Fake reviews, trust, and why managing digital communities is really, really hard

I helped to run blogging community Blogcritics back in the day. My friend, founder Eric Olsen, is a master at managing online communities. He makes it look easy, using a mix of relentless engagement, aplomb, enthusiasm, and occasional sternness to keep the restless and vocal hordes of bloggy commenters and commenting bloggers in line (and online).

I bring this up because managing online communities is really, really hard. It was hard when the Internet was a little bit younger and smaller and more innocent, pre-algorithms and bots and fake news. And it’s vastly more difficult today.

I’m as harsh a critic of Facebook and other social platforms as anyone, but it’s important to keep in context that the issues that they’re trying to address are incredibly difficult even with massive brain power and resources thrown at combating them.

Here’s a good example: Amazon has a serious “fake product reviews” problem.

  • The fake Amazon review economy is a thriving market, ripe with underground forums, “How To Game The Rankings!” tutorials, and websites with names like (now-defunct) “amazonverifiedreviews.com.”But the favored hunting grounds for sellers on the prowl is Amazon’s fellow tech behemoth, Facebook.

    In a recent two-week period, I identified more than 150 private Facebook groups where sellers openly exchange free products (and, in many cases, commissions) for 5-star reviews, sans disclosures.

(Full disclosure here: I semi-recently had some early conversations with Amazon about a digital product gig in which the role would “incubate” a solution to the fake review problem and then evangelize it to executives within the company with the goal of rolling it out more widely. I thought it was… strange that they wanted to bring in someone from outside the company in a non-executive capacity to tackle a problem that is and will be incredibly challenging to solve.)

Twitter (my favorite social media product) has plenty of its own issues to deal with in terms of policing bad actors (including, some would argue, a certain head of the executive brand of the U.S. government), protecting people from harassment, and blocking bad people from doing bad things. Recently, “CEO Jack Dorsey said the company is looking to change the focus from following specific individuals to tracking topics of interest, a significant shift from the way the service has always operated.”  Dorsey notes that “what’s incentivized today on the service is at odds with the goal of healthy dialogue.”  If this is executed, it will fundamentally change the way that Twitter works. It remains unclear if this will result in the desired impact, but Twitter is at least discussing fairly radical changes to its core product experience.

Then there are times when social media companies actively do the opposite of helping:

  • #Linkedin is becoming scary with fake connect requests being sent, making you think the other person has genuinely sent the invite. Only later realising that Linkedin is playing the users by auto generating the requests.

Not sure if that one is real or some spammy thing, but it does speak to the increasingly uneasy relationship with social media products that many of us have.

Then there are times when companies do things to make you scratch your head and wonder what in the world they could have been thinking.

  • Facebook’s controversial factchecking program is partnering with the Daily Caller, a rightwing website that has pushed misinformation and is known for pro-Trump content.

For what it’s worth, here’s what Facebook is saying here:

  • Asked about its collaboration with the Daily Caller, a Facebook spokesperson noted that any news organization can apply to join the program after it gains certification from the non-partisan International Fact-Checking Network, run by the journalism institute Poynter. Poynter could not immediately be reached.

And speaking of Facebook, there’s quite a read from Wired, called “15 Months of Hell Inside Facebook.” You get fun pull quotes like this, for example:

  • The confusing rollout of meaningful social interactions—marked by internal dissent, blistering external criticism, genuine efforts at reform, and foolish mistakes—set the stage for Facebook’s 2018. This is the story of that annus horribilis, based on interviews with 65 current and former employees. It’s ultimately a story about the biggest shifts ever to take place inside the world’s biggest social network. But it’s also about a company trapped by its own pathologies and, perversely, by the inexorable logic of its own recipe for success.

The Wired story starts off with a George Soros quote from Davos’ World Economic Forum, where he says:

  • Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment

Fear about how Facebook (and, to be fair, other social media and tech companies) uses and at times exploits user data and privacy has an impact on every new initiative the company attempts.

When this story came out — “Facebook is working on a voice assistant to rival Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri” — Drew Olanoff (one of my favorite follows on Twitter) responded with:

i mean seriously. here are the things facebook would now like us to trust them with, even though they haven’t properly addressed privacy issues, etc. etc. etc.

– our eyeballs
– our homes/offices
– our voice

yeahhhhhhNOPE

Techcrunch rips into Facebook for simply offering a sale(!) on its Portal product with, “Facebook’s Portal will now surveil your living room for half the price.”

  • No, you’re not misremembering the details from that young adult dystopian fiction you’re reading — Facebook really does sell a video chat camera adept at tracking the faces of you and your loved ones.

So, yes, these problems are incredibly difficult to solve for, but Facebook in particular has done a good job of deserving “blistering external criticism” along the way. It’s no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg has spent recent months attempting to reinvent himself as an advocate for stronger Internet privacy and election laws.

Or, as a piece from The Ringer succinctly puts it:

  • The company’s motto used to be “move fast and break things”; now it might be “move fast and fix reputation.”

This post originally appeared in what had originally been called The Eric Berlin E-mail Newsletter. To get a weekly blast of pop culture, digital media, and politics that helps make sense of an increasingly frazzled world, sign on up for The Berlin Files here.

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