When you look up reviews on your favorite site, beware: they could be fakes. 

The phenomenon of business owners posting false (and positive) reviews of their establishment or product has been known for a long time. The New York Times documented the paid positive reviews. 

It should be no surprise, then, that the trend for posting false reviews is picking up in China, one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world. At the University of Victoria in Victoria, Canada, graduate student Cheng Chen went undercover to get into the strange underworld of China’s “water army.”

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The term comes from flooding sites with positive or negative reviews and comments. In one case, Chen studied the competition between two big Chinese IT companies, called Quihu 360 and Tencent.

In September 2010, Quihu 360 claimed that Tencent secretly scanned user’s hard drives when its instant message client was used. Supposedly Tencent released software that could be used to detect hidden operations on the computer. Tencent then said users could no longer use their service if the computer had Quihu 360’s software installed.


A large number of online news communities and websites in China erupted with comments and blog posts about the conflict. Chen noted in his research that a lot of the comments were coming from newly-registered user IDs that were not often used afterwards — a clear indication of paid posters, though both companies denied hiring them.

To find out more, Cheng registered with a Chinese site that recruits such paid posters. He registered and got an assignment from the webmaster. Paid posters get their fees only if the posts they write don’t get deleted by the moderators or webmasters at the sites they post to.

Cheng also found some interesting patterns. Paid posters don’t have the time to read through replies to a post, so they will tend to write new ones or start new threads rather than reply. Fully half of the potential paid posters would put up a new one in less than 150 seconds. Normal users sometimes do that too, but much less often — about 23 percent of the time. The majority (54 percent) are split between intervals of 150 to 300 seconds and 300 to 450 seconds, while another 22 percent post at longer intervals.

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Cheng told Discovery News that the real problem is finding better ways to filter out the spam, and the problem is similar to that of cleaning up email. “Years have passed, and email spam still remains a big problem and many researchers are making an effort to improve the filtering system,” he said. “The situation is the same as with paid posters. So we wish more researchers would come into this field and come up with more effective ways to detect those malicious users.”

A team at Cornell University has developed an algorithm they say can weed them out with software, and Cheng said their work is a step in the right direction. The Cornell group's focus was on fake product reviews while Cheng’s was on the conflict between two companies, but the dynamics, he said, are similar.

Cheng noted while this business is growing in China, there is no evidence that the paid users operate in the United States or other countries, primarily because of the language barrier.

 Image: Wikimedia Commons