By Jack Shafer
New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman made Page One news yesterday, September 23, in the New York Times with his announcement that he had shaken down $350,000 from 19 companies he had accused of violating "laws against false advertising" and which "engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices."
Schneiderman didn't call the $350,000 collected a "shakedown" in his press release. Rather, he called it an "agreement" with 19 New York firms in exchange for their promise to stop flooding such websites as Yelp, Google Local, and Citysearch with fake online consumer reviews. The fake reviews, written for pay by freelancers both here and abroad, were purchased for as little as $1 a pop, and sang the praises of a charter bus company, a teeth-whitening emporium, a strip club, and a hair-removal service, among other companies. Both "reputation management" companies procuring the fake reviews and companies that purchased the fake reviews entered into the agreement with the attorney general.
That the reader reviews appearing in Yelp and Citysearch pages might be as loaded as a pair of dice at a floating craps game will not astonish anybody who has ever read those pages. On more than one occasion, I have struggled to find a single trustworthy review beneath a restaurant or services listing. The positive reviews always read too positive, as if composed by somebody with a neurotransmitter imbalance, and too many of the negative reviews seem animated by some vile but unnamed transgression committed by the proprietor. Had the attorney general's investigators desired to perform a useful public service, they would have found the honest reviews on consumer referral sites and marked those pages with a yellow highlighter.
Of course, honest Yelp reviews can be as potentially dangerous to the well-being of consumers as dishonest ones produced for pay. Let's say some tongueless fool fancies himself a connoisseur of Mexican food, starts contributing his rave views of this cantina and that taqueria to Yelp, and readers start following his advice. Perhaps I go too far to describe an incorrect opinion stated forcefully a fraud, but surely the consumer damage done by the misinformed online reviewers equals or surpasses the consumer damage done by the paid writers of fake reviews. Where is the New York attorney general when you need him to exterminate that class of fraud?
If Attorney General Schneiderman were serious about stamping out the "large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet" that he claims to be investigating, he'd look into the "sponsored content" racket (aka, "native advertising"), in which online publishers accept money from advertising clients (Logitech, Scientology, Coca-Cola, Dell, et al.) to dress up advertising messages in the cloth and stitching of editorial content. These pages are easily larger-scale and more intentionally deceitful than any of the scams described in Schneiderman's press release.
Casting his net further, Schneiderman could consider checking in with the authors of book reviews, movie reviews, restaurant reviews, and product reviews, and the editors who pay them. Editors have been known to exert influence to coax a positive or negative review out of a writer, or to throttle back negativity. Also deserving space on his investigative agenda is the dust-jacket blurb, the most deceitful practice in publishing in which book authors and editors solicit positive endorsements from other authors (and notables) for display on their book cover. In many cases, the blurbs are payback for some favor the book author has performed in the past or an exercise in "logrolling," that is, a debt incurred by the author that can only be repaid by scribbling an equally sparkling blurb for the blurber's next book.
Schneiderman mustn't neglect the product endorsement industry. Do those celebrity endorsers really love the product or service as much as they say they do? Or are celebrity endorsers just saying those nice things for the money, like Yelp's paid reviewers working in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Eastern Europe, whom the attorney general's squad uncovered in their sleuthing? Or what about the political endorsements vanquished candidates toss at their former opponents, especially after a bitter squabble of a campaign? Are these endorsements, which often come with a promise by the victor to help the loser retire his campaign debts, not deceitful, dishonest, and fraudulent, too?
It's ridiculous to think the office of the New York attorney general — or the entire People's Liberation Army surfing the Web 24 hours a day — can possibly police the billions of user reviews running on Yelp and other similar sites. What burns the AG, I think, is the delightful excess of speech produced by the Web, which makes pitiful his modern exercises in enforcement. Back in the old days, a fraudulent advertising statement placed on a billboard or printed in a newspaper was easily tracked down and detained. But the Web makes a mockery of a cop who wishes to walk the Yelp beat.
The crime of fake reviews on Yelp — if you want to consider it a crime — does less long-term damage to consumers than it does to Yelp, whose reputation declines almost every time I read the reviews on one of its pages. Fake reviews on Yelp, properly considered, are Yelp's problem, not the state of New York's. Let the Yelp people clean up the sewer. And the attorney general? Aren't there any genuine crimes in the state for him to investigate?
(Jack Shafer is a Reuters columnist covering the press and politics. Opinions are his own.)