First, we had fake news, now it’s fake reviews.
A Fox News investigation has found that Facebook is a breeding ground for groups where reviews for products on Amazon, among other online platforms, are bought and sold. And small businesses competing in the online marketplace may already be suffering because of a lack of controls, or a lack of efficiency, on behalf of two of the world’s most valuable brands.
Reviews can be critical for businesses that operate in online marketplaces like Amazon, not only because of the impact a 1-star review can have but because sellers and products with the greatest number of reviews typically appear higher in search results.
Beyond the fact that reviews are critical for a company's existence, the practice of compensating someone in exchange for a customer review is something that violates both Amazon and Facebook policies. It could also put you at odds with the Federal Trade Commission.
That hasn't stopped the practice from flourishing on Facebook, Fox News has found. Groups like "Amazon review club" can be joined with the click of a button, and with no apparent background check.
Fox started tracking that group, and others like it, just before the Black Friday shopping rush in early November. Since then, its membership has grown by thousands, standing at more than 82,000 members as of this writing. That group was created in 2016, and there are plenty of others like it where reviews are solicited for everything from Google Maps to Yelp.
Over the course of a few weeks, Fox News witnessed members of these groups offering to sell hundreds of reviews at a time, promising commissions in exchange for praise and soliciting 1-star reviews that seemed destined for some unlucky online competitor.
Some of the Facebook accounts associated with these postings used profile pictures that could be traced back to Hollywood actresses through Google image searches. One person was brazen enough to use the name “John Conner,” the name of a character in the movie "Terminator 2: Judgement Day," complete with a profile picture showing a scene from the film.
Fox News was able to connect with one U.S.-based business that appears to have suffered as a direct result of the “Amazon review club” group, and they claim Amazon hasn't been of much help since they reported the problem.
The seller, who has operated on Amazon for years and requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from competitors, filed multiple complaints with Amazon after noticing that their product had been bumped down in search results. A new product appeared on the marketplace over the summer, and it was rapidly gaining reviews – many of them written in broken English and with little or no relevant details.
After poking around Facebook, the seller discovered that competing product was being advertised on "Amazon review club," and to this day they say “the onslaught continues.”
“Previously, we had always been able to reinvent our marketing to keep an upper edge,” the seller explained over e-mail. “But the fake reviews are intensifying, resulting in significant losses for our business,” they added.
It was more than a full month before the holiday shopping rush that the U.S.-based seller contacted Amazon. They provided screenshots of their competitor’s product being advertised on the “Amazon review club” Facebook page and even included a link to a negative review that had been written about their product by a man who appears to be deceased.
“Previously, we had always been able to reinvent our marketing to keep an upper edge. But the fake reviews are intensifying, resulting in significant losses for our business.”
“Amazon has not responded to my report that was submitted 2 months ago. Nothing,” the seller told Fox. What’s more, they say “since submitting the report to Amazon in mid-October, [our competitor’s] product has gained 100 reviews and our sales continue to plummet.”
Fox News was given documentation and evidence of some of these "fake" reviews, but we are unable to reveal the reviews themselves in the interest of protecting the seller whose business has been impacted. Those reviews remain on Amazon as of this writing.
In the past, Amazon has claimed that less than 1% of reviews on its platform are fake, but with at least 500 million reviews on the site, those fake reviews could still number in the millions by that statistic. One percent of 500 million, a low-ball estimate of the total number of reviews on Amazon, is 5 million reviews, after all.
Amazon is now using “machine learning and automated systems” to fight the problem of inauthentic reviews, according to a representative who spoke to Fox News. They also pointed out that the company has filed lawsuits against more than 1,000 defendants over the issue.
Amazon was asked about the case of the seller who spoke with Fox News, and who has weathered the holiday shopping season without a response from Amazon, but did not respond in time for the publication of this article.
That seller told Fox News that they have not reported the “Amazon review club” group to Facebook, and suggested they “didn’t know where to begin.”
A Facebook spokesperson told Fox News that if a user reports a group engaging in this type of activity, the company takes swift action to remove it. Indeed, one of the groups brought to their attention by Fox News was almost immediately taken down.
However, that representative would not say whether there are any Facebook employees actively monitoring the platform for these kinds of groups, and argued the majority of activity on the platform is positive.
Fox News was able to find many of these groups on Facebook using simple search terms like “Amazon reviews.” According to one expert, it probably wouldn’t be that hard for Facebook to do the same.
“A minimal effort could go a long way,” says Tommy Noonan, the founder of ReviewMeta.com, a website that monitors Amazon reviews and listings where people suspect this kind of activity is taking place. Given Facebook’s history of dealing with misinformation on its platform, Noonan says, “I think [Facebook is] doing Amazon a favor by doing anything.”
Mom and Pop sellers, like the one that spoke with Fox News, are clearly the biggest victims in all of this, Noonan says. And while his research does confirm Amazon is taking visible steps to combat this admittedly persistent problem, he says consumers shouldn’t lose hope.
“In my experience, it’s a very nuanced and difficult problem to solve,” Noonan says. “You can’t just delete every review you think is suspicious because you'll wind up deleting authentic reviews. So it’s trickier than people make it out to be, and I have hope for the platform and consumers as a whole.”