False Online Reviews: How to Detect and Counter Them ?


False Online Reviews:
How to Detect and Counter Them?

Geneviève Hallé-Désilets, Caroline Jonnaert and Élisabeth Lesage-Bigras[1]
Lawyers, Patent and Trademark Agents

On March 2, 2022, the Competition Bureau of Canada (the “Bureau”) released the “Five-star fake out” notice about fake online reviews, which provides some tips and advice on how to detect and counter fake online reviews.

I. Too good to be true?

As online shopping becomes more popular, many consumers rely on reviews of the products or services they are about to purchase. However, these reviews are not always genuine and sometimes businesses resort to the practice of “astroturfing. This practice “refers to the practice of creating commercial representations that masquerade as the authentic experiences and opinions of impartial consumers, such as fake consumer reviews and testimonials”[2].

Faced with an upsurge in false online reviews, the Bureau thought it would be useful to provide some advice to consumers to raise their awareness of such practice. In addition, the Bureau encourages consumers to conduct certain verifications on: (i) the flow of reviews (specifically, a sudden spike in very positive reviews or a sudden drop in very negative reviews); (ii) the date of creation or type of profile leaving the reviews; (iii) unanimous reviews; (iv) overly positive or overly negative reviews; and (iv) redundancy in reviews or in the vocabulary used to qualify the products and services at issue. Moreover, the Bureau reiterates the importance of comparing and looking at reviews over a long period of time to “spot potential patterns like a spike in positive or negative reviews” as well as looking at more nuanced reviews (such as those with less than four stars, for example)[3].

II. A Continuing Trend

The Bureau’s notice is intended to raise consumer awareness of a practice that, while not new, has been growing in recent years. Beyond this, the Bureau can also sanction companies that use astroturfing, as such practice is contrary to the Competition Act (“Act”) which prohibits false or misleading advertising[4]. As an example, Bell Canada was fined $1,25 million in October 2015, for encouraging employees to post positive reviews online about some of its free apps[5]. Similarly, FlightHub Group Inc. was fined $5.8 million in February 2021 for, among other things, posting false online reviews to promote its services[6].

In addition, last month, the Bureau released its submission on the review of the Act in the digital era[7]. In particular, the Bureau recognizes that many of the deceptive marketing practices provisions need to be updated. For example, the Bureau recommends that the Act’s monetary penalties for deceptive conduct be increased and that the Act provide a broader range of remedies for deceptive practices. The practical effects of such submission are to be monitored over the next few years.

For any questions about online reviews or regulations regarding false or misleading advertising, please contact members of our Advertising and Marketing Group.

© CIPS, 2022.

[1] Caroline Jonnaert is a lawyer and trademark agent, and Geneviève Hallé-Désilets and Élisabeth Lesage-Bigras are lawyers at ROBIC, L.L.P., a multidisciplinary firm of lawyers and patent and trademark agents.

[2] Competition Bureau of Canada, “The Deceptive Marketing Practices Digest”, Volume 1, 2015, online.

[3] Competition Bureau of Canada, “Five-star fake out,” March 2, 2022, online.

[4] Competition Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. C-34, ss. 52 and 74.01.

[5] Competition Bureau of Canada, “Bell Canada reaches agreement with Competition Bureau over online criticism” October 14, 2015, online.

[6] Competition Bureau of Canada, “Investigation of FlightHub ends with $5.8M in total penalties for company and directors“, February 24, 2021, online and Commissioner of Competition v. FlightHub Group Inc, CT-2019-003, online.

[7] Competition Bureau of Canada, “The Competition Bureau of Canada participates in consultation to modernize Canadian competition policy” February 8, 2022, online.