Fake reviews – a legal or moral issue?

The New York state attorney general recently clamped down on companies proven to be posting fake reviews online as well as companies that provide “reputation-enhancement” services by posting fake reviews on behalf of clients. But is this a legal or moral issue? Legal expert Abdullah Mutawi, Partner and Head of UAE for Trowers & Hamlins LLP advises…

In an age where consumers trust one another more than they do ‘experts’, businesses are more desperate than ever to reflect a positive online presence

“The trustworthiness of consumer review websites – or indeed any advice forum – is key to their existence, but many including one of America’s largest review portals, Yelp, have recently found themselves the subject of a debate around whether internet portals can be ‘played’ in a manner which manipulates markets and consumer behavior in a negative way.

These consumer review websites rely on user-generated content, where registered users log in and post reviews about businesses and service providers ranging from Pizza delivery to dentists. The reviews undoubtedly drive consumers in the direction of the businesses in question as a direct result of the positive experiences of its previous customers. This is all fine, until the portals are abused.

Companies the world over are constantly fighting to get a foot in front of their competitors and in an age where consumers trust one another more than they do ‘experts’, businesses are more desperate than ever to reflect a positive online presence on influential sites. This has resulted in a growing practice in company owners, staff or associated marketing and PR professionals posting positive reviews in the pretense of being ‘happy customers’ in order to drive business forward.

But this leaves us at a legal and moral crossroad. Is this actually illegal or just morally wrong? The truth of the matter is that it depends on which country you find yourself in, but in general it is safe to say that this is more of a moral issue when posting positive material, as long as it is not false or misleading. In law there is a material difference between positive spin and a lie. If any consumer can prove that a complete misrepresentation or distortion of the truth induced them to buy a product or service which did not fit the description, then the brand could quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The larger issue lies in the negative reviews. Some companies have concluded that by writing negative reviews about the competition, in addition to positive reviews on their own company, product or service, it greatly increases their chances of success. Again, it often comes down to the laws of each individual country but this type of activity could ultimately put the perpetrator in a position to be sued for damages. While smaller companies would be less likely to bring such a case to court, one could easily see how a multi-national business might sue a competitor if it believed that the competitor was engaged in such activities.

From both a moral and legal standpoint there is a big difference between promotion and deception and deceiving any consumer is typically a serious offence in any country and will always result in negative consequences whether legal or not.”

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