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.

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Sep 4, 2012
Sept 3

UK Scandal as fake reviews by authors are made public

0 Rank Up Rank Down
Sep 3, 2012
Another comic site - (does that make me a cheater?) - but it seemed pertinent

Aug 30, 2012
I have reviewed products on Amazon and shows (movies and tv series) on IMDB and I will admit, I wonder how many of the reviews I'm reading are phony, and how many future readers will read mine and wonder if they're as phony. At least at IMDB I don't review any current releases only those that are now on DVD or in repeat. I doubt too many businesses will try to generate too much business paying people to write reviews for 'old' products. Like others here have said, I'll read the best reviews and the worst reviews and try to make some kind of decision if it's something I may purchase. For current cinema reviews, I only read those whose reviews I have followed over the years so I know where they 'may' be coming from, and then base my decision on whether to spend money not on their ulitmate recommendation but how I know how what I like compares to what they have stated they like over time.

As far as situational ethics goes, we're all human and we all use them ALL the time in making decisions and judgements, regardless of what some may want to believe. (just look at all the 'rules' in any religion document, and see which ones are condescendingly ignored because a person 'knows' they don't really apply to them anymore; or better yet, those who have found a sect that supports their personal views, while denying those of other sects - ie church shopping which is rampant in the US. Too often a 'holier than thou' attitude is nothing more than situational ethics)

Regarding the question, I'm probably too naive to recognize involved phony reviews off hand, so I can't guess at this time.
Aug 30, 2012
Violating copyright, in the way you're suggesting, is usually not a crime. Most copyright law is civil law, not criminal law.

And on an ethical level, intellectual property law was intended to prevent corporations (specifically printers) from exploiting creative people (specifically authors). Whereas today it has been perverted into a set of legal tools that corporations use to cheat creative people and consumers. Since smaller parties largely can't afford to patent things (I've tried -- takes 10's of thousands of dollars) or to sue people in court on the basis of copyright and patent (which costs far more).

Most people don't arbitrarily accept a law as an ethical dictum when very wealthy individuals (notably Disney) explicitly designed them to be used in a one-sided manner, and bribed them into law.
-8 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2012
Scott, your attempt to rationalize 'situational ethics' is really just your atheist worldview rearing its ugly head. An atheist has no objective moral compass to guide them, even if they are the only one on the planet doing the right thing. It's funny how atheists in America love the Constitution, and want to live like Jesus (minus the Christianity), but atheists in the USSR had no problem with the KGB dragging families off to Siberia (or worse) in the middle of the night. Atheists merely mimic the morality of the majority, they don't have their own.
Aug 30, 2012
You may be interested to know, Scott, that Staceys Cafe is still claiming you as a co-owner. http://www.eatatstaceys.com/staceys-cafe/about-us.php
Aug 30, 2012
Ha ha. Scot forget his usual disclaimer. Let's bury him.
Oh no, he is only making a case for dishonesty. Who would be infuriated by that? Forget it.
Aug 30, 2012
chuck.milnar, the thing about the people who write the laws is they often write them so they are above the laws that they forcibly apply to everyone else. Dick Morris, who's done campaign work for both reps and demos, says that nothing gets done in washington without big money coming in from both sides. A politician who gets voted out often ends up in one of those bribery groups... err lobbying firms.
+5 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 30, 2012
You might argue that faking reviews or bribing is not entirely unethical when you are doing it for the greater cause. But in the end, the question whether it's ethical is not the most important one. As you point out yourself, the whole system breaks down and becomes useless when too many people cheat. Same thing goes for bribing: those countries where bribe becomes 'ethical', go down the drain eceonomically (Greece, several African countries).

I think the system from Amazon where you can pick the "most useful good review" and the "most useful bad review" is quite good. They give you a good feel of the product.
Aug 30, 2012
I worked in Africa for a short while where they hate their corruption but indulge in it at all levels. If you are involved in a car accident, you'd better make sure you have money available for the local police. If trying to get aid into the country, the customs officials all want their cut. Compare that with healthcare in the UK where we have hospital treatment free at the point of care. However, if you don't want to wait the nominal 18 months for an operation, you can jump the queue by 'going private' and be treated by the same doctor in the same hospital immediately.
Aug 30, 2012
I think it's relatively easy to spot when bad reviews are fake. With books, it's generally easy to tell when a reviewer has actually read the book. With something like hotels, if there are a hundred reviews, I discount anything negative unless multiple people have the same complaint. You've spoken in the past about being the victim of negative reviews of books. But a book is a constant object, which presents itself the same to everyone. This is not the case for restaurants and hotels, where people often have vastly different experiences. So I think it's much harder to write fake negative comments for books. When reviewers of books nitpick on Amazon, there are generally lots of comments on the review saying that the reviewer is being too harsh.
Aug 30, 2012
To those people insisting that bribery is inherently unethical, even in Elbonia: what about tipping? There's no objective difference between tipping and bribery, the only distinction is the social expectations involved.
Aug 29, 2012
Bribery is wrong because it is someone abusing their position of power to make extra money. A police force, for example, becomes pointless once graft becomes rampant - when justice can be bought it isn't justice at all.
Aug 29, 2012
Are you sure bribery is illegal? Is there a legal definition of bribery?

