Fake On-Line Reviews Hurt Readers and Writers Alike

The best writings, like the best men, tell the truth.” (Sophie Perinot, The Sister Queens)

This past weekend I read this article in the New York Times about the increasingly prevalent practice of “buying” good reviews in on-line venues to boost sales.  This is a despicable practice (and I do not use words like despicable lightly because, as a writer, I know the power of language).

The idea of offering someone a quid pro quo (whether cold hard cash, savings, or swag) to say something good about you is dishonest and demeaning.  I know in the current economic climate competition – whether you are hotelier or a novelist – is fierce, but cheating is still cheating.  I wouldn’t want to win a race because I put pebbles in someone else’s shoes, and, likewise, I wouldn’t want to trick anyone into buying my debut novel.

One of the idiot businesses in the New York Times article claims they are only soliciting honest positive reviews and then rewarding those “loyal” customers with discounts on return visits, but PLEASE—pecuniary interest and honest judgment have never been comfortable bedfellows.  Does it matter that this hotel truly believes it is an excellent place to stay?  Does it matter that the authors who purchase 5-star reviews for their books on Amazon likewise believe what they’ve produced is 5-star worthy writing? No.  The truth of the matter is buying reviews is NOT the same as earning them—no matter how well deserved those stars might be.

We don’t always get what we deserve.  The best man doesn’t always win, nor does the best novel.  But the minute we start to think that we are just “leveling the playing field” or we make other excuses for disguising promotional materials as impartial reviews we diminish ourselves as persons of honor and integrity.  As far as I am concerned honor and integrity are more important than sales.

What about the folks who write these reviews?  Many of them are being hired to do so.  It’s just a job, right?  Surely they are less culpable.  Hm.  Maybe I live in the past (an occupational hazard when writing historical fiction) but what happened to the idea that a man’s word (or a woman’s word) is his bond?  What is an individual’s betrayal of his own word worth?  Surely more than the $5 or $10 dollars per review that he is being paid to prostitute his honor?  As I the bard said, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” (William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 3 scene 5)

I understand that individuals who work in advertising get paid to praise products they’ve never used but that is distinctly different.  Consumers know that the slogans advertising folks write are marketing.  The same is true of celebrity endorsements.  When I see a big name athlete holding up a shoe (or wearing one) I assume he is paid to do that.  I do not assume he loves that shoe on its own merits.  Paid endorsements (and that’s what these fake reviews are) hiding among genuine personal opinions are wolves among sheep.  A reader has no way of knowing which reviews are genuine personal opinions authored by someone who has read the book and which reviews are mere penny-a-word hyperbole.  As members of on-line communities (and the reviewers at Amazon, for example, do make up an on-line community) we are relying on our fellows to be honest.  We are taking a given reviewer at his word and we are being duped.  To quote the Times:

The Cornell researchers tackled what they call deceptive opinion spam by commissioning freelance writers on Mechanical Turk, an Amazon-owned marketplace for workers, to produce 400 positive but fake reviews of Chicago hotels. Then they mixed in 400 positive TripAdvisor reviews that they believed were genuine, and asked three human judges to tell them apart. They could not.

And that is where the serious damage kicks in.  If we don’t care about the damage the charlatans who pay for reviews or who write them are doing to their personal honor (and I am not sure they are deserving of our concern), consider this—readers are being hurt.  They are being conned and cajoled into buying books on false pretenses.  That bothers me as a reader AND as a writer.

If one of the premises of our “brave new world” of publishing, in which the barriers to entry are being lowered by the digital revolution, is that readers have the power to anoint books, then fake reviews sadly threaten this democratic marketplace.  Once readers begin to distrust on-line reviews, genuine appraisals will be disregarded along with paid ones.  Writers who earned those legitimate 5-star reviews the hard way (by pleasing an actual consumer) will suffer, and readers will be left looking for a new way to decide what to buy (or borrow from the library).

Unless authors or the folks who run websites can come up with a way of slowing or stopping this dangerous trend, I guess readers will all be reduced to asking Aunt Mary or their best friend for reading recommendations.  I thought “word of mouth” in the time of the internet might expand to be a little less literal.  So what can writers do?

As the Cornell research demonstrates, we would have a heck of a hard time “policing” fake reviews in threads for other authors’ books.  But that’s okay because there is SOMEBODY WE CAN RELIABLY CONTROL—our self.  So I propose a pledge, a public statement on our websites, our “authors pages” or wherever else we think potential readers may see it.  Here is mine: 

I hereby pledge that I will not pay for praise.  I will not buy good reviews for my books on Amazon or at any on-line review site whatsoever.  I will keep my marketing dollars for legitimate marketing uses (like this snazzy website or some blog ads if I can afford them).  I will not offer readers discounts on my book in exchange for saying they like my writing, or offer them freebies in exchange for positive reviews.  And finally I will not bear “false witness” against other writers by negatively reviewing their work or by paying others to negatively review it (there is a special circle in hell for writers who do this).

Good, bad or ugly, the reviews of my novel will be the opinion of their writers on the work of this one.

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