An Algorithm that Spots Fake Reviews and Exposes Sockpuppets

When I read about an algorithm that can now expose fake online reviews of any kind and expose sockpuppets, I found myself re-reading the article more than once. Evidently, someone’s invented new technology that will not only sort out fake reviews from real reviews, it can also expose sockpuppets and those sockpuppet names will turn hot pink all over the Internet so everyone knows they are socks. The fakes will be linked to their real identities forever. And, even more interesting, the blogs and web sites and social media of these sockpuppets and fake identities will also turn hot pink so everyone knows who they are.

Of course if you don’t use sockpuppets and fake identities online you have nothing to worry about. In fact, this new technology might turn out to be very entertaining. I can’t even imagine how the Internet will look if all sockpuppets and fake identities turned hot pink. Since I’ve never used a sockpuppet in my life, I’m not worried about it. I have posted anonymous comments at times for various reasons. I encourage anonymous comments here on this blog. And I do believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe that it’s human nature to take advantage of a good thing, so to speak, and you can only claim freedom of speech for so long with fake identities. As the old saying goes, “Give her in inch and she’ll take a yard.”

Now, if you believe what I just wrote above I have a bridge in Brooklyn for sale at a very reasonable price. No one’s going to turn hot pink any time soon. But it’s not a complete joke. I actually did read an article a couple of months ago about fake reviews, sockpuppets, and a new algorithm, but I haven’t had time to post anything about it. It’s an article written by, Josh Dzieza, a nice looking young guy who writes for a reputable publication from what I can tell. You can never be too sure anymore, so I always check that out first.

In the article Josh gets into the Jeffery Duns kerfuffle that happened not too long ago, when he (Duns) exposed JR Elroy for talking about his (Elroy’s) books on social media with fake identities.

  “This is RJ Ellory writing about his own book. And he has done this for them all, and yes, I’m proving it in the next few minutes,” Duns tweeted, before exposing Ellory’s pseudonyms.

Even though book reviews seem to get a lot of attention with regard to this topic, Josh isn’t just talking about book reviews. The article gets into all kinds of online corruption…it is what it is…and he mentions other web sites as well as Amazon. Although Amazon is probably the worst of the worst when it comes to reviews that NO ONE can believe…or should believe…it’s not just Amazon. (As a side note, I’ve almost decided that I’m not leaving any reviews on Amazon any longer. I’m not completely sure yet, but I’ve been holding off writing two reviews because I just can’t stand doing it anymore. It feels like a waste of time at this point. If I’m leaving honest reviews for books that I’ve read, it bothers me to know that those reviews that I took time to write are going to be up against fakes. I’ll post more about this in the future. I’m honestly still not sure how I feel yet and I might change my mind.)

But human eyes can go only so far. Fake reviews are ubiquitous on any site that lets users create anonymous accounts, such as Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Yelp; the tech research company Gartner projects that by 2014, between 10 percent and 15 percent of social-media reviews will be fake.

That’s interesting in itself, mainly to see that things like fake identities and sockpuppets are actually being studied and examined by people who seem to be taking it seriously. I’ve read more than a few blog posts since this past summer where some like Joe Konrath don’t seem to think it is serious. I’ve seen it joked about. And I have to wonder why some of these bloggers and writers don’t seem to think it’s serious. It’s obviously not just a few paranoid people talking, especially if companies like Gartner are studying the issue of fakes. We’re talking about major online fraud.

But this was what I found most interesting in Josh’s article:

 Since Duns unmasked Ellory, he has been bombarded with requests to investigate other suspicious accounts; he began looking into one of them, a famous author, and gave up. “There were thousands of reviews. You’d need an algorithm to sort through them.”

Such an algorithm is in the works. Last year Cornell researchers developed a program to detect suspicious hotel reviews on TripAdvisor. The researchers commissioned hundreds of fake hotel reviews using Amazon’s crowdsourcing site, Mechanical Turk, and isolated linguistic differences between genuine reviews and fake ones. They found that among other giveaways, fake reviews use the first-person frequently and pile on effusive adjectives and superlatives.

I would suggest reading Josh’s article in full. The most important thing I took from it wasn’t about whether or not sockpuppets and fake identities are good or bad, or whether or not freedom of speech comes into play. I’m not tying to sound “holier than thou” in this post and I’m not passing judgment on anyone. I’m just curious about one thing: if there is a problem/issue with online reviews, and if there is as much corruption as some claim there is, it sounds to me like there are going to be ways to reveal the fakes in the future and that’s not a chance I’d be willing to take with my name. So if you have done anything like this, you might want to think about the risk you’re taking and clean up your act a little. You just might wind up turning hot pink someday thanks to the same technology that gave the ability to use fake identities and sockpuppets in the first place.

More Detail About Sockpuppets and How Broad a Topic It Is

There have been many things written and discussed about sockpuppets and reviews in the past few months. Most of the time I’m left slightly confused because I’m honestly not sure where some of these things are going. I’ve seen bloggers quote the bible, I’ve seen people comment out of sheer frustration, I’ve seen a handful of bloggers literally go batshit crazy berserk, and I’ve seen most go completely blank on the topic altogether.

