Are we awash in a sea of fabricated reviews?

Increasingly, writers-for-hire are paid to write glowing online reviews of books they haven’t read.

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    Cornell University researchers check for an excessive number of superlatives to determine if an online book review is for real.
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That book? Oh, we loved it. Gripping, suspenseful, couldn’t put it down. A real page-turner.

Sound like an online review you recently read? It might be a fake.

From Amazon to Trip Advisor to Yelp, we’re awash in a sea of fabricated reviews, according to a recent piece in The New York Times.

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“As online retailers increasingly depend on reviews as a sales tool, an industry of fibbers and promoters has sprung up to buy and sell raves for a pittance,” writes David Streitfeld in his piece, “In a Race to Out-Rave, 5-Star Web Reviews Go for $5” .

If sounds, sadly, like the slick operations of an under-the-table ninth-grade history-paper-writing scheme.

Independent companies hire people to write glowing reviews of things they know nothing about – including books they haven’t read – for a quick buck, then sell those reviews to online retailers.

“For $5, I will submit two great reviews for your business,” pitched an entrepreneur on the help-for-hire site fiverr, reported the Times. On another forum, Digital Point, a poster wrote, “I will pay for positive feedback on TripAdvisor.” A Craigslist post proposed this: “If you have an active Yelp account and would like to make very easy money please respond.”

The Times spoke with Sandra Parker, an online reviewer who was hired to write Amazon reviews for $10 a pop. "We were not asked to provide a five-star review, but would be asked to turn down an assignment if we could not give one,” Ms. Parker told the Times. Her “brief notices for a dozen memoirs are stuffed with superlatives like 'a must-read' and 'a lifetime's worth of wisdom,’” the Times went on.

After determining that most people can’t tell the fakes from the bona fides, a team of Cornell University researchers developed an algorithm to detect fake reviews (which they called "deceptive opinion spam"), explained it a paper, “Finding Deceptive Opinion Spam by Any Stretch of the Imagination.”

The Cornell researchers’ program caught fake reviews 90 percent of the time, and immediately attracted the interest of Amazon, Hilton, TripAdvisor, and other sites.

The fibbed reviews, the researchers found, were typically superlative-laden narratives that were short on substance and description. They tended to overuse the first-person, adverbs like “really” and “very,” verbs, and positive emotions.

No wonder. Fake reviewers often receive free books and other materials from publishers soliciting good reviews – and usually churn out a high volume of reviews for the practice to be profitable.

We’re not surprised by the findings and we don’t think fake reviews are going to stop anytime soon – in fact, they’ll probably get harder to detect. But we are hoping the study puts publishers and sites like Amazon on alert and gets them moving to ferret out the fakes now that readers are on to phony reviews.

Next time you read a phony review, remember this: You can’t judge a book by its cover – or, if it’s fabricated – by its review.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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