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Fake reviews persuade us to buy £23bn worth of stuff

Three-quarters of us use online reviews to make purchasing decisions, but many aren't an accurate representation of the good or service we're buying.

There are lots of things people like about buying stuff online - there’s more options, it’s easy to compare prices, and you don’t have to carry it home yourself. But not being able to see or touch the product makes it harder to know important buying info like its size, quality and look. So three-quarters of us seek the opinions of those of have experienced it IRL, i.e. reviewers. It would be a great system, apart from one rather significant snag: quite a lot of the reviews we see online aren’t real.

Fake reviews can be as blatant as a company paying people (or giving out freebies) to write nice stuff about them. They can also be a case of genuine confusion - if customers mix up companies with similar names, say, or review their experience with the delivery service rather than the product itself. And it can even be rooted in a sense of guilt: a New York University study found Uber users rate even below-average drivers five stars because they know Uber kicks drivers off its platform if their ratings fall below 4.6.

Whatever their providence, fake and inaccurate reviews cause Brits to spend £23 billion a year under false pretenses. But how much does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Tricking people into buying something that's not 100 percent what they thought it was would be considered by many to be a relatively harmless, if annoying, deception.

But it makes economists unhappy (the horror!) because a lot of their models and predictions about how economies tick are built around the assumption that people act with something called 'perfect information'. Perfect information is when we know everything we need to make the 'best' choice for ourselves, i.e. the thing that's going to make us the happiest. (Of course, fake reviews are far from the only way information is withheld or manipulated for decision-makers.)/

And there is also a risk that fake reviews could lead people into serious harm. A cabbie whose reckless driving isn’t penalised may end up in a crash that injures passengers. A falsely-praised health supplement could make people sick. And products that don’t live up to expectations are more likely to be instantly chucked out, contributing to landfill waste and other environmental problems.

Read our explainer on: perfect information

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