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Are online comments full of paid lies?

Mike Elgan | Oct. 28, 2013
A thriving industry of paid-for user comments pollutes social networks with fake opinions. Let the reader beware.

In New York alone, recently, the New York attorney general shut down 19 companies engaged in the astroturfing of online sites like Yelp, Google Local and CitySearch.

Commenters were recruited on sites like Craigslist, Freelancer and oDesk and paid between $1 and $10 per "review."

A new book by NPR's David Folkenflik, called Murdoch's World, claims that Fox News engaged in " institutionalized astroturfing of the Internet" by using Fox employees using untraceable wireless connections to post pro-Fox posts online. One even used a dial-up AOL account. Another used 100 fake personas, according to the book.

What's so bad about astroturfing?
A Nielsen study from last year determined that 70% of people surveyed trust online user reviews and that 83% are influenced in their buying decisions by these reviews.

A Gartner report from about a year ago predicts that by 2014, between 10% and 15% of all social media "reviews" will be fake astroturfed opinions paid for by various companies.

This is problematic because buyers can be misled, and in unpredictable ways.

When I posted a short item on Google+ about the Samsung fine this week, an alarmingly large percentage of commenters expressed a belief that astroturfing is a common problem in the industry and that all major companies do it.

This belief is a problem for two reasons. First, just as astroturfing itself leads consumers astray by making them believe fake opinions, the belief that astroturfing is common leads consumers astray by making them doubt real opinions.

Second, a widespread belief that "everybody astroturfs" is itself an incentive for companies to engage in astroturfing. Why not benefit from the practice if consumers already believe you do it?

What to do about astroturfing
Some day soon, there may be a widely deployed software solution to the problem of paid astroturfing of online comments.

Cornell University researchers have created an algorithm that can detect astroturfed comments. They claim they can identify fake opinion posts 90% of the time. It would be helpful for a company like Google to deploy something like this to get a "second opinion" about whether comments posted online are real or fake.

In the meantime, we're each on our own. Helpfully, Time magazine recently published a handy guide for how to spot fake online comments and reviews.

The bottom line is that Samsung is not the only company engaged in astroturfing — not by a long shot. It's a widespread practice, and one that's difficult to detect.

Yes, we should all consult user options, but approach them with healthy skepticism. But more importantly, we should heavily favor reviews by professional reviewers in reputable publications before buying products.

Such journalist reviewers are not only skillful and experienced at writing product reviews, they're actually paid to be objective.

 

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