Following action from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), Facebook and eBay have committed to combating the trade of fake and misleading reviews on their sites.
In 2019 the CMA highlighted ‘troubling evidence’ of a thriving marketplace for fake online reviews on eBay and Facebook. This included Facebook member-only groups trading in the sale of incentivised and fake reviews, and eBay listings offering fake five-star reviews for sale.
Nearly seven months on, the CMA has revealed a ‘win for online shoppers’, with Facebook and eBay signing up to agreements to better identify, investigate and respond to fake and misleading reviews.
So what action has already been taken, and where does more need to be done? We’ve taken a look.
Our latest investigation reveals the journey of fake reviews, from Shenzhen to Sheffield.
Action by Facebook and eBay
In response to the CMA’s concerns, Facebook has removed 188 groups found to be participating in the trade of fake and misleading reviews and disabled 24 user accounts, while eBay has permanently banned 140 users.
Facebook has agreed to introduce more robust systems to detect and remove this type of content, and eBay has improved existing filters to better identify and block listings for the sale or trade of online reviews.
During a further sweep of relevant platforms the CMA also highlighted new examples of fake and misleading reviews for sale via Instagram, and reported these to Facebook (which operates Instagram). Facebook has committed to investigating the issue.
Andrea Coscelli, CMA chief executive, said: ‘Fake reviews are really damaging to shoppers and businesses alike. Millions of people base their shopping decisions on reviews, and if these are misleading or untrue, then shoppers could end up being misled into buying something that isn’t right for them – leaving businesses who play by the rules missing out.
‘We’re pleased that Facebook and eBay are doing the right thing by committing to tackle this problem and helping to keep their sites free from posts selling fake reviews.’
This CMA action is part of a wider programme of work tackling fake and misleading online reviews, which will include looking into the role of review sites.
The CMA is not alleging that Facebook or eBay are intentionally allowing this content to appear on their websites and is pleased that both companies have fully co-operated.
Which? commitment to tackling fake reviews
The work by the CMA followed a series of investigations by Which? since 2018 highlighting the source and scale of fake reviews and the problems they cause for online shoppers who rely on customer scores to make informed purchases.
In our 2018 investigation into fake reviews, we went undercover and found Facebook groups that incentivised fake reviews, which had tens of thousands of members. Sellers in these groups rewarded positive reviews for Amazon product purchases by offering full refunds for the products reviewed, or even additional payment.
Facebook claimed to be addressing the issue, but in a follow-up investigation we uncovered more than 70 similar groups, some of which had more than 20,000 members each.
A month on from the initial announcement by the CMA we found that Facebook remained flooded with fake reviews. Dozens of Facebook groups continued to incentivise product reviews, with more than 55,000 new posts found across just 10 groups in July. There were hundreds or even thousands of posts per day across these groups.
While the overall number of groups we were able to find was lower, the remaining groups had seen a sharp increase in membership during July, suggesting members were being funnelled away from the shut-down groups.
Facebook and eBay aren’t the only source of fake reviews, and we want to see action taken by all sites that host reviews. In September 2019, for example, we found that some of the highest-ranked hotels on TripAdvisor had reached the top by using fake reviews.
Earlier in the year we also revealed the tricks being employed by sellers to manipulate and boost product listings on Amazon, as well as how sellers are avoiding detection. Retailers that host reviews must put measures in place to protect customers.
We welcome the action being taken, and want to see continued effort to tackle the problem of misleading and fake reviews.
Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of home products and services, said: ‘It’s good that Facebook and eBay have taken steps to improve after the regulator intervened, but it is vital they continue to identify and shut down these groups, and put measures in place so that they are completely eradicated.
‘The regulator must now turn its attention to review sites that are losing the battle against fake reviews – with shoppers duped into buying shoddy goods and services that have been artificially boosted by unscrupulous sellers.
‘The CMA needs to investigate how fake reviews are being used to manipulate online shoppers and take the strongest possible action against sites that fail to tackle this problem.’
Don’t get caught out by misleading or fake customer reviews. Read our guide on how to spot a fake review.