In a world in which the future of a nation can be writ large on the side of a bus, we must remember to read between the lines.
I’m not saying we take everything at face value, but the manner in which we filter information could use some refinement – and this applies not only to the way we think and what we believe, but in how we assess the things we buy.
Fake news is rife, yet, across the world, people’s faith in traditional marketing platforms is at an all-time low. With so many of us turning to the internet for inspiration, guidance and reassurance before we make a purchase, online reviews are becoming increasingly influential.
Admittedly, websites such as Trustpilot and Feefo seem to be doing sterling work to aggregate and disseminate various points of view, often prompting dealers to take quality and service issues more seriously.
Yet there has long been a darker side to the practice. Take the Shed at Dulwich – devised by a journalist who was once paid to write fake reviews, this spoof restaurant was temporarily TripAdvisor’s top-ranked London restaurant in 2017. At the same time, the British Hospitality Association found that 85% of the businesses in its sector had been tarred with unfair reviews designed to blackmail management or damage reputations.
Meanwhile, in a landmark ruling, an Italian court sentenced a TripAdvisor reviewer to nine months in prison for selling fake reviews. Pascal Lamy, chair of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, commented: “Online reviews play a major role in tourism and consumer purchasing decisions, but it’s important everyone plays by the rules.”
At least the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is keeping score. As far back as 2015, the CMA was investigating potentially misleading practices such as fake reviews, the omission of negative reviews, and a lack of clarity around which product endorsements were paid for, and which weren’t. It clamped down on online reviews posted by companies’ own employees, and pursued the more prominent sources of fake Twitter followers (one of which reportedly offered more than 200 million followers from some 3.5 million fake Twitter accounts).
In April, the topic reared its head once again, when a probe by Which? revealed that Amazon is “flooded” with fake five-star reviews of unverified brands – despite the marketplace’s use of automated tech to weed out any offenders. It found that the top-rated products in certain categories were often spurious unknowns, ranked conspicuously ahead of household name brands.
The CMA now estimates that fake reviews may influence some £23b of customer spending every year, in the UK alone. There’s a good deal of misplaced trust out there.
How can there be such discrepancy between what’s ‘sold’ to people, and what they buy? Do so many of us equate statements made through social media and online reviews (well-regulated sites excepted) with word-of-mouth truths?
Perhaps the online playground hasn’t been open long enough for us to learn the rules. Maybe the digital giants will successfully crack down on the fraudulent practices. And perhaps, in time, the consumer will find themselves turning back to those more traditional and accountable media outlets they once trusted.
When even the very notion of ‘truth’ is questioned on a daily basis, all I can suggest is taking things with a pinch of salt, wherever you read them.
Paul Farley is the editor-in-chief of Furniture News.