Russian bots — automated software tools — were responsible for lots of online mayhem leading up to the presidential election.
Bots can also be used as a weapon against business rivals, or even against someone you just don’t like.
Sergio Moutela woke up on Feb. 2 and found his business was a victim.
Moutela, 36, is the owner of Melovino Meadery, a Vauxhall company that makes handcrafted mead — alcoholic beverages crafted from fermented honey and water.
Like many small businesses, Melovino relies on online reviews to attract customers.
Moutela was proud of his company’s rating on Facebook, but that morning, something had changed.
“I woke up with 100 1-star ratings left on the Melovino Facebook page, all of which were left within about a 15-minute time frame by Facebook profiles from outside of the country,” Moutela said in an email.
That was a big hit for the company, which until then boasted an average 4.8-star rating on Facebook, consistent with its 4.5 stars out of five on Yelp and Trip Advisor.
At first, Moutela handled the subterfuge calmly, planning to report each review to Facebook.
“I realized that Facebook does not offer the option to report ratings — only actual written reviews,” he said. “I was left with no option to protect my business and there is no available method of getting a hold of a real person at Facebook to try and resolve this.”
Moutela said he can take criticism, and even welcomes it so he can improve the business. But the reviews meant his life’s work could be on the line.
He shared the episode on his personal Facebook page, and friends and family got to work.
“Everyone stepped up on their own without us asking for anything, and made sure to leave our Facebook page a 5-star rating and genuine review of our business to hopefully try and remedy the situation,” he said.
It helped a little, he said, but it would take a lot more to negate all the 1-star ratings.
Later that day, another wave of fake ratings poured in. This time, they were 5-star ratings.
“At first I thought whoever ordered the initial wave of negative ratings tried to order another set of negative ones, but whatever ‘click farm’ they hired misunderstood and set it up for 5-ratings instead,” he said.
That thought didn’t last long. Moutela now feared someone intentionally ordered the 5-stars to hurt Melovino’s credibility, making it seem like the business did it for itself.
“That is something I would never do,” he said.
Moutela went public with a post on the Melovino Facebook page.
“The post brought hundreds of new genuine 5-star ratings and written reviews, all of which brought our overall rating up dramatically,” he said.
By the end of the day, the page had about 250 5-star ratings. Over the next couple of days, the number of 5-star ratings swelled to nearly 900.
NO HELP FOR THE WEARY
We reached out to Facebook to see if it could help this business.
While we waited for a response, we checked out Facebook’s tools. Moutela was right: If a rating doesn’t include a written review, it can’t be reported or removed.
Back in Vauxhall, the drama wasn’t over yet.
Moutela added a post on an industry Facebook page to sarcastically thank whoever was responsible for the fakery, saying it brought the company’s fans and the business closer together.
That post got an immediate response — a death threat from someone claiming to be a Navy Seal with more than 300 “confirmed kills.”
Moutela realized it was a “copy and paste” threat that’s been online for years, but he took it seriously.
He tracked the poster — who lives out-of-state — and contacted the local police. Officers showed up at the person’s door and said further interactions with Moutela would bring an arrest, he said.
That same day, the business got an unexpected visitor: the town’s health department.
An inspector said a telephone complaint had come in, Moutela said.
He doesn’t believe in coincidences.
Moutela said the shop was up to code and the inspector only noted a few minor items that were corrected on the spot.
We sent more messages to Facebook, and then checked in with cybersecurity expert Mitch Feather of Creative Associates in Madison.
He said bot offerings are common on the dark web, but they can also be found on marketplaces that openly advertise such services.
Blocks of bad ratings can also be “crowd-sourced,” when a number of Facebook users are encouraged to pounce on a target. Think “flash mob.”
“If the business owner sees a bunch of bad ratings strike at the exact same time, that’s more likely a programmatic approach, which might be via a bot or may just be an ‘entrepreneur’ that has a stable of fake accounts and programmatically uses them to create the no-comment ratings,” he said.
Feather said when Facebook says it can’t do anything, it’s really saying it won’t do anything.
“You will find postings in chat rooms where Facebook claims it cannot do anything but afterwards, some or all of the fake ratings magically disappear,” Feather said. “Usually it happens with a good deal of persistence.”
He recommends business owners report such activity with local police, filing a report for harassment and slander. That may help Facebook take notice.
Another day passed and there was still no word from Facebook, so Moutela tried another tack.
He saw “live chat” options were available for Facebook advertising customers.
Moutela got a rep in a chat and reported the details of the reviews, which were still online at the start of the chat.
The rep said nothing could be done.
Then magically — coincidentally? — during the chat, the fake reviews disappeared. Not just the 1-star reviews, but the fake 5-star reviews were gone, too.
Facebook responded to Bamboozled the next day.
“In this case, we determined upon review that these reviews in question did violate our policies and we have removed them from the Page,” a spokeswoman said.
Facebook wouldn’t comment further.
But we did figure out a back-end solution. While businesses can’t report the 1-star ratings, they can report individual profiles. If Facebook’s algorithms determine the profile is a fake or that it violates Facebook Community Standards, it could be removed.
It’s not a sure thing, but it’s better than nothing.
The story is over for Moutela, whose business page now sports a 5-star rating.
“The scariest thing is it seems that anyone can do this, over and over even, and easily get away with it, and Facebook leaves us out for dead with no means of reaching a real person, not even by email,” he said.
Moutela is working on a new product in honor of the incident.
“I am brewing an IPA style mead using Warrior hops and planning to name the recipe ‘Keyboard Commando,'” he said.
The new mead should be ready for tasting mid-March.