A netizen browses the mobile app of Amazon.com on his smartphone in Ji'nan city, east China's Shandong province. Photo: AFP / Da Qing / Imaginechina

A large number of online vendors selling products from China have been caught up in Amazon’s war on fake feedback.

The American e-commerce giant has closed and suspended thousands of accounts in a clampdown that started in May in a renewed bid to rid the online marketplace of fake reviews and other fraudulent postings.

Mpow, a leading consumer goods vendor that counts Chinese tech giants Xiaomi and ByteDance among its shareholders, found its portal on Amazon inaccessible to shoppers in early May as it was counting down to this year’s Prime Day. It was a bumper period for business with perks and rewards to drive sales.

Aukey, another Chinese merchant soon to debut on the Shanghai bourse, also had its main page blocked by Amazon.

In a statement about its ongoing campaign, Amazon stressed its stance against fake and incentivized reviews as well as fictitious product information and descriptions. It vowed to keep cracking down on deceptive activities before it became too widespread in an effort to safeguard consumers’ rights.

Amazon said it would spend US$700 million annually on a 10,000-strong team to identify, remove, investigate and take punitive actions like suspending account transactions against sellers who had broken the rules.

Amazon China, meanwhile, in a separate Weibo post, urged vendors to comply with the rules. It said that each week 10 million reviews and posts – in particular ones that gushed propaganda-style – would be analyzed by Amazon’s algorithms, machine learning tools as well as manually to determine their “authenticity.”

Amazon said last year it had pulled more than 200 million suspected fake or misleading reviews before they were seen by shoppers.

But a Shenzhen-based vendor told Asia Times that such practices like astroturfing and paid reviews were prevalent among his peers, and the only way for Amazon to root them out and defend the integrity of its platform was to impose heavier financial and legal repercussions on rule-breakers. 

In a revealing social media post, the vendor, writing under the pseudonym “Silchester,” said Chinese e-commerce operators always tried to apply their “tried and tested” tactics – or tricks – from Chinese sites like Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall to Amazon, and flood their portals with scores of rave reviews from paid writers to woo customers. 

He said the limited means for marketing on Amazon compared with Alibaba’s freewheeling platforms made many vendors from China relapse into their addiction and post fake and incentivized reviews to promote their products.

This was because both Taobao and Tmall prompt personalized ads and recommend products using big data, search results and the spending and preference profile of individual buyers, practices scorned by Amazon as it seeks to champion privacy and consumer rights protection. 

Amazon is believed to be the driving force behind the 39% share of all e-commerce sales in the US and a vital platform for Chinese vendors to sell goods overseas. Photo: AFP

Fake reviews are still a marketing tool in China. Though Chinese e-commerce platforms have vowed a more stringent mechanism to identify sponsored posts when their sites become full of them, offenders are usually let go with barely a rap on the knuckles. For years there were no reports about accounts being frozen by major sites due to astroturfing or fake feedback from buyers. 

A black market is also bourgeoning in China where syndicates help vendors delete or hide negative posts on major domestic and foreign sites as well as apps publishing crowd-sourced reviews. And these syndicates, either via dangling refunds, freebies and even honorariums, ask those who posted bad reviews to delete them, or they delete reviews themselves through more aggressive means like bribes or even hacking. 

When some Amazon vendors started using such services, a sudden management reshuffle happened at Amazon’s China team in 2018. Senior executives found to be “colluding” with vendors and helping delete bad reviews were evicted from their posts, according to a Wall Street Journal report at the time. 

Amazon has since adopted new measures to hide a buyer’s identity and contact details and all communication between buyers and vendors must go through its redesigned chat tool to blot out information not related to a particular product or deal. The bid is to make sure a vendor cannot “harass” or “bribe” a customer if he gives a thumbs down in his review.   

China’s influential Southern Weekend newspaper also revealed this month how some Amazon vendors from China employed Chinese students in Canada and the United States, who were paid to write reviews. 

These students were reeled in by free gifts or shipping vouchers to place orders on Amazon and then lavish praises on their purchases, with tips given to them on how to get around Amazon’s fake review detection.

When Amazon started to close the accounts of some suspicious buyers, these students were immediately reminded by “reviews for rewards” groups on Facebook and WeChat not to be too “prolific” when giving glowing reviews and to craft their words to make their posts look more convincing. 

The students would then receive refunds as well as their pay of about US$100 once a good review was made, according to the newspaper.

Since 2015, Amazon has sued 1,000-plus “review abusers” involving buyers, suppliers and third-party entities. It has also approached Facebook when it detected and flagged ads recruiting review writers. 

In a blog post last week, Amazon said bad actors were turning to outside platforms to solicit fake reviews, which has made it more challenging for the company to stamp out the activity on its site.

A new invitation-only program, Amazon Vine, has recently been launched in the US and China to send invitations to the most trusted reviewers on the platform, based on the quality and helpfulness of their reviews as judged by other customers, to rate and post honest opinions about new and pre-release items to help their fellow buyers make informed decisions. 

The company said customers who consistently write helpful reviews and develop a reputation for expertise in specific product categories or among buyers from certain countries would be most likely picked for the program, but they would never be paid by anyone. 

Amazon said it would provide Vine members with free products submitted to the program by participating vendors, including those from China, who could not contact reviewers themselves and that Vine reviews would be independent as the vendor cannot influence, modify or edit related reviews, nor would Amazon modify or edit them, as long as they comply with open guidelines.

A Vine review is identified with the green stripe Customer review from the Amazon Vine Program.