Bribery is illegal, but is it unethical?
Most of you would say yes. You probably reflexively imagined a situation in which most people are honest and only a few cheaters are doing the bribing. But suppose I say I'm talking about the country of Elbonia where bribery is so normal and expected that the government publishes helpful bribery guidelines. In the case of Elbonia, is bribery unethical? Some of you probably say no. Context matters. If literally everyone is doing it, it's just how the system works. In its own way it's completely honest and transparent. You might even rename bribery to "tipping."
Now let's apply the same reasoning to fake product reviews online. Suppose I ask you if paying for fake positive reviews online is unethical. Most of you would say it is. Here again you reflexively assume most reviews are honest and only a few weasels are behind the fake ones.
But what if most reviews online - both good and bad - were fakes, but the public didn't generally know it? In that environment, would it be unethical to add a few fake positive reviews of your own? Let's say the fake positive reviews that you add are honest in the sense that your product is genuinely good. You would be improving the quality of information for consumers. You might argue that letting the misleading reviews stand would be the bigger crime. You're on the side of the angels, who just happen to be on your side economically.
I don't know how many products have fake online reviews. But over time I would expect the number to increase steadily toward 100%. I use music pirating as my model for that prediction.
My assumption is that nearly every teen who listens to a lot of music has done some pirating. The crime is simple to commit, has an immediate payoff, an ambiguous victim, and virtually zero chance of punishment. When you have those four conditions, nearly everyone becomes a criminal.
Now suppose you have a product or business that is reviewed online. You know from experience that your competitors will leave some fake bad reviews of your product, and those fake reviews are a disservice to your potential customers. Do you have an ethical obligation to balance out the fake bad reviews with your own good ones?
The problem of fake bad reviews is especially troubling for anyone who dabbles in more than one line of business. If a politician writes a spy novel in her spare time, you can expect people from the opposing political party to write fake reviews panning the book. Online reviews are a convenient way to punish strangers with impunity.
Fake reviews were a major factor when I was deciding whether to write a new book. Online reviews for my work generally bring out the nuts that have convinced themselves I'm a holocaust-denying creationist who believes psychics are magic and "excuses" rape. It sounds funny when I lump all four rumors in the same sentence, but I've literally had to deal with each of them. It's an occupational hazard.
Now add on top of that my stalker who is sure I sometimes travel to Canada and rifle through her belongings before copying her computer files and having my way with the family dog. She likes to call my business associates and inform them of my many crimes and misdeeds. I wouldn't expect a good book review from her.
Now add the angry customer who ate at a local restaurant I once owned. He doesn't know the restaurant changed ownership two years ago and he's mad about the slow service he got on that busy Saturday last month. I wouldn't expect a good book review from that guy.
The interesting question is not whether fake reviews exist - because that much we know - but where the breaking point is. I would think 10% fake reviews would be tolerable and the system would still be useful to consumers. But does credibility collapse when we reach an average of 20% fake reviews? How about 30%?
I think the breaking point for online reviews is when fakes reach 20% or so. We're probably above that level for local businesses and approaching it for national products.