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19 companies fined $350,000 for fake online reviews

After a lengthy investigation, one state has cracked down on fake online reviews, particularly on Yelp, fining nearly 20 companies a total of $350,000. It just got real.

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Fake Yelp reviews cost brands big time

Yelp recently filed a lawsuit against a lone law firm, alleging fake reviews, getting the ball rolling on their taking legal action against companies seeking to boost their profile by faking reviews or buying fake reviews. They’ve been policing the site for some time now and businesses are known for suing each other over defamatory comments, but news out of New York has just made it even costlier for businesses faking reviews.

New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman has announced that after a year-long investigation (“Operation Clean Turf”), 19 companies have agreed to pay fines for writing fake reviews on Yelp, totaling $350,000 in penalties.

Because fake reviews are considered astroturfing, wherein a commenter on a website, be it Yelp, a blog, or otherwise, posts commentary acting as a disinterested third party, hiding (aka lying about) their affiliation with the company being defended or positively reviewed. Review sites like Yelp have been tainted with this behavior, by companies themselves and by freelancers hired to write positive reviews and make them look legitimate.

Aside from Yelp cracking down, New York has begun what could become a trend of other states investigating and fining companies that pad their reviews online, not just on Yelp but on Citysearch, Google Local, and others, according to Schneiderman.

In a statement, the AG said, ” In the course of the investigation, the Attorney General’s office found that many of these companies used techniques to hide their identities, such as creating fake online profiles on consumer review websites and paying freelance writers from as far away as the Philippines, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe for $1 to $10 per review. By producing fake reviews, these companies violated multiple state laws against false advertising and engaged in illegal and deceptive business practices.”

Astroturfing is referred to as false advertising by AG

“Consumers rely on reviews from their peers to make daily purchasing decisions on anything from food and clothing to recreation and sightseeing,” Schneiderman noted. “This investigation into large-scale, intentional deceit across the Internet tells us that we should approach online reviews with caution. And companies that continue to engage in these practices should take note: ‘Astroturfing’ is the 21st century’s version of false advertising, and prosecutors have many tools at their disposal to put an end to it.”

As a result of the investigation, the following 19 companies involved have agreed to stop astroturfing and will cough up anywhere from $2,500 to $100,000 each:

  1. A&E Wig Fashions, Inc. d/b/a A&E and NYS Surgery Center
  2. A.H. Dental P.C. d/b/a Platinum Dental
  3. Body Laser Spa Inc.
  4. The Block Group, LLC, d/b/a Laser Cosmetica and LC MedSpa, LLC
  5. Bread and Butter NY, LLC d/b/a La Pomme Nightclub and Events Space
  6. Envision MT Corp.
  7. iSEOiSEO
  8. Medical Message Clinic and HerballYours.com
  9. Metamorphosis Day Spa, Inc.
  10. Outer Beauty, P.C., Lite Touch Plastic Surgery, P.C., Staten Island Special Surgery, P.C., Sans Pareil Surgical, PLLC
  11. Stillwater Media Group
  12. Swan Media Group, Inc. and Scores Media Group, LLC
  13. US Coachways Limousine, Inc. and US Coachways, Inc.
  14. Utilities International, Inc. d/b/a Main Street Host
  15. The Web Empire, LLC
  16. Webtools, LLC and Webtools Internet Solutions Ltd.
  17. West Village Teeth Whitening Service, LLC; Magic Smile, Inc., aka Magic Smile
  18. XVIO, Inc.
  19. Zamdel, Inc. d/b/a eBoxed

How did these companies get away with it in the first place?

These companies didn’t just fool the Yelp system, they manipulated Google Places, Yahoo! Local, Citysearch, Judy’s Book, InsiderPages.com and more. One company posted over 1,500 fake reviews online by masking their IP address so there were no red flags on the review sites’ end.

Another company offered free or discounted services in exchange for positive reviews, while another hired an SEO company to post fake reviews. Another company blatantly solicited freelance writers from Fiverr.com and oDesk.com to write fake reviews, and asked employees to pose as customers and write positive reviews. That same company offered $50 gift certificates to customers willing to write positive reviews without disclosing the gift in the review.

There are many ways to cheat the system, but after years of these abuses, the review sites and law enforcement are getting involved and wising up, costing businesses big time. We hope in the future to see punishments of the very people and review mills generating these fake reviews in mass.

Marti Trewe reports on business and technology news, chasing his passion for helping entrepreneurs and small businesses to stay well informed in the fast paced 140-character world. Marti rarely sleeps and thrives on reader news tips, especially about startups and big moves in leadership.

