Bribery is illegal, but is it unethical?

Most of you would say yes. You probably reflexively imagined a situation in which most people are honest and only a few cheaters are doing the bribing. But suppose I say I'm talking about the country of Elbonia where bribery is so normal and expected that the government publishes helpful bribery guidelines. In the case of Elbonia, is bribery unethical? Some of you probably say no. Context matters. If literally everyone is doing it, it's just how the system works. In its own way it's completely honest and transparent. You might even rename bribery to "tipping."

Now let's apply the same reasoning to fake product reviews online. Suppose I ask you if paying for fake positive reviews online is unethical. Most of you would say it is. Here again you reflexively assume most reviews are honest and only a few weasels are behind the fake ones.

But what if most reviews online - both good and bad - were fakes, but the public didn't generally know it? In that environment, would it be unethical to add a few fake positive reviews of your own? Let's say the fake positive reviews that you add are honest in the sense that your product is genuinely good. You would be improving the quality of information for consumers. You might argue that letting the misleading reviews stand would be the bigger crime. You're on the side of the angels, who just happen to be on your side economically.

I don't know how many products have fake online reviews. But over time I would expect the number to increase steadily toward 100%. I use music pirating as my model for that prediction.

My assumption is that nearly every teen who listens to a lot of music has done some pirating. The crime is simple to commit, has an immediate payoff, an ambiguous victim, and virtually zero chance of punishment. When you have those four conditions, nearly everyone becomes a criminal.

Now suppose you have a product or business that is reviewed online. You know from experience that your competitors will leave some fake bad reviews of your product, and those fake reviews are a disservice to your potential customers. Do you have an ethical obligation to balance out the fake bad reviews with your own good ones?

The problem of fake bad reviews is especially troubling for anyone who dabbles in more than one line of business. If a politician writes a spy novel in her spare time, you can expect people from the opposing political party to write fake reviews panning the book. Online reviews are a convenient way to punish strangers with impunity.

Fake reviews were a major factor when I was deciding whether to write a new book. Online reviews for my work generally bring out the nuts that have convinced themselves I'm a holocaust-denying creationist who believes psychics are magic and "excuses" rape. It sounds funny when I lump all four rumors in the same sentence, but I've literally had to deal with each of them. It's an occupational hazard.

Now add on top of that my stalker who is sure I sometimes travel to Canada and rifle through her belongings before copying her computer files and having my way with the family dog. She likes to call my business associates and inform them of my many crimes and misdeeds. I wouldn't expect a good book review from her.

Now add the angry customer who ate at a local restaurant I once owned. He doesn't know the restaurant changed ownership two years ago and he's mad about the slow service he got on that busy Saturday last month. I wouldn't expect a good book review from that guy.

The interesting question is not whether fake reviews exist - because that much we know - but where the breaking point is. I would think 10% fake reviews would be tolerable and the system would still be useful to consumers. But does credibility collapse when we reach an average of 20% fake reviews? How about 30%?

I think the breaking point for online reviews is when fakes reach 20% or so. We're probably above that level for local businesses and approaching it for national products.

Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +39
  • Print
  • Share
  • Share:


Sort By:
Aug 29, 2012
[You forgot to mention that I'm also a holocaust-denying creationist who believes psychics are magic and "excuses" rape. -- Scott]

Oh, and here I thought you were a holocaust-illuminating evolutionist who believes science is some sort of voodoo magic and executes rapists vigilante style.

With a shotgun.
Aug 29, 2012
If bribing is happening, something unethical is happening, but not necessarily by the person paying it.

As for your book ask yourself this: do the profits and pleasure you get out of the the process outweigh the downsides? If so get'r'done, if not, oh well. The real problem with reviews is unless you know the reviewer (and if how much money he takes influences his review), you're really shooting in the dark.

Consider this: marketing is more important than reviews for sales. Usually how much you market a movie will decide how much it'll make. The avengers could have been the worst movie of all time, but with its marketing it still would have sold well.

