25 May 2016 14:23:46 IST

How genuine are online reviews?

It may be a great marketing medium but social media has a dark, manipulative side

It’s no secret that on social media platforms like Twitter, you can buy followers and set yourself up as an influencer in no time. But just how corrupt these can be came to light recently when a fake food business won an award purely through social media marketing.

In an experiment to show how this medium has high potential for manipulation, Marc Cowper, boss of start-up Recomazing, set up a fake business with the intention of proving that the system could be manipulated — and very easily at that. You can read about it here .

What they did

Basically, Cowper created a fake food business called Social Bites, developed a logo as well as a company blog. In just 30 minutes, by spending $30, the company had a strong base of 24,000 followers.

Then, he paid social media influencers to tweet about the company, and even registered it on leading Australian review sites. Just as easy as buying followers on Twitter, Social Bites had no issues finding people to write fake five star, positive reviews. In next to no time, the ‘company’ zoomed to the top of the charts as the top rated food business firm. What an easy con! And Cowper didn’t have to spend too much money either — he spent $154 to be precise.

Controlling public opinion

Another piece of news put out by Harvard academics shows how easily social media can be manipulated by governments as well. The Harvard dons found that the Chinese government and its “army of helpers” wrote over 488 million fake posts a year, crafting them so that they looked like they were from ordinary people. As a mechanism for controlling public opinion, flooding information was far more effective than censorship.

Clearly, what this means is that social media is going to end up with massive trust issues. The very thing that ordinary consumers seek in mediums like Twitter — social proof or word of mouth endorsement — is getting destroyed as more and more dishonest practices surface.

It’s easy to spot who is gaming the system. Just spend a few hours on Twitter and you can make out the trends that are paid for and the influencers who have been paid to tweet good things about brands. Very few influencers display finesse while plugging a brand.

But this also means that marketers have their jobs cut out. If people stop believing what’s posted on social media or on reviews sites, then there is a serious problem at hand. This is one medium where regulation is not possible, though there have been cases of litigation over fake reviews.

Clearly, we need more tools and solutions to get some grain of honesty back into the medium.