China cracks down on exaggerated online service ratings with tougher penalties

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/31 20:23:40

○ Online review aggregators and shopping websites are plagued by fake reviews produced by click farms

Chinese authorities are tackling click farms through tougher sentences in court and bigger fines



Chen Gang, CEO of Chinese travel services and social networking platform Mafengwo, speaks at the BOAO Forum for Asia in South China's Hainan Province in March 2017. Mafengwo is riddled with fake reviews. Photo: VCG

Mafengwo, a major user-generated travel content website in China, was thrown into the spotlight last week after a viral online article claimed it used numerous fake user comments to manipulate its website, improve its image and lure investors.

Although Mafengwo denied the scale of the claims, saying the reviews in question only accounted for 3 percent of the user-generated content the website offers, the article nonetheless shed light on a clandestine online industry that has been plaguing China's online commerce for years: click farms.

As consumers increasingly rely on reviews, ratings and sales record to influence their buying decisions, many businesses have been employing click farms to boost their online presence, giving rise to a billion-yuan business that is still active.

A Chinese tourist poses in front of the Palace of Versailles in October 2014. China has tightened law-enforcement to protect public from being fooled by fake reviews of hotels, restaurants, products and online videos. Photo: VCG

Click farms

The low cost and low entry barrier of the business have resulted in the emergence of a large number of click farms in China in recent years. As early as 2014, Chinese media reported that over 680 websites and over 500 chat groups have been engaging in click farming and faking online ratings. Over 20 million people are allegedly engaged in this clandestine online industry.

Chen Wan, who opened a sushi restaurant in Shanghai last year, told the Global Times that after she posted her restaurant on review website dianping.com, she immediately got phone calls and short messages from "marketing companies" who said they could help rave up the reviews of her new restaurant. "Although I know it isn't right, I still paid 5,000 yuan ($717) to one of these companies to boost my ratings, so that my restaurant's Dianping page could appear more appealing," she told the Global Times.

On milioo.com, which claims to provide a "one-stop solution" for businesses wanting to improve their online rating on shopping platforms such as taobao.com and Pinduoduo, anyone can be a fake review writer as long as they register, and earn a several yuan for each task. Most people who do the tasks are students.

This Global Times reporter registered on the website and was led to a "task hall" with hundreds of tasks including viewing the webpage of products, placing orders and writing fake reviews. The website offers a comprehensive set of tools, including fake package tracking numbers, which can bypass the tough algorithms that aims to crack down on fake reviews on shopping sites such as taobao.com.

An average task will require the freelancer to place an order, advance the payment and write a good review. After the shop who published the task verifies that the task is done, the shop will refund the product cost and pay a reward of 1 to 5 yuan on average to the person who picked up the task.



Other industries

Online commerce is not the only industry that's been plagued by fake reviews and ratings. In recent years, click farms have expanded their businesses to the entertainment industry, as production companies rely heavily on the ratings on social media websites and video websites to boost their publicity.

If you only look at the numbers, China's entertainment industry seem to be flourishing. A television drama called Eternal Love attracted 30 billion views last year, and an average-quality online drama can easily attract at least several billion views on video websites.

According to the pricing of a marketing studio on Weibo, the studio can boost the views on all video platforms including Tudou, Tencent and Iqiyi.

The price of 10,000 views ranges from 2 yuan to 60 yuan, depending on how these views are created. According to the studio, views faked by computers can be easily spotted by the video sites, and are therefore cheaper. Views created by human beings are more "real" and hence more expensive.

A marketing company that helps "brush" ratings for these television dramas told Beijing Youth Daily that manipulating ratings on reviewing website douban.com or social media sites is a common practice when a new film or television drama is being screened. The cost may range from 5,000 to over 100,000 yuan, depending on the difficulty and the number of ratings or fake reviews the specific project requires.

"Long reviews, short reviews, discussions in online forums and likes all have different prices, and it depends on how much of them a project needs. Usually, reviews cost 40 yuan each, discussions cost 40 yuan each, and likes cost 2 yuan each. These are accompanied by ratings of four to five stars," he told Beijing Youth Daily.

 



Stricter regulations

In order to crack down on this online fraud, Chinese authorities are tackling click farms through tougher sentences in court and bigger fines.

In June 2017, the Yuhang District People's Court of Hangzhou ruled against a man called Li Hanyu who profited over 300,000 yuan through his click farming business for Taobao and Tmall merchants. Li was given a total sentence of five years and nine months and a fine of 920,000 yuan, the first case in China in which engaging in a click farming business was ruled as a crime.

According to court rulings, Li was paid for publishing fake information, which violated the order of the market.

"The online shopping environment needs to be cleaned up. Faking sales and reviews will not only mislead consumers when they shop, but also lead to transaction risks. If we fail to establish a healthy, normal online order, it will not only affect consumers but the entire online economy. This case will promote the regulation of online shopping market," Yu Xiaoting, judge of the case, said after the court ruling.

In November in the same year, Alibaba successfully won $30,000 in its first lawsuit against a click farm called Hangzhou Jianshi Network Technology, which it said misled consumers and damaged Alibaba's reputation and competitiveness.

In the entertainment industry, litigation has also started to be an option. Video website Iqiyi successfully sued a Hangzhou company that manipulated video ratings, accusing it of unfair competition. The company managed to create 950 million fake visits from February to June 2017. It charged its clients 15 yuan for each 10,000 visits, gaining up to one million yuan in profits in total. The company was ordered to pay 500,000 yuan in compensation to iqiyi.

Legal action is not the only front against fake reviews.

Online review aggregators and shopping websites are constantly updating their algorithms in a cat and mouse game to fight fake comments.

Unfortunately for the public, right now the click farms have a lot more to gain than the review and shopping sites have to lose.



 



 


Newspaper headline: Fake reviews, real money


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