|Definition: Publishing false online user reviews to improve the reputation of one's enterprise|
|Keywords: China – East Asia – Reputation – Entrepreneurship – Trade – User review – Cyberinformality – Concealment|
|Clusters: Market – Creating facades|
|Author: Xiangyi Liao|
|Affiliation: Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK|
By Xiangyi Liao, Alumnus, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
|The Chinese term ‘shuahaoping’ (刷好评) means ʻbrushingʼ (shua) good reviews (haoping) and refers to the practice of publishing false user reviews for products or services to improve one's business reputation, usually by using low-skilled hired labour. The buzzword ‘shua’ (刷) means to access resources necessary for improving an individual’s current situation through informal, unfair, repeated but effective action. Many things can be ‘brushed’: ranks (shuadengji, 刷等级), experience (shuajingyan, 刷经验), or purchase orders (shuadan, 刷单). ‘Shuahaoping’ is often used interchangeably with the expressions ‘shuaxinyu’ (刷信誉, to brush reputation) and ‘shuaxinyong’ (刷信用, to brush credit).|
Glowing reviews of the purchased commodity conventionally represent consumer approval. However, in China, positive reviews on certain online selling platforms are associated with shuahaoping. This practice is so prevalent that it has become the new qianguize (潜规则, an underlying, unspoken rule) in the online retailing industry. Research of eight shopping platforms suggested that the average rate of fake reviews is as high as 45 percent, with the highest rate in one sample reaching 83 percent (Shangshanruoshui 2017). Despite their frequency, fake reviews are rarely sanctioned. One study found that out of 4,109 sellers who posted shuahaoping jobs online within two months, only 89 (2.2 per cent) were detected and penalised by the Alibaba Group's Taobao website, the leading e-commerce platform in China (Xu et al. 2015: 1297).
This low detection rate can be partly attributed to the careful process with which shuahaoping is conducted. According to an insider report, shuahaoping does not entail only leaving a positive review for a product. Shuashou (刷手), the low-skilled workers hired to perform shuahaoping, go through the entire shopping process of actual consumers, apart from receiving the goods: they search for products, browse through product pages, bargain with online sellers, make purchases and receive parcels, which are usually empty (Xiao, 2015). As each purchasing step adeptly follows that of an authentic order, there is no evidence to prove that these orders and reviews are fake. In fact, professional shuashou that form an underground market of elevating seller reputation guarantee that they are able to prevent shuahaoping from being detected by the e-commerce platform (Xu et al 2015: 1296).
Shuahaoping bears resemblance to click-farming, defined as ‘employing low-paid workers to click on particular parts of web pages, especially approval buttons in social media as a way of making businesses seem popular’ (Macmillan Dictionary, n.d.). In both practices, third parties are involved in untruthful expressions in order to promote their employers or the designated commodities. However, while click-farmers can fulfil the task by simply clicking their mouse, for the shuashou the task entails a more complicated process and rigid requirements. Some common requirements in the shuashou job description are: 1) to own a verified account with the person's real name, more than one month of user history and a credit rating higher than two stars (stars are given by the e-commerce platform according to the number of successful purchasing orders and reviewed products); 2) to order less than 4 times per week and less than 8 times per month; and 3) to never have more than 7 paid-for products at a time, either ordered or received. All these requirements are put in place to avoid arousing the suspicion of the platform's detection algorithm (Xiao, 2015).
Savvier and more experienced sellers opt for a variant of shuahaoping called haopingfanxian (好评返现) or ʻcashback on good reviewsʼ, in which authentic customers are offered financial incentives to do shuahaoping. The seller encloses a card in the goods package with a message encouraging consumers to write enthusiastic reviews and with detailed instructions on how they can receive a small cash reward. Consumers who want the cashback are normally required to write at least fifteen Chinese characters and must occasionally provide a picture of themselves using the product to enhance the veracity of their faked review. As everything falsified resembles the authentic practice down to the smallest detail, proving that users are not expressing their genuine fondness of the commodities remains a challenge.
Although this practice is widespread in online shopping websites, similar practices existed before the emergence of e-commerce. Traditionally, when a merchant entered a new market where they had no guanxi connections, they would enlist the help of meizi (媒子) intermediaries to facilitate trade. Some meizi were instructed to act as potential buyers, approaching and pottering about the market stall, creating an illusion that the merchant's goods were in high demand and attracting real consumers. Others pretended to be regular, loyal customers offering their recommendations of the merchant's ware to help convince potential buyers into making purchases. Shuahaoping is the evolutionary product of an old practice that has withstood the test of time and that the anonymous digital environment only helped grow further.
