Amazon sues admins from 10,000 Facebook groups over fake reviews

If the reviews of the last completely necessary and not at all superfluous thing you bought on Amazon looked like so much copypasta, there’s a good reason: Fake reviews abound and people are getting paid to post them.

Amazon filed a lawsuit Monday against the administrators of more than 10,000 Facebook groups that coordinate cash or goods for buyers willing to post bogus product reviews. The global groups served to recruit would-be fake reviewers and operated in Amazon’s online storefronts in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Spain, Japan and Italy.

If 10,000 Facebook groups sounds like a lot, it’s apparently the sum total of groups Amazon has reported to Facebook since 2020. The company notes that past legal action it’s taken has been effective and “shut down multiple major review brokers,” and yet here we are. They’ve been suing people for this stuff since all the way back in 2015.

The company named one group, “Amazon Product Review,” which boasted more than 40,000 members until Facebook removed it earlier in 2022. That one evaded detection through the time-honored, AI-eluding strategy of swapping a few letters around in phrases that would get it busted.

Amazon says that it will leverage the discovery process to “identify bad actors and remove fake reviews commissioned by these fraudsters that haven’t already been detected by Amazon’s advanced technology, expert investigators and continuous monitoring.”

The monitoring might be continuous but it’s clear that thousands and thousands of illegitimate reviews push products across the online retailer’s massive digital storefront every day, all around the world. And regulators are taking notice — something that’s bound to light a little fire under everyone’s favorite online shopping monolith.

Amazon has been plagued with reviews that artificially boost product ratings for years. A Washington Post investigation back in 2018 found that obviously fake reviews dominated some product categories, including bluetooth headphones and health supplements.

At the time the Post found a thriving cottage industry selling fake reviews on Facebook. Sellers court Amazon shoppers on Facebook across “dozens of networks, including Amazon Review Club and Amazon Reviewers Group, to give glowing feedback in exchange for money or other compensation,” according to the Post.

Amazon acknowledged the scope of the problem in a blog post last year. “Due to our continued improvements in detection of fake reviews and connections between bad-actor buying and selling accounts, we have seen an increasing trend of bad actors attempting to solicit fake reviews outside Amazon, particularly via social media services,” the company wrote.

Amazon said that it reported more than 1,000 review-selling groups to social media platforms in the first quarter of 2021 — up threefold from the same period the prior year. Whether that speaks to the prevalence of fake reviews or the online retailer taking the issue more seriously isn’t clear, but the company was keen to pass the blame onto social media companies for their lax enforcement of those groups when they violate platform rules.

Ultimately, fake reviews aren’t the worst kind of misleading content that internet companies are failing to eradicate. But they are another example of how, when you have a massive enough cash-printing (or cash-burning) internet machine, systemic problems can spiral out of control while you were head down making the line go up. And sometimes those problems incentivize all kinds of bad or weird stuff. In this case: A small industry of people cashing in on making bad products look good — and once that’s all in motion, it’s difficult to untangle the mess the big money machine made.