Can Technology Ferret Out Unethical Client Reviews and Testimonials?
With a burgeoning cottage industry for fake reviews for sites like Yelp (visit Fiverr where for three glowing reviews can be had for five bucks) some enterprising researchers have developed a computer algorithm for ferreting out fake reviews. Apparently, fake reviews run to type (after all, what do you expect for five dollars?) in ways you wouldn’t expect. For example, a perfect five star rating isn’t necessarily the hallmark of a fake review, since reviewers are advised against superlatives. Instead, as shown on this chart, a fake review is more likely to use first person singular, as if to reinforce credibility. Likewise, while fake reviews are short on details about the subject (in many instances, the writer hasn’t ever visited or sampled the venue or product), they’ll try to overcompensate by focusing on superfluous details, like who the reviewer was with. Once researchers identified these characteristics, it wasn’t difficult to create an algorithm for rating reviews. In fact, the program boasts a 90 percent success rate, according to the New York Times.
So I got to thinking about the potential impact of a fake-review-detector on lawyer review sites. For starters, a fraudulent review detector might lower lawyers’ resistance to participation in review sites. Despite evidence (also cited in the NYT piece) that most commenters overwhelmingly leave positive feedback at most review sites, lawyers fear that disgruntled clients or unscrupulous competitors could post scathing or false criticism that would ruin the lawyers’ reputation. A detector wouldn’t eliminate accurate critiques, but prevent lawyers from being hurt by fakes.
A fraudulent review detector would also allay concerns on the other end of the spectrum harbored by many bar regulators: that lawyers (in spite of ethic restrictions) might elicit fraudulent or exaggerated positive testimonials for third party sites, or their own website. For this reason, some state bars ban lawyers from using testimonials on their websites — though several of these bans have been overturned as violating the First Amendment. A review detector allows for a more narrowly tailored solution: state bars could require lawyers to register their websites and subject them to the fraud detector to red-flag testimonials that are restrictive or otherwise violate bar requirements. The review detector might not help as much at third party sites (since a bar lacks jurisdiction to require a non-lawyer site to remove a testimonial) – but the bar could release its own reports listing those reviews which in its view don’t pass muster.
The fast pace of technology increases burdens on regulators to ensure compliance. Whereas back in the pre-digital era, a lawyer might run a single ad in a newspaper or Yellow Pages, now, it’s not uncommon for a lawyer to participate in multiple review sites, or operate several websites and blogs, all with reviews. Regulators lack the resources to oversee all of this digital information. So, they either ban the conduct entirely or alternatively, let them move forward without even trying to pick off the worst and most obvious offenders. Technology could fill the void, and allow ethically compliant lawyers to take advantage of client review and testimonial sites while getting rid of those who abuse the process.