Many scholars believe shuahaoping to be a severe violation of business ethics, a challenge to the established rules and a deceptive act to the detriment of consumers, and should therefore be prevented (e.g. Malbon, 2013; Li and Lou, 2015; Peng et al, 2016). Their studies suggest that the subversive side of shuahaoping might lead to an increase in the seller-buyer information asymmetry and disrupted the order of e-commerce. The information asymmetry refers to the ability of sellers to conceal information from buyers in the online shopping environment. Incorporating customer opinions on which future buyers can make their decisions intends to combat this asymmetry. However, shuahaoping manufactures good reviews and manipulates the online shopping platforms. This induced information asymmetry impedes the communication between the actual product users and the potential buyers. When online retailing websites are plagued with falsified reviews, their businesses become untrustworthy. Moreover, where glowing reviews are easily available, authentic feedback no longer encourages sellers to improve their products. Seller’s survival becomes dependent upon more positive reviews, which defeats the original purpose of the review system.
Yet paradoxically, shuahaoping also supports the e-commerce industry. By inviting consumers to make purchases, this fake-it-till-you-make-it strategy saves new products from the curse of novelty. On Tmall, another Alibaba retail website, an average of 3,000 new products is launched each day (Andrews, 2018). New products without reviews are difficult to sell. Newcomers in e-commerce do not yet have a presentable reputation score since they lack good reviews. In an economy of low trust like China (Zhang and Ke 2002: 2), overly suspicious consumers will not consider buying from such sellers. For the start-ups, a motive for using shuahaoping is simply to obtain positive ‘reference letters’ to help their first customers make a purchase decision. After their first sale, the quality of their products alone can better invite genuine favourable reviews from actual buyers. For new online businesses, fake reviews are better than no reviews, since they boost sales and reputation by creating some degree of ‘trust’ in a distrusting market.
Shuahaoping does not necessarily lead to fraud. Instead, it keeps the market active. In most cases, sellers do not choose to use shuahaoping with the intention to mislead the real customers, since misleading them will rather incur negative reviews from them. As the faked positive reviews reflect the real features of their products, their purpose is to retain new customers and establish a base of regular buyers. Their motivation for displaying more favourable reviews comes from the fact that the number of positive reviews plays a decisive role in consumer’s final choice if the same product is sold by several sellers. Without shuahaoping to provide competitive advantage, some sellers would be squeezed out of the market not because they sell shoddy commodities, but because they do not have enough faked reviews to win consumers’ trust. Thus, shuahaoping has been helping the online shopping platforms to build a vibrant community of sellers and consumers, and this has supported e-commerce. Sellers who commit fraud do exist but they are low in numbers and aim to make a quick profit once for all. The difference of intention separates fraud from informality.
Shuahaoping is difficult to eradicate because of its dual roles in the development of e-commerce. Analogous to guanxi, the more efforts are put to eradicate it, the more covert it will become. For shuahaoping, this would mean that the online sellers would spend even more resources on shuahaoping in order to avoid increased detection. This would increase transaction cost, which would translate into higher price of their products – which would ultimately punish the consumers instead of the sellers.
Andrews, R. 2018. ‘Tmall to Debut 20 Million Products This Year’, Insideretail.hk, https://insideretail.hk/2018/10/12/tmall-to-debut-20-million-products-this-year/
Li, J. & Lou, C. 2015. ‘Zaixian Shangpin Xujia Pinglun Xingcheng yu Yinxiang Zongshu’, Keji Chuangye Yuekan, 28: 38-9
Macmillan Dictionary. n.d. ‘Click Farm’, Macmillan Dictionary, https://www.macmillandictionary.com/buzzword/entries/click-farm.html
Malbon, J. 2013. ‘Taking Fake Online Consumer Reviews Seriously’, Journal of Consumer Policy, 36:139–57
Peng, L. et al. 2016. ‘Consumer perceptions of online review deceptions: an empirical study in China’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 33: 269–80
Shangshanruoshui. 2017. ‘Yong Shuju Shuohua: Daodi Youduoshao Shangpin de Haoping Shi Shuaochulaide?’, Douban, 8 September, https://www.douban.com/group/topic/110457440/
Xu, H. et al. 2015. ‘E-commerce Reputation Manipulation: The Emergence of Reputation-Escalation-as-a-Service’, Proceedings of the 24th International Conference on world wide web, 1296–306
Xiao, M. 2015. ‘Wuhan Daxuesheng Wodi lianggeduoyue Jiekai Taobaomaijia Huaqian shuadan Neimu’, Chutian Metropolis Daily, 15 April
Zhang, W. & Ke, R. 2002. ‘Trust in China: A Cross-Regional Analysis’. Economic Research Journal, 10: 59-65