Fake reviews: time to come out fighting

The last thing travellers want is to turn up to find that the experience differs wildly to what is said in the review. But what can be done about it? Sally White reports

‘Fake-news!’ – that now all-too-familiar cry has been supplanted in travel by ‘fake-reviews!’ Sleuthing on the part of Which Travel recently produced a report suggesting that as many as one in seven top-rated hotels on TripAdvisor have had their profiles boosted by fake reviews.

As the Sun newspaper commented, along with most of the world’s media:  “…the consumer advocate says the travel company is failing to stop fake reviews boosting the rankings of these properties.”

This view is not exactly new news. The Daily Mail was running this headline last year: “One in three TripAdvisor reviews is fake: Hotels are accused of trying to manipulate their ratings on the site by paying third parties to give five-star write-ups and rubbish their rivals.”

Similar fake review reports have been around for years: “Now that the Advertising Standards Authority has banned recommendation site TripAdvisor from claiming its reviews as truthful, it's going to be harder than ever to sift out the real from faked,” wailed The Atlantic, a US magazine and multi-platform publisher,  back in 2012.

Yet these shock-horror stories pale, as so many comparisons do, when taking a look what is going on eastwards. Chinese tech travel start-up Mafengwo was accused to copying no less than 18 million reviews from other websites out of its total of 21 million. This scandal blew up on the Chinese mobile app WeChat last October with more than 100,000 pageviews. Mafengwo, which was eyeing a mega-fund-raising in a stock market flotation at the time, responded with a denial and a lawsuit according to news website abacusnews.comIt then said it was cleaning up its site!

·  49% of travellers say they won’t book a hotel without reading reviews first

·  81% say they find user reviews important

Source of the problem, according to research from Olery, an Amsterdam-based market intelligence agency, is that 49% of travellers say they won’t book a hotel without reading reviews first, and 81% say they find user reviews important. So, comments travel website smarttravelasia.com, which reviews to pick? The average number of reviews received by hotels each year has been soaring, it reports the Olery research as saying, adding: “Any novice Web Troll can post ad nauseum without signing a name or even proving the authenticity of a stay!”

Smarttravelasia.com notes the difference, as reported in a paper from Yale researchers, between Expedia and TripAdvisor hotel reviews: “On TripAdvisor, anyone can post, but on Expedia, you must book through the site in order to add your two cents. The barrier to entry, understandably, results in “more reliable” reviews on Expedia.”

It adds: “In 2010, UK watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ordered TripAdvisor to stop claiming that its review were ‘honest’”. TripAdvisor has since removed its slogan the “world’s most trusted travel advice” from its banner!

If fake reviews have been growing in numbers, so have fake-review-watchers, with just two being Reevoo and Fakespot.com. In a  2015 survey from Reevoo, it is estimated that some 61% of customers read online reviews before making a decision about their purchase,  and over a third of online reviews are unreliable.

And, after talking to Ming Ooi, co-founder of Fakespot.com, it quoted her as saying: “About 40% of all reviews we see are unreliable. This is really because the consumer has been trained to use reviews as validation, and won't take action without them now. For example, most consumers will now not buy anything that has zero or very few reviews.”

Detecting deception

A team of bright guys at Cornell University in the US have published their fake-news findings in what must be academic-speke, “…websites containing consumer reviews are becoming targets of opinion spam”, or even worse “deceptive opinion spam”, they said.  But they should be forgiven as they have come up with a classifier that is said to be nearly 90% accurate - an algorithm to distinguish fake from real.

In the team’s view “the detection of deceptive opinion spam is well beyond the capabilities of human judges, most of whom perform roughly at-chance. Accordingly, we have introduced three automated approaches to deceptive opinion spam detection, based on insights coming from research in computational linguistics and psychology.”

The detection of deceptive opinion spam is well beyond the capabilities of human judges

In a trial, based on 400 mixed real and fake reviews of Chicago hotels, it found that fakes “tended to be a narrative talking about their experience at the hotel using a lot of superlatives, but they were not very good on description. Naturally! They had never been there. Instead, they talked about why they were in Chicago. They also used words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ more frequently, as if to underline their own credibility,” reported the New York Times.

Under the weight of so much comment over so many years, TripAdvisor has retreated to publicising its self-policing – The TripAdvisor Review Transparency Report. The inaugural report says that it stopped over one million fake review reaching its website last year.

TripAdvisor has also come out fighting on the PR front. Becky Foley, Senior Director of Trust & Safety at TripAdvisor has fired off the challenge that:  “While we are winning the fight against fake reviews on TripAdvisor, we can only protect our corner of the Internet. As long as other review platforms aren’t taking aggressive action, then fraudsters will continue to exploit and extort small businesses for cash. It is time other platforms like Google and Facebook stepped up to the plate to join us in tackling this problem head on.”

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