Social Media

India’s government still pushing social media platforms to nix COVID posts

(EDITORIAL) Whomsoever controls the information controls the people, and India is proving that censorship is a dangerous path.

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Let’s take a walk through recent history, shall we? The timing is late April and the world is still attempting to control the spread of the COVID-19 Virus. Certain countries have succeeded in administering vaccines and keeping down the spread. Other’s have not. People are dying. Families are being stripped of their securities. What’s the saving grace for the majority of these people? Social media.

Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have turned into the news distributors and social lifelines. Our generation has gotten used to things like cable news outlets being entirely one sided with their distributed factoids. It’s easier to trust people than a news monolith, even though they are typically just as biased.

Personally, I believe that we are more accepting of a person being biased because they are supposed to be, whereas companies that report news, we feel should be unbiased and when they aren’t, it’s less forgivable. However, I digress.

Social media has become the new source of news for the younger generations. We go out and take in information either from real life or from other sources and send it out into our own little virtual worlds. Every piece of this information should be taken with a grain of salt and double checked, of course. At least if the person actually wants to spread real news. They then interact and disperse news through instant communication online.

Which leads us to India, 2021.

From the standpoint of this generation, what’s been happening there is deplorable. The Government of India demanded that both Twitter and Facebook begin removing COVID-related posts. Their reasoning? These posts are “deemed posed potential to incite panic among the public.” They are restricting the freest form of communication that has ever existed in to the human race.

Now this could be something that’s innocuous, or a genuine care for the country’s people. I’m sure there are posts out there that may have incited panic. However, some of the previous actions taken by the Indian government tend to make me think otherwise. Pointedly, requests for the blocking of Twitter accounts which criticized the countries policies have gone out. They’ve even threatened jail time for employees and users in this case.

They keep claiming the country’s good but if they are only silencing dissenting voices, they’re actually just protecting their right to govern. Leading to a darker place in mind for any future actions. There are certain facts which stand however.

The Indian government has failed in a number of ways this year. The culmination of which is their unprecedented collapse of their nation’s health infrastructure. One of the only ways that some people are getting their health supplies is through social media as people communicate locations that have supplies available so they can save their lives.

The restrictions that the government is putting forth isn’t helping people. It has the potential to kill them.

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How news outlets are positioning Trump’s lawsuit against Big Tech

(MEDIA NEWS) As Trump’s lawsuit against Big Tech hits the airwaves, media outlets act less predictably than some would think. And most are missing what we believe will be the ultimate outcome.

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In a bold move against “Big Tech,” former U.S. president Donald Trump is suing social media organizations that banned him earlier this year. The class action lawsuit, led by Trump himself, hopes to address the increasing impunity exhibited by these tech companies; there are multiple avenues of coverage that all predict different outcomes, the most likely of which is stronger regulation for tech companies.

Part of the larger issue is that the word “tech” is inherently misleading in the context of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube – all of which are named in Trump’s lawsuit. While others waffled on understanding the difference between tech and media, we have insisted that one can only be categorized as a “technology” company if its primary product is hardware or software; “media” companies involve the dissemination of content using a digital platform.

But companies that might otherwise qualify as solely media-based have been blurring the lines for years, leading to a dearth of understanding regarding their very categorization – and how to enforce the laws that accompany that denomination.

Classifying companies like Facebook and Twitter as tech companies, therefore, is problematic in that the regulation often applied to media companies cannot be applied to them, despite a clear need for regulatory consistency.

In any event, the lawsuit itself alleges that these companies formed a monolithic stance, one whose “status thus rises beyond that of a private company to that of a state actor,” subjecting the companies in question to legal scrutiny under the first amendment – a right that Trump’s attorneys argue was violated when the former president was banned from using these sites.

There are several trains of thought regarding this lawsuit, the majority of which follow the expected party lines; however, one consistent player is Section 230, which is legislation that prevents social media companies from being held accountable for the content that their users create, publish, or share.

Right-leaning news outlets are focusing on possible infringement of free speech and the increasing prominence social media companies play in dictating real-world outcomes, with Fox News quoting Mark Meckler (former interim Parler CEO) as saying the lawsuit could “break new ground.” Trump himself pointed to Twitter’s continued entertainment of violent foreign “dictators” in his absence, alleging support for the idea that conservatives are being censored on social media.

Trump is also quoted as referring to social media as “the de facto censorship arm of the U.S. government” in light of companies like Facebook and Twitter enforcing policies against misinformation, largely at the behest of left-leaning government officials.

This aligns with the “state actor theory” in which social media companies are held with the same regard as government agencies in recognition of the power they wield.

