of Facebook groups offering to refund purchase costs or give free products in exchange for reviews on Amazon.
- CMA press release, January 2020 – Facebook and eBay pledge to combat trading in fake reviews
- Which? press release, May 2020 – Fake reviews make consumers more than twice as likely to be misled into choosing poor-quality products, Which? reveals
- In 2018, Which? first exposed review groups on Facebook.
How do these fake review group transactions tend to work?
Typically users are instructed to order a specified item through Amazon, write a review and share a link to the review once it is published. Following the successful publication of the review, a refund for the cost of the item is then supposed to be paid, often via PayPal.
In previous investigations, many of these traders are insistent that customers rate the products highly. In the past, Which? has been asked by researchers to change an honest two-star review to five stars, saying that because the product was free, ‘it is the default to give five-star evaluation’. Others have refused to refund when Which? declined to change ratings. More information here: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/10/the-facts-about-fake-reviews/
Top tips for spotting fake reviews
- Watch out for large numbers of reviews – if a product has a lot more reviews than others in the category, be wary, especially if it’s a brand you haven’t heard of.
- Check negative reviews – look out for people who are surprised by the number of positive reviews, if there’s consistent criticism about a particular feature, and especially if there’s reference to bribes or incentivisation.
- If you are buying from a brand you haven’t heard of – check online to see if it has a reputable looking website, or if you can find other comments or reviews from other shoppers.
For more advice on how to spot fake reviews, visit: https://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/advice/how-to-spot-a-fake-review
Rights of reply
During the course of Which?’s investigation, Facebook had removed five groups. When Which? reported its findings to Facebook, it removed the remaining 11 groups.
“Fraudulent activity is not allowed on our platforms, including offering or trading fake reviews. We have investigated and removed the groups brought to our attention, some of which were removed prior to Which? notifying us. We will continue to invest in technology and our safety and security teams to proactively prevent this kind of activity.” – A Facebook company spokesperson
When Which? revisited the listings it had flagged to Amazon, the Amazon’s Choice logo had been removed on the Backture Inflatable Camping Mat and on the ‘Blue & Black’ version of the Backture Inflatable Lounger
But at the time of writing it still remains in place on the ‘Blue’ version of the Backture Inflatable Lounger, and on a variation of the Enacfire speaker.
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“We want Amazon customers to shop with confidence knowing that the reviews they read are authentic and relevant. We have clear policies for both reviewers and selling partners that prohibit abuse of our community features, and we suspend, ban, and take legal action against those who violate these policies.
“Our objective is to ensure customers see authentic and relevant reviews so they can make better informed purchasing decisions. To do this, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyse over 10MM review submissions weekly, aiming to stop abusive reviews before they are ever published. In addition, we continue to monitor all existing reviews for signs of abuse and quickly take action if we find an issue.
“We also proactively work with social media sites to report bad actors who are cultivating abusive reviews outside our store, and we’ve sued thousands of bad actors for attempting to abuse our reviews systems. We encourage customers concerned about the authenticity of reviews left on a product to use the “Report abuse” link, available on each review, so that we can investigate and take the appropriate actions. We are relentless in our efforts to protect the integrity of customer reviews, and we will continue to innovate to ensure customers can trust that every review on Amazon is authentic and relevant.”
On Amazon Choice:
“We know that customer trust is hard to earn and easy to lose, so we strive to protect customer trust in products Amazon’s Choice highlights. We don’t tolerate Amazon policy violations, such as review abuse, incentivized reviews, counterfeits or unsafe products. When deciding to badge a product as Amazon’s Choice, we proactively incorporate a number of factors that are designed to protect customers from those policy violations. When we identify a product that may not meet our high bar for products we highlight for customers, we remove the badge.”
Enacfire / Backture
Which? reached out to both Enacfire and Backture for comment but at the time of writing it has not received a response from either.