ethics and online reviews

Stay True to Your Online Review?

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Chuck Klosterman, featured columnist of The Ethicist at the New York Times, has provided us with another great story for discussion. You may recall a recent piece about coffee at a summer camp and its implications for a Mormon camper. Now we take a look at a different piece by Klosterman, which provides another great opportunity for your family to talk about. Read it here with your children.

The situation up for discussion is as follows: a man vacations in a pricey hotel. He has a bad experience, and gives the place a bad review on a popular open-forum travel discussion site. The business in question see it, offers him half of his money back to retract the review, and the man accepts the offer.

The column goes on to point out that there are potentially three parties at fault in this story:

  • The reviewer for accepting what amounts to a bribe.
  • The hotel for offering said bribe.
  • The review website for creating a system in which it is possible for this to occur, and for presenting reviews as unbiased when they can apparently be tampered with.

Here is some more background to flesh out the rest of the details: The site in question has clear terms of use specifying what should and should not be done with regard to reviews, and the kind of contact permitted between customers and businesses. It specifies that a business owner is not to contact a user asking them to remove a review. Now, there is no enforcement or active monitoring in place for this policy, and a system for privately messaging reviewers is part of the site’s structure. Guidelines are laid out and the site expects users (both individuals and businesses) to follow them.

Are Online Reviews an Honest Reflection of Opinion?

The reviewer was not compensated for writing his initial review, nor was he compelled to write in any way. He volunteered both to post it and to remove it of his own volition (albeit with a bit of outside “motivation” for the removal).

If those are the facts, it becomes relatively easy to see that wrong actions were taken on the part of all parties, to some degree.

The truth is that the site in question, like all anonymous peer review sites, creates a system in which amatuer reviewers post according to their own agendas, in an unregulated (or sparsely regulated) forum. Like any case of self-regulation, some people will behave better than others.

It has been said that true morality is what one does when nobody else is looking. This notion goes far back in history. All major religions cover it, and the philosopher Plato wrote a famous story about a ring of invisibility and the challenge of the user to use this ring in the right way. The internet is simply a modern version of this. When a user can post anonymously, and a business can message behind the scenes, each player must challenge themselves to act the right way. Just because we can get away with something does not make it right.

An anonymous review system only works if it is used honestly. If you get a refund for rescinding your negative review, you may feel happier. However you may also wish that negative review was there to steer you clear before you booked that hotel. Think of how you would like to be treated, and let that guide your actions.

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