But most of all I’ve seen confusion. I just finished reading an article that is totally unrelated to this topic, but in the article the author presented an argument and tried to back it up by saying that “psychologists agree…” And I was left wondering who these so-called psychologists actually are and how many would disagree. Psychology is one of those professions where not everyone agrees, and I think if you’re trying to back up an argument you should have the decency to inform your readers with reliable sources instead of broad statements that amount to nothing more than pure bullshit. I was left confused by this article, the same way I’ve been left confused by so many of the articles and blog posts written about sockpuppets and reviews.

And I don’t think I’m the only one who is confused. So I decided to look for links that discuss the sockpuppet issue in different ways that are not exclusive to publishing and book reviews. It’s important to state that Internet fraud is not just a publishing issue. It’s something everyone either has faced or will be facing sometime in the future.

This link is interesting. It’s from The Consumerist and it gets into fake reviews in general and how scientific methods are now being used to sniff out fakes. I highly recommend reading it in full to grasp the magnitude of the issue.

Researchers from the State University of New York, Stony Brook are using statistical methods to detect if a company has been posting bogus reviews online, says Technology Review. The method can’t root out individual fraudulent reviews, but it can see where fake reviews are distorting the statistical distribution of say, a hotel’s scores. Basically, the method can tell you when something’s fishy.

This article talks about the judge in Oracle and Google’s Java lawsuit and Google’s alleged sockpuppets.

The statement came nearly a month after judge Alsup surprised observers by ordering Google and Oracle to name paid commentators. The judge never spelled out exactly why he’d issued the unusual order, but it looks like he was trying to flush out the financial connections of any of the commentators who had a material effect on the trial.

In another article related to this same topic the judge ordered this:

In an unusual order, issued Wednesday, Judge William Alsup said that he was concerned that the parties in the case “may have retained or paid print or Internet authors, journalists, commentators or bloggers who have and/or may publish comments on this issues in the case.”

This article in Forbes is titled, “Do Consumer Reviews Have A Future? Why Amazon’s Sock Puppet Scandal Is Bigger Than It Appears,” and it gets into a lot of the things I’ve been reading about in publishing for the past few months. I HIGHLY recommend reading this one.

As with any debate between writers, contrary views have sprung up. On his blog, bestselling author JA Konrath used a seductive variant of moral relativism to pen his own version of “The Writer’s Code of Ethics.” Konrath makes the case that ethics is a slippery slope and that punishing Ellory, Leather & Locke was patently unfair because every author is complicit in his own way.

The same article goes on to discuss Konrath’s argument in more detail:

Konrath suggests that since there is volition in the act of cutting down a piece of work, whether you do it honestly or maliciously, it is morally and legally the same act. In other words, “it’s allowed.” For Konrath, a system that includes one-star reviews inherently invites reviewers to commit an act of violence against the described product. He suggests that Ellory had a right to publish malicious reviews even if it was a “shitty thing to do”.

This is another flawed argument (the kind you see a lot in college-level debating) because Konrath is conflating two very different types of reviews: an honest negative review and a dishonest negative review. As we’ve seen previously, a fabricated one-star review is not actually allowed; it’s against Amazon’s terms of service. It may also be illegal.

In this piece, “Sock Puppet Spectacular: Are Online Reviews Completely Worthless, or Only Mostly Worthless?” the title suggests the way many consumers are starting to feel. This one links to another article at Techcrunch.

Some years ago, Amazon accidentally revealed a clutch of other authors praising their own work and ripping into others’. Since then, hundreds of other authors have simply bought fake five-star reviews by the dozen.

I found this article interesting because it’s not about publishing or book reviews. It’s a good example of what’s happening in other industries.

During Conrad Black’s recent trial, prosecutors insisted that the former press baron had engaged in unseemly act known as sock puppetry: an Internet user who logs on to a message board or any other Web community under an assumed name for deceptive purposes. It was alleged that Lord Black himself signed onto a Yahoo Finance message board under the handle “nspector” and did battle, trashing speculators shorting shares of Hollinger International.

The one common thread I seem to find in all these posts and articles is that sooner or later the sockpuppet is revealed…or at the very least the intention was revealed.

Famous Authors Condemn Fake Reviews

There is an interesting article where some very famous bestselling authors are condemning fake book reviews, including Lee Child and Susan Hill.

In this article it states:

The practice, known as “sock puppeting”, has been given added salience by the recent disclosure that best-selling crime author, R J Ellory, whose novels have sold more than a million copies, has been using fake identities to write positive reviews of his own books, his “magnificent genius” and critical attacks on his rivals.

It also says this:

The practice of sock puppetry is not merely dishonest, it is in England and Wales illegal under the 2008 Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations, which makes it a crime to pretend to be a consumer and leave positive reviews of one’s own products.

I recommend reading the article in full, here.

There are links within this article that will lead you to other articles that are just as interesting.