If I go to my congressman, and put $10,000 cash on his desk and ask him to vote a certain way on a bill, I think we agree that is a bribe.

But if I ask my congressman to make a speech at a private function, pay him a $10,000 "speaking" fee, and then he votes the way I want, is this still a bribe?

If the latter is considered bribery, then I think every member of Congress, the Senate, the current President (and virtually all former Presidents) are guilty of accepting bribes.
Aug 29, 2012
@Waltzking: Frequent flier programs aren't bribes, their kickbacks.

I have long wanted to take that system to it's logical conclusion. Most companies cap the price that their employees can pay for a hotel in a given city, but they have no input on how nice that hotel must be. Therefore, my a frachise concept would be called "Kickback & Relax" hotels. Participating hotels could charge $150 per night for $100 rooms, and with every 5th night stayed, the traveler would earn a free night in a Carribean resort.

+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 29, 2012
Why is it more serious to smash windows of a new house than to smash the windows of a near-derelict house? Because the value of the new one is higher. Hence the damage on the latter is smaller. Both are wrongdoings but with a differnt "ethical value" (this definition might be a little problematic but I'm struggling with the language)
An online review system with 80% fake reviews is nearly worthless, whereas a review system with <3% fake reviews is highly useful. I don't think it's a question about "tolerable". All fake reviews are unethical in my opinion, but the virtual damage is different and depends on the fake-percentage of the online platform.
Aug 29, 2012
Ethics should not be defined by context. In that context I could say that murdering other ppl is not unethical in the US (in fact, in some states it is even legal (e.g. Florida)).

I use the Golden Rule to define ethics: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_Rule.

Do I want to be murdered? Nope. So I do not murder.
Do I want to be robbed? Nope. So I do not steal.

In the west there is a dangerous tendency to define ethics by economic value. I.e. what is the cost/gain of doing something. Like you point out, the cost/gain ratio of pirating music is practically 0, so pirating music sense makes sense (and not pirating music is stupid).

But I doubt that societies based on this principle will prosper in the long run.

Regarding fake reviews:
Fake positive reviews exists much longer than fake negative reviews. In the good old days before the internet, the only reviews of products were in the mainstream media. And those reviews you could buy (not directly of course, just buy some ad space in the magazine).
Aug 29, 2012
I've always wondered why frequent flyer programs aren't considered bribery. Consider - if you travel for business, you're encouraged to use a particular airline in order to earn miles for personal flights (or upgrades) on that airline. You personally gain from the decision to use that airline, but the business, which is paying for your flights, doesn't. Isn't that a kickback?
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 29, 2012
I find it interesting that no-one else has addressed the bribery issue by breaking it down to the different participants. There is a briber and a bribee. The bribee is ALWAYS unethical for taking money just to do their job; I don't care how many other people are doing it.

When you ask for a favour from a friend or relative to "jump the queue", is it really that different from using money as an enticement? YOU have no power; the bribee is in the ethical (position of trust) dilemma. I personally would hesitate to actually offer a bribe but, if it was requested of me, I certainly wouldn't feel that I was the one being unethical by making the payment (although I would feel a bit angry/dirty about the situation).

Let's not excuse the bribee by saying that the briber is equally at fault; personal responsibility should not be for sale.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Aug 29, 2012
To try to get around the fake review problem, I basically only read reviews that take the time to tell me *why* they liked something or didn't...with specifics. Personal data that your husband uses the product...irrelevant. So many things look specific, but are padding. Ergo, the review must be very fact filled. If the blue jeans fit you..give me what size you ordered, your height, weight, are you short/long waisted etc. Do they bleed color onto your car seat? That sort of thing. But "OMG, they fit awesome and make me look great!" Meh, I totally don't care.
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