Going back to bribery in this context: don't ask me.
Aug 29, 2012
Government bribery unethical - you betcha. Knowing the rich can get their way doesn't make it any more acceptible.

Online ratings - frankly it should be a crime to boldly lie about either your own or a competitor's product, but the problem of course is proving it. I find it less morally objectionable to counter known false ratings with salted good ones, but that's only if you're certain about the false ones.

What's the solution? More Consumer Reports and Angies List like organizations that only exist as long as people trust the comparison results they provide. Or trusted bloggers. Or - ok this is really old fashioned - asking friends and family. I predict that eventually fewer businesses will allow just anyone to review their products and instead they'll reference a professional review site. Except of course for those business making crappy products, who'll continue to count on salted good reviews.
Aug 29, 2012
Most people apply the terms 'ethical', or 'unethical', without really thinking about it. There are several well-accepted theories on ethics that would differ very much on whether something is ethical or not. A certain act may be ethical according to one theory, and unethical according to a different theory.

What is important in naming things as ethical or unethical is uniformity. You cannot rightly apply one theory of ethics to yourself, and another theory to others, or one theory to Americans and another to Elbonians. There is a case for applying a different theory to some situations where the preferred theory is neutral on the matter, but this should be a matter of hierarchy.

By some theories, convention (as in 'everyone is doing it') is an acceptable justification, while other theories would see that as a condemnation of the entire system. It is a matter of personal choice, the only requirement is uniformity. Hypocracy is always unethical.
Aug 29, 2012
eRique_BC, G33v3s

I am more or less in agreement with Scott on this one. Ideals are good things to have, but the business that pays too much attention to them at the expense of real world considerations like this goes out of business. You say there's no excuse for posting fake online reviews? OK, then, seriously, practically, how is a business supposed to deal with the fake online reviews their competitors keep churning out?
Aug 29, 2012
I'm curious about what you define as a "fake" review. Is it a review based on something besides the quality of the product? In the case where quality is subjective, how would such a thing be distinguishable from a genuine one?

My father once made the statement that he does not like any movie with Jane Fonda in it because he has never forgotten her "Hanoi Jane" comments. I think that that is silly -- her political affliations have nothing to do with her acting abilities -- but I do believe that he genuinely does not like them, so would his review be fake? I don't think so. Furthermore, someone of a similar stripe to my father might not like them for the same reason, and his review would contain relevant information for such a person.

There are actually two dimensions to consider, not one: fake/real, and valid/invalid. The first one is concerned with the person's motive for creating the review, and the second with the accuracy of the data contained within it. The fake/real dimension doesn't strike me as particularly interesting in and of itself (though it does influence your opinion of the second). How to determine the validity of a review is what we should focus on.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 29, 2012
I believe the movie industry has hit 80% fake reviews on the internet movie database (imdb.com) "user reviews." 5 years ago I used to enjoy going to the site and reading the amateur reviews. I felt by skimming through 10 or 20 of them I could get a good idea of whether or not I would enjoy a movie. However, the last several years I've noticed that the user reviews seem different. Too many of them are way too positive for marginal movies. Lots of them seem like they were written by a professional who was trying to sound like an amateur. I have no proof of any of this but I imagine with the big budgets of film studios, this would be no problem. For me the user reviews have lost all their use and I have simply stopped going to the site as much as I used to.
Aug 29, 2012
I think the distinction that Scott is trying to draw is between cheating the system versus participating in the system.

If you are trying to get your product on store shelves in the USA and you bribe the buyer at WalMart, you are circumventing the (hoped for) merit-based system in order to jump ahead in line versus what might otherwise be judged as a better product. That would seem to be cheating the existing system.

If you are trying to get your product on the shelves in Elbonia, where every single vendor bribes the buyer, then you are simply trying to let your product compete on even terms. That would seem to be simply participating in the system.

