Rants & Raves: Lessons to Be Gleaned From Online Consumer Reviews

Alan C. Miller
Alan C. Miller, NLP's founder and president, introduces our teachable moments blog.

How many times have you used online consumer reviews to help decide where to go out to eat dinner or what hotel to book for a vacation or what product is the best one to buy for your home?

Have you ever stopped to wonder whether all those raves and rants are real? What if someone was paying reviewers to stack the deck in their favor and thereby deceive you and other consumers?

ABC News interviewed this 17-year-old who said she advertises online to write paid reviews for consumer-ratings websites.

Well, as it turns out, that is precisely what has been happening.

ABC News reported last month that "a huge number of online reviews" of restaurants, hotels, physicians and other consumer services are "complete phonies."

A few days later, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced that, following a year-long undercover investigation by his office, 19 companies had agreed to stop writing fake online reviews and pay more than $350,000 in penalties for false advertising and deceptive business practices.

The stakes are high: Such recommendations can make or break a business. And those who rely on these ratings, sometimes for services involving health and safety, are routinely misled.

These user-generated services reflect the double-edged sword of the online information readily available in our digital world.

We have far more information at our fingertips than ever before. It can be powerful and extremely useful. But it comes without the conventional gatekeepers who vetted news and other information that we received through legacy media.

This means the onus is increasingly on the consumer to determine whether the information is credible, especially when it becomes the basis for decisions and actions. This can range from the shampoo we purchase to who we elect as president.

This is why I founded the News Literacy Project nearly six years ago and why we are launching this “teachable moments” blog as part of our revamped website. We hope that this feature will prove useful for teachers in the classroom as well as for students and others on their own.

Such “teachable moments” now happen all the time, whether they involve disclosure of the latest hoax or the rush to judgment that mars news coverage of a major breaking story, such as the Boston Marathon bombing or the Washington Navy Yard shooting.

To assist us, we will periodically ask one of our journalist fellows, an NLP staffer or another partner to share a recent example that will provide a specific lesson about how to be a skeptical and informed consumer of information in the digital age. We will then welcome your comments.

One key to discerning the credibility of news and information is to ask yourself who created it (that is, if you can tell). For what purpose? Is the source credible? Is he or she trying to tell you the truth in a dispassionate way? Or do they have some other agenda?

This becomes all the more challenging with user-generated content such as consumer reviews.

In its report, ABC News said that some companies pay employees or friends to write favorable reviews. The segment included an on-camera interview with a 17-year-old girl who unabashedly said that that she advertises online to write fake reviews for $4 apiece.

New York Attorney General Schneiderman's investigation found that companies had paid freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe $1 to $10 per review. They did so to boost sales of restaurants, consumer products and other businesses by manipulating consumer-review websites such as Yelp and Google Local.

Interestingly, we have heard students in our classrooms say that they are inclined to put more faith in things they see on blogs and YouTube than what is reported in mainstream news outlets because this raw information is unmediated by filters that have their own biases. While such primary sources can be valuable, they may also be presenting raw information without verification, context or accountability. And they are far more prone to deliberate manipulation.

So, how then can one avoid being misled by such seemingly authentic information?

One can start by reviewing the policies and practices of the consumer-review sites themselves.

Schneiderman’s investigation reported that many such companies had adopted filters to detect and delete fake reviews. In addition, Yelp and Google encourage reviewers to use their real names where possible and prohibit paid reviews.

ABC News recommended being wary of reviews with buzzwords such as "wonderful" or "great for everybody" or reviewers who say they plan to use a service or buy a product.

In terms of news literacy, the lesson here applies across the board: Be skeptical when viewing information that could become the basis for your decisions and actions.

It's a phrase known well to journalists and one that we often share with our students: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out."