Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ensuring That Internet Reviews Are Fair

First up, in the interests of full disclosure, let me say I was harassed on Amazon and by email by a malicious reviewer/troll. I discovered a series of fake one star reviews on other peoples books and when I pointed that out on an authors forum, she turned her attention to me. It took A LOT of emails to amazon to get her reviews removed, despite proof in the form of emails, her IP address and the threats from her email, proof that she was selling good amazon reviews on Fourrer not to mention, her own review account’s extremely suspect behaviour. It wasn’t so much a case that her review dragged down my average rating, they didn’t by any a noticeable amount, it was that someone had threatened and harassed me, and Amazon just wanted to ignore it. It wasn’t right that she be allowed to get away with it (which is why I brought her to the attention of other authors she had targeted) and considering the abundance of evidence I provided, it should not have been as hard as it was to get her malicious reviews taken off.

Feel free to go read that saga if you’re up for it but it isn’t necessary for this post.

It’s because of this incident that I’ve given this subject (how to ensure that reviews are fair, without a knee jerk reaction) a lot of thought. 

You’ll see some of my earlier ideas in the comments of that thread. None of those were perfect (and this probably isn’t either) but I believe it’s the best option to ensure fairness for all parties, ie, reviewers, as well as the people, products and businesses being reviewed. 

Online reviews are a hot topic at the moment. People like Anne Rice are pressing for reviewers not to be allowed to be anonymous on sites like Amazon, while reviewers on Trip Advisor are being sued personally, for leaving bad reviews about establishments.

So what’s the answer?

There are a few things first that we have to admit before we can have a reasonable discussion about this.

1) People do leave fake malicious reviews. Sometimes to get back at an ex (or his new partner in one case i read of), because of a grudge or vendetta, or just because they're trolls

1b) As an add-on to that, people leave fake good reviews too. More than one author has been discovered anonymously trashing his competitor’s work, while praising his own to high heaven.

2) Some businesses (and authors and designers etc) will try to bully reviewers out of leaving genuine bad reviews. I even read about a company recently, that had such a stipulation in their terms and conditions of sale, stating that buyers can't leave negative reviews! Some Trip Advisor reviewers are now being sued, as is one Yelp reviewer. I can't speak for the honesty of any of these reviews but surely if some were malicious, the reviewer would have removed the review rather than being sued because win or lose, they will be out of pocket for legal fees and time. Therefore in all probably, the bad reviews in these cases are most likely true.
A (non-internet) troll

3) The final point we need to admit, is that websites want your reviews. Sites such as Amazon actively solicit reviews, emailing you a while after a purchase to ask if you want to leave a review. Other sites such as Trip Advisor, wouldn’t even exist if not for reviews. 

As for that last point, it’s fair to say that reviewers are adding value to those business by leaving reviews, either by providing a reason for people to visit the site, or by helping other site users determine which products are best for them (returns and/or complaints=lost revenue). Therefore those businesses should protect reviewers and pay for the defence if lawyers get involved (or take out insurance to pay for the defence) and they should be liable for any damages awarded. The business benefited from that review, therefore the business should pay any damages due for false reviews.  

Obviously fake review shouldn’t be covered (just like false insurance claims should be denied) and therein lies the rub, weeding the true from the false would require work on the company’s part. They would have to buy or commission computer programs that would identify trollish behaviour patterns; they would have to implement new procedures to make sure that users are real people and not pseudonyms created to boost or discredit a business. Finally, they would have to pay staff members to personally check at least some of the flagged or suspect reviews and accounts. 

But that’s the trouble with companies, they want your reviews but most don’t want the time, trouble and cost of policing that user provided content

Instead of asking for anonymity to be withdrawn, we need to ask companies (and legislators) to take responsibility for the content left on their sites. 

Until a website will both protect its reviewers and take responsibility for allowing fake reviews (or not removing them in a timely fashion) we need to ask ourselves, “Why am I giving this business content that adds value to their business, FOR FREE, if they aren’t even going to protect me?” Think about that next time you leave a review. 

Now, if we ever get to that state of affairs, the issue of anonymity should no longer be an issue. Users can post under a pen name, because the business owners know their real name and address, and they have taken reasonable steps (such as credit card data) to ascertain that they are real people. In that instance, should a company, author or site user complain about a dodgy review, the website can check into the validity of the user, and remove fake or suspicious reviews accordingly (be they positive or negative reviews). If legal proceedings are ever instigated because of a review, the site can supply that user’s information (if and when they are legally required; I’m not suggesting they give your personal data out to anyone who complains about a review). 

So put simply, these are my suggestions for improving the review system.

1) Make companies legally liable for the reviews posted on their site
2) Make them protect their reviewers when legally challenged
3) Make the companies legally (ie financially) liable for refusing to remove fake reviews

Bad reviews are helpful to customers, and only the fake ones need removing. Good reviews are helpful to customers, and only the fake ones need removing.

ETA: I'll give few author-specific examples of how this might work, which I hope will make the principle clearer.

This author's Michael Jackson biography was "review swarmed". In other words, before the book was released, MJ fans were planing and coordinating to target the book with 1 star reviews. The book didn't sell well at all and I believe that both the author and the publisher in this instance, have a pretty good case for loss of earnings from false and fake reviews, not to mention ample proof that those reviews are fake.

In the case of my troll reviewer, I didn't suffer any financial loss but I already suffer with PTSD (after being stalked by an ex). Being specifically targeted and threatened by that reviewer led to my symptoms worsening (things like flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks) therefore if Amazon were legally responsible for allowing these reviews to remain on their site, I could have a case to sue them for mental anguish. 

Charlaine Harris received an uncoordinated barrage of one star reviews, as well as death threats, after fans didn't like some of her choices in the last Sookie Stackhouse book. The same happened to Veronica Roth. Both those books were bestsellers so a case for financial loss is probably out of the question, but a case for mental anguish and emotional distress wouldn't be. (Please note, I'm not saying readers cant leave 1 star reviews, but threats and insults directed to the author are totally out of line)

It's very hard to sue individual reviewers though, especially if they post under a pseudonym. By making Amazon legally responsible for the content of reviews on their site, and liable to pay any damages awarded due to loss of income or emotional distress thanks to said reviews, I'm pretty sure their lackadaisical attitude to this issue wouldn't last past the first court case that went against them.

Obviously not every author who receives a fake review would have a case to sue for damages (and of those who do, some wouldn't be able to afford it) but with Amazon actively policing reviews and taking complaints about reviews seriously, I would expect that cases of harassment by review, review swarming and cyber-stalking will be drastically reduced, and dealt with swiftly when they do arise.


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