A social media company’s status as a private entity, Trump argues, does not protect it from liability in an ecosystem in which these companies have as much influence as they do, arguing instead for the abolishing of Section 230.

Conservative news outlets are predominantly optimistic about the lawsuit’s success, with sources such as Meckler pointing out that this constitutes “a developing area of the law” that could result in a crackdown on Section 230 – something that would change the way social media companies operate for the foreseeable future.

Left-leaning news outlets are more focused on the flaws in the lawsuit, however, with The Daily Beast asserting that “constitutional law experts almost laughed at the legal arguments presented in the suits.”

“The argument here that Facebook should be considered a state actor is not at all persuasive,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.

Jaffer also points out inconsistencies in the lawsuit’s motivations: “It’s also difficult to square the arguments in the lawsuit with President Trump’s actions in office. The complaint argues that legislators coerced Facebook into censoring speech, but no government actor engaged in this kind of coercion more brazenly than Trump himself.”

These outlets similarly reference Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter cooperating with the CDC to prevent the spread of misinformation regarding COVID-19 – something that Trump’s legal team has cited as evidence that social media companies were colluding with Democrats.

Left-leaning sources acknowledge that the lawsuit could be damaging should it succeed in repealing or altering the parameters around Section 230, but they primarily view this lawsuit as more of a fundraising attempt than a legitimate gripe with the law.

“They know that they’re going to lose and this is a fundraising, publicity stunt that maybe lets them take a section 230 case up the appellate ladder,” says Ari Cohn, a lawyer with TechFreedom.

Cohn also asserted that the argument about Facebook as a state actor is old news, and other sources explained that the lawsuit is most likely a distraction from other stories more than anything else.

There are some fringe takes regarding this lawsuit as well, with Daily Wire calling the lawsuit a “publicity stunt” that is “dead on arrival” due to misinterpretations of Section 230 and the inaccurate logic that led up to the portrayal of Facebook as a “state actor”.

Similarly, centrist news org, The Hill, emphasizes that “the case is frivolous, and… will almost certainly be dismissed in court because private companies are not subject to comply with the First Amendment, which upends the basis of the complaint’s argument.”

Whether or not this lawsuit finds traction, the most reasonable outcome to expect is a closer look at how social media companies are classified, what their role is in public dealings, and which laws pertain to them while they occupy the liminal space between technology and media dissemination.

“Tech” companies have operated without proper regulation for far too long, and while the context here is divisive, the idea of holding these companies accountable to consistent legal expectations should not be.

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Instagram for Kids: Do kids really need social media that young?

(SOCIAL MEDIA) Instagram for Kids is a terrible idea that we’ll have to contend in the not-so-distant future as social media becomes more prevalent in our lives.

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Young girl playing phone, exploring Instagram for Kids

As a Facebook company, Instagram is used to pushing the envelope, and not always in a good way. One of their most recent initiatives, dubbed “Instagram for Kids”, offers pre-teens the opportunity to use a parent-controlled Instagram version—but global criticism is already mounting.

Instagram has a 13-and-up policy that restricts pre-teen kids from signing up for the app (in theory), but Instagram for Kids would allow younger users to share and interact with photos without the pressure of ads and inappropriate content (again, in theory). The goal behind a social media app for 12-and-unders is curious, given that acceptable teen social media use already starts at, arguably, a younger age than is responsible.

According to Instagram, though, their motivation for the app is simply to reduce access to harmful aspects of the web without instilling FOMO in younger children: “Kids are already online, and want to connect with their family and friends, have fun, and learn. We want to help them do that in a safe and age-appropriate way, and find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps.”

Instagram also promises to “consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform [the app experience].”

That’s all fine in—and I cannot stress this enough—theory, but several members of the original internal discussion about this version of Instagram acknowledged that existing Instagram users who are under the age of 13 probably won’t switch over to the new platform, making Instagram for Kids obsolete for any illicit users. That leaves only one conclusion: That Instagram for Kids is for a substantially younger audience.

It’s difficult to find a morally upright justification for creating a social media app for, say, 8-year-olds. Parent control or not, the potential for data collection, early technology addiction, and breaches of privacy is very real. Add to that the fact that the children who are likely targeted by this app can’t exactly give informed consent for their information to be shared (not that 13-year-olds can, either, but that’s a different thing), and it starts to look pretty shady.

Instagram is already tangentially responsible for things like false marketing, eating disorders, and mental health decline in otherwise healthy adults. Adding pre-teens to that list is not only irresponsible—it’s morally bankrupt. Please keep your kids off of apps like this.

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