Facebook and eBay have made commitments to do more to stop fake reviews being sold on their platforms after coming under pressure from a UK markets regulator -- even as fresh examples of the problem have been found on Facebook-owned Instagram.
Last June the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) warned the two platform that they must do more to prevent the sale of fake reviews on their platforms, saying it had found “troubling evidence” of a “thriving marketplace for fake and misleading online reviews.”
The regulator estimates that more than three-quarters of UK shoppers are influenced by reviews when they shop online, with billions of pounds being spent every year based on write-ups of products or services -- which in turn encourages an illegal trade in fake and misleading reviews.
A few months after the CMA's warning UK consumer rights group Which? released the results of its own investigation of the problem -- singling out Facebook for having failed to move the needle (while finding eBay had made progress).
Today the CMA says Facebook has removed a total of 188 groups and disabled 24 user accounts as a result of its investigation. While eBay has permanently banned 140 users after the intervention.
The regulator said both companies have now pledged to put measures in place to "better identify, investigate and respond to" the trade in fake reviews, and help prevent such content from appearing in the future -- with Facebook agreeing to introduce "more robust systems" to detect and remove such content; and eBay saying it has improved its existing filters to "better identify and block listings" for the sale or trade of online reviews.
Commenting in a statement, CMA chief executive Andrea Coscelli said: "We’re pleased that Facebook and eBay are doing the right thing by committing to tackle this problem and helping to keep their sites free from posts selling fake reviews."
"Fake reviews are really damaging to shoppers and businesses alike. Millions of people base their shopping decisions on reviews, and if these are misleading or untrue, then shoppers could end up being misled into buying something that isn’t right for them – leaving businesses who play by the rules missing out," he added.
The CMA's press release does not contain any detail of the kinds of improvements the pair have agreed to but Facebook told us it's looking into developing automated technology to help detect and remove the bogus content.
Commenting in a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said:
Fraudulent activity is not allowed on Facebook or Instagram, including offering or trading fake reviews. While we have invested heavily to prevent this kind of activity across our services, we know there is more work to do and are working with the CMA to address this issue. Since we were first contacted by the CMA, we have identified and removed over 180 groups and 24 accounts for violating our rules and have taken robust steps to prevent this type of fraudulent activity from re-appearing on our platforms. This includes exploring the use of automated technology to help us detect and remove this content quickly, before people see it and report it to us.
An eBay spokesperson also told us: “We maintain zero tolerance for fake or misleading reviews and will continue to take action against any seller that breaches our user polices. We welcome today’s CMA report, as well as their acknowledgement of our ongoing enforcement work on this issue.”
Despite the CMA chalking up the platforms' pledge to 'do more' as a win for consumers, it also reveals it's found fresh examples of fake reviews traded on Facebook-owned Instagram -- suggesting the game of whack-a-fake goes on. And will go on, unless or until platforms face more robust regulation and enforcement vis-a-vis the content they spread and monetize.
The CMA notes that websites have a responsibility to ensure that unlawful and harmful content isn’t advertised or sold through their platforms. However, as it stands, there's little real punishment for failing to tackle the trade in bogus reviews -- beyond reputational damage (and the slow burn of user trust).
The UK government recently proposed legislation to tackle a range of online harms, setting out a safety-first plan to regulation Internet firms last year -- which could mean more stringent controls on platform content in future. For now, though, regulators only really have tough words in their toolbox to try to make tech giants clean up their act.
The CMA says it reported the instances of fake reviews that it found being traded on Instagram to Facebook, adding: "Facebook has committed to investigate the issue" -- and saying it "will be seeking a commitment from Facebook to take action to tackle these further issues."