Facebook is failing to stop fake review factories that are increasingly being used to mislead consumers – despite being ordered to take urgent action by the regulator, a Which? investigation has revealed.
The consumer champion’s investigation found that – more than a month after the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) raised concerns – Facebook remains flooded with fake review groups.
Which? found dozens of groups on the social networking site in the UK that are recruiting people to write fake or incentivised reviews, with sellers offering free products in exchange for highly-rated reviews for products listed on Amazon. Which? estimates the figure could actually be in the hundreds.
During the investigation researchers joined ten of these Facebook review groups and found 3,511 new posts generated in just one day, and more than 55,000 posts over a 30-day period. The true overall figure could well be higher as Facebook caps the number of posts it displays.
In June the CMA warned Facebook and eBay to conduct an urgent review of their sites after it found “troubling evidence” of a thriving marketplace for fake online reviews. The platforms were told to remove and prevent these groups from reappearing and eBay seems to have largely eradicated listings offering five star reviews for sale.
Over a month later, the ease at which these groups were still able to be found on Facebook leaves Which? with serious concerns about the effectiveness of the site’s attempts to tackle this growing consumer problem.
On eBay, Which? found the situation has significantly improved. However, it did find one eBay listing advertising five star reviews for sale, which suggests it’s an issue that needs regular monitoring.
Which? is calling on the CMA to consider action on this issue given Facebook’s failure to remove fake review groups.
There has also been a worrying spike in membership in Facebook’s fake review groups since the CMA warning, with some seeing a particularly sharp rise, suggesting that thousands of members may simply be flocking over from the groups that are shut down.
For example, one group started in April 2017 ended up with more 10,000 members after 4,300 people joined it in July – a 75% increase, despite it existing for more than two years.
On the Facebook account Which? used, a number of similar groups appeared on the ‘suggested for you’ page. This made it unnervingly easy to find more and implies a possible weakness in the algorithm. In addition, group admins on groups Which? had joined, apparently aware of the issue, were found listing alternative groups to join in case the original is shut down.
The rise in fake reviews could increase the chance of people potentially being duped into buying poor quality or even unsafe products that have been boosted by disingenuous reviews.
Online reviews influence an estimated £23 billion of transactions a year in the UK alone, according to the CMA, and a Which? survey of the public showed that 97 per cent of people use them when researching a purchase. However, three in 10 (31%) of those who bought a product because of excellent feedback scores were disappointed by it.
Writing or commissioning fake or incentivised reviews is in breach of consumer law and can lead to criminal action for the individuals responsible.
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 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.”