Star Wars – Uncovering the Networks of Fake-Reviewers on Google
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 12/10/2021
Credit: Lukas Frischknecht, Julian Schmidli, Pascal Albisser, Stefanie Hasler, Flurin Maissen
Lukas Frischknecht, data reporter, has a background in data science and robotics.
Julian Schmidli, investigative data reporter, has ten years of experience in datajournalism.
Pascal Albisser, visual journalist, builds and designs interactive news apps.
Stefanie Hasler, video reporter, films, produces and hosts the webformat SRF forward.
Flurin Maissen is a TV reporter for SRF Kassensturz.
This investigation series uncovered several networks of fake profiles that were deployed to leave fake reviews on Google places against money. The investigation found thousands of profiles linked to SEO firms – and hundreds of Swiss businesses that bought fake five star reviews to unlawfully manipulate their reputation and page rank. SRF applied different scraping- and network-analysis-techniques to uncover those networks and used OSINT and classic reporting to investigate businesses and find victims of this fraudulent behaviour. The results show that authorities are not aware of the scale of the problem and Googles algorithms are not doing enough to stop
The investigation lead to regulation activities of Swiss authorities concerning doctors and clinics. Several businesses reacted and deleted their fake reviews. One SEO company closed down.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The difficulty of this project was the development of a functioning snowballing-approach to gather the right data (more signal and less noise) and filter it to differentiate between networks of fake profiles and networks of existing people.
What can others learn from this project?
That it is possible to combine BigTechAccountability and AlgorithmicAccountability with datajournalism techniques to cover different relevant perspectives on a subject and tell in through ways of interactive web apps, video and audio.