Fake online reviews: If your gut tells you it’s phony, it probably is

YORK, United Kingdom — In the digital age, positive online reviews are an important part of any modern business. Consequently, it has become more and more common to see fake reviews all over the internet. For consumers trying to pick the best hotel, restaurant, or even a grocery item, attempting to differentiate between fake and legitimate reviews can feel overwhelming. However, a new study finds all one has to do to identify a fake online review is adopt an investigative eye and follow their gut.

Researchers from the University of York say their experiment reveals human instinct can be quite accurate at finding fake reviews. In short, don’t overthink it. If the review seems to good to be true, or reads like a bot wrote it, it’s probably fake.

“Reading and writing online reviews of hotels, restaurants, venues and so on, is a popular activity for online users, but alongside this, ‘fake’ reviews have also increased,” says Dr. Snehasish Banerjee in a university release. “Companies can now use computer algorithms to distinguish the ‘fake’ from the ‘real’ with a good level of accuracy, but the extent to which company websites use these algorithms is unclear and so some ‘fake’ reviews slip through the net.”

“We wanted to understand whether human analysis was capable of filling this gap and whether more could be done to educate online users on how to approach these reviews,” the lecturer in marketing from York’s Management School continues.

Human brain as sharp as a computer

Researchers recruited a total of 380 people for this project. The team asked each person to look at three hotel reviews and determine which were fake and which were real. Each participant received a different assortment of reviews. For example, some were given three fake reviews, others a mix of real and fake, and so on.

Study authors also instructed participants to look out for the same “cues” algorithms search for while detecting fake reviews. Such cues include number of superlatives used, level of details given, reading level, and noncommittal appearance.

While some human participants fared better than others in terms of concrete cue recognition, even those who weren’t able to pick up on the small details AI would still found success by trusting their instincts.

“The outcomes were surprisingly effective. We often assume that the human brain is no match for a computer, but in actual fact there are certain things we can do to train the mind in approaching some aspects of life differently,” Dr. Banerjee explains. “Following this study, we are recommending that people need to curb their instincts on truth and deception bias – the tendency to either approach online content with the assumption that it is all true or all fake respectively – as neither method works in the online environment.”

“Online users often fail to detect fake reviews because they do not proactively look for deception cues. There is a need to change this default review reading habit, and if reading habit is practiced long enough, they will eventually be able to rely on their gut instinct for fake review detection,” he concludes.

The study is published in Information & Management. 

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