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6 Aug 2019

Facebook still flooded with fake review groups, warns Which?

Over a month after a CMA investigation, review groups are still thriving, with more than 55,000 posts in just 30 days

Dozens of Facebook groups continue to encourage incentivised reviews on a huge scale, a Which? investigation has found, and little appears to have been done since theCompetition and Markets Authority (CMA) urged it to act on the trade of fake reviews.

On 21 June the CMA announced 'troubling evidence' of a thriving marketplace for fake online reviews on eBay and Facebook. The CMA wrote to both companies requesting that identified content was removed, and that measures were put in place to stop them from reappearing. Both Facebook and eBay agreed to co-operate, but more than a month on we've found that little has changed on Facebook.

Our investigation into Facebook activity since the CMA's request found:

  • dozens of Facebook groups incentivising product reviews
  • more than 55,000 new posts found across just ten groups in July, generating hundreds or even thousands of posts per day
  • Facebook groups that have seen a sharp increase in membership in just 30 days
  • a significant improvement in the number of listings selling five-star reviews on eBay.

Sharp increase in review group members on Facebook

Since the CMA urged Facebook to take action against incentivised review groups, it remained disconcertingly easy to find dozens of suspicious-looking groups in minutes.

We looked in detail at 10, all of which include the word 'Amazon' in the group name. Each of these had increased their membership through July, but some saw a particularly sharp rise.

One Facebook group tripled its membership over a 30-day period, while another (which was first started in April 2018) saw member numbers double to more than 5,000.

One group had more than 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in a month - a 75% increase, despite the group existing since April 2017.

In total, the 10 groups had a staggering 105,669 members on 1 August, compared with a membership of 85,647 just 30 days prior to that - representing an increase of nearly 19%.

We suspect that the sharp increase in the number of group members could be due to Facebook cracking down on some of the groups reported by the CMA, leading people to be funnelled into other similar groups.

On the Facebook account that we used, similar groups regularly appeared on the 'suggested for you' page, making it easy to find more.

In addition, some administrators on groups we had joined were found listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.

A burgeoning business with hundreds of posts each day

Despite the CMA's actions, incentivised review groups are still a hive of activity. In one group there were 650 new posts in a day, while another two had more than 500 posts each.

Across 10 groups there were more than 3,500 new posts promoting incentivised reviews in just one day.

The scale of the issue becomes even more apparent across a 30-day period, as we found more than 55,000 new posts across 10 groups in July. The true figure is likely to be even higher, as Facebook caps the number of posts it displays a figure on at 10,000 (which three of 10 groups reached).

eBay clamps down on five-star sellers

As part of the same investigation, the CMA found 100 eBay listings offering fake reviews for sale. This situation has dramatically improved, suggesting eBay has taken significant action to address the trade of fake reviews on its platform.

However, in our recent investigation we did find one eBay listing advertising five-star reviews for sale (which was added after the CMA announcement), which suggests it's an issue that needs regular monitoring.

Facebook's reactionary response to review groups

The work by the CMA followed a series of investigations by Which? over the past year to highlight 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 with tens of thousands of members. The groups area designed to generate incentivised positive reviews for Amazon product purchases in return for a full refund 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.

In June 2019, a CMA investigation revealed 26 Facebook groups where people were offering to write fake reviews or businesses were recruiting people to leave reviews on popular online marketplaces and review sites. Since the CMA wrote to Facebook, Facebook told the regulator that most of the 26 groups had been removed.

But our research more than a month on from the CMA investigation shows that there's still significant work to be done to crack down on one of the most abundant sources of fake and incentivised reviews.

The CMA and Facebook's response to our findings

George Lusty, CMA senior director, said: 'It is unacceptable that Facebook groups promoting fake reviews seem to be reappearing. Facebook must take effective steps to deal with this problem by quickly removing the material and stop it from resurfacing.

'Lots of us rely on reviews when shopping online to decide what to buy. It's important that people are able to trust they are genuine, rather than something someone has been paid to write.'

Since sharing our most recent findings with Facebook, nine out of the 10 groups we flagged have been removed, and it's investigating the remaining group.

Facebook reiterated its previous stance: that it's continuing to improve the tools used to proactively prevent this kind of abuse, and is increasing the size of its safety and security team to 30,000.

Which? calls on more proactive measures

Natalie Hitchins, Which? head of products and services, said: 'Our latest findings demonstrate that Facebook has systematically failed to take action while its platform continues to be plagued with fake review groups generating thousands of posts a day.

'It is deeply concerning that the company continues to leave customers exposed to poor-quality or unsafe products boosted by misleading and disingenuous reviews.

'Facebook must immediately take steps to not only address the groups that are reported to it, but also proactively identify and shut down other groups, and put measures in place to prevent more from appearing in the future.

'The CMA must now consider enforcement action to ensure that more is being done to protect people from being misled online. Which? will be monitoring the situation closely and piling on the pressure to banish these fake review groups.'

Help Which? fight fake reviews

With so many products available to buy online, customer reviews help to narrow down your options and make a wise purchase of a product that will last.

Fake reviews muddy the waters and mean you may not be getting what you expected. Sign our petition to help stop fake reviews if you believe in a more transparent online shopping experience for consumers.

And if you've come across online customer reviews you think are suspicious and may be fake, or have been approached to write an incentivised positive review for a product, you can help by sharing your experience. Get in touch and tell us your story - email the Which? Fake Reviews team at fakereviews@which.co.uk.