Today we rely on reviews sites to provide us with a firsthand perspective on the products that we want to buy and the experiences that we want to try. What’s the best Italian restaurant in Manhattan? Ask Yelp. Exactly how good is that blockbuster movie everyone is talking about? Check out Rotten Tomatoes. Which TV is the best one for gaming that won’t ruin a budget? Read the reviews on Amazon by people who actually own the products. From reviews, customers get reliable info on a product and businesses get free advertising from advocates and influencers weighing in on their brand offerings.
However this model can be jeopardized, when the review system is infiltrated by users and groups that use it to publish false opinions to socialize their own sentiments by tanking or inauthentically boosting a review score. We call this tactic review bombing.
Review Bombing: A common coordination tactic in which a large group of users organizes to create negative reviews of a product or work with the deliberate intent of reducing sales and popularity.
The open nature of review systems makes it vulnerable to abuse. Posting content such as reviews known to be untrue or under the false impression of being a legitimate product owner or viewer, is an example of disinformation and it can undermine the brands and customers that rely on this source.
Threat of False Reviews
For established brands the danger of review bombing is that the reviews are not based on quality or content. Most of the time review bombings occur when large numbers of actual people with legitimate accounts organize against a company because they don’t agree on the stance of the brand. The way the recommendation system is designed, it is accessible to anyone. Making it all the easier for people to manipulate it. Brands know that a slew of bad reviews can mean lost customers. Without any way to tell if activity on different review platforms are authentic or not, review bombing can be completely out of a brand’s control.
How Review Bombing Takes Shape
Review bombers have specific strategies they choose from depending on the type of product under review. Most of the time these strategies are organic and rely on other coordinated users to further propagate the message.
Here are some of the common review bombing strategies:
Sellers pay reviewers to write favorable reviews of their products. According to Amazon’s terms of service, sellers can’t outright buy product reviews. But enforcing this is too difficult and inconsistent to be meaningful. Even a “Verified Purchase” badge doesn’t prevent a paid reviewer from sugarcoating the review.
Often used for swaying reviews, brigading is a strategy in which an online community organizes to flood part of another online community with a certain opinion. This is a valuable tool for abusers of product reviews in particular because most customers don’t read reviews and only look at the number of reviews and the number of stars. A social media group can easily brigade to trash or trumpet a product. This practice has been used often and effectively enough to have gotten the attention of Federal Trade Commission representatives who believe it is deceptive. Brigading is also used when review bombers organize to trash a movie or book with the specific goal of ruining the premier or release. Bombers log on to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, iMDB or Amazon and post disparaging reviews whether they have seen the movie or not.
New Knowledge detected a case of review bombing against the Radisson Hotel brand. After it was announced that the Radisson hotel in Ontario, Canada agreed to accept refugees from the Canadian government, that the Canadian government paid to lodge, users began to attack the brand online. Soon followed a Review Bomb on Tripadvisor saying that there were refugee sacrifices of goats going on in the bathrooms and lobbies. That lie was successfully laundered up into the press when the Toronto Sun wrote about it as if it was fact.
Sellers frequently edit an existing page to promote a new product instead of creating an entirely new product page. By repurposing the existing page, the seller retains the product reviews for the original product. The result is an inauthentic number of reviews. The new product inherited the old product’s number of reviews and the number of stars received.
Defusing the Bomb
When review bombers organize in large numbers it’s best to show up with algorithms. Detection technology that leverages machine learning can put power back in the hands of the brand. Repeated and extensive experience harvesting and analyzing online review data for signs of coordination or fraudulence has exposed brigaders and put review bombing trolls in retreat. With evidence of manipulation, brands can make a case to have the platforms potentially remove reviews and revise their terms to prevent future abuse of the system.