So, I guess my answer would be if 100% of the other guys are doing it, then it would arguably be "ethical" to cheat. However, if 20% or even 5% of the other guys are managing to compete without cheating, then it would be unethical to join the cheaters.
Aug 29, 2012
Sorry, but you sound more like the pointy-haired boss than Dilbert, here. I have to agree with G33v3s. It is way too easy to adopt that "everyone does it" attitude. Then you are part of the problem. If someone enters a bad or fake review, engage them in dialog. Maybe they have a legitimate complaint and it needs to be attended to. If it is really fake, take the time to address it in a response, not by adding another ;fake; review to offset it, but by demonstrating that the point(s) raised are invalid or wrong.

In other words, social media is supposed to support 2-way dialog, not just a monologue. Address the wrong, don't perpetuate them.

[Everyone agrees it's wrong when only 10% do it. Where's your cut-off point? How about 80%? -- Scott]
Aug 29, 2012
Stepping around the ethical issue for a moment, and talking about reviews, this is something I'd love you to write about someday: the whole "reputation economy" concept. Because that is what make online reviews work or not work.

The simple answer is: an online reviewer with a higher reputation metric I approve of I use to weight my decision; one with no reputation (or one who's reputation looks like I don't approve of) I ignore.

When I look at a service online with a review, I read the good and bad reviews. The bad ones that are illiterate or have no details I ignore. The ones that says something sucks or is great without a good reason why I ignore .

I think in the future the most valuable asset is going to be reputation, and not just one, but multiple ones in various fields. Amongst my friends, for example, I have a high reputation metric for tech, food, and a few niche fields. But a friend who wanted to know if a given perfume was good wouldn't ask me and when I've commented on them (I say all perfumes either smell like soap or like flowers) they dismiss it, because my reputation is low.

Robot random reviewers would have to have a lot of stars next to their name and have a very good argument on the product for me to be fooled. I suppose it's possible an army of robots could vote each other up too.

I imagine the only true well to finally fight this is to have a unique ID on the web, with an encrypted hash behind it, so that you can post reviews and everyone is assured it is not a robot.
Aug 29, 2012
By the way, I just reviewed my own comment with a thumb's up. :)
Aug 29, 2012
I like your 20% estimate because most online reviews use a 5-Star rating system. 4-5 stars put a product in the better than average category, 3 is average, etc. If one out of 5 reviews is a fake, it would be likely to swing the product into a different category.

On the other hand, the breaking point might be much, much lower. Personally, I filter to see only 4-5 star products, and then go directly to the bad reviews to make sure the above average toaster I’m about to buy never exploded on someone, engulfing their house in flames and shrapnel. A couple of bad reviews with a consistent experience might be enough to change my mind -- such as “I saw roaches in Scott’s restaurant.” Or even one bad review if it’s terrifying: “One week after I bought the microwave I had symptoms of radiation poisoning.”

It doesn’t really work the other way. I would never look at a product with two stars, and then buy it because of one gushing five star review.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 29, 2012
Are you trying to justify making some fake reviews? ;)

But in seriousness, unethical behaviour doesn't become ethical just because everyone does it.

Stealing money isn't more or less wrong because 1 or 100 or 1000 of your peers do it. The same goes for anything immoral or illegal. If you object to something that everyone does, combat it, don't just join in.

Actually I retract my earlier Smiley, this is just a justification for something you know to be wrong.

[You forgot to mention that I'm also a holocaust-denying creationist who believes psychics are magic and "excuses" rape. -- Scott]
Aug 29, 2012
20%? Really? You think online reviews would become useless at that point? How did you come up with that number? I ask because, off the top of my head, I would think that any amount less than 50% would keep online reviews useful because chances are you're still learning more useful stuff about the product than disinformation. And if we add fake reviews like the one you mention that do, in fact, contain useful information about the product that number goes higher.
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog