How Blockchain Could Put An End To Fake Online Identities

This article was originally published on my Forbes column here.

If you are in Birmingham, United Kingdom, you might check Yelp to find a good Argentinian-style restaurant. You might even see a review that Ivan Stravensky wrote about his favorite restaurant, and decide to eat there based on his glowing recommendation.

There’s only one problem: the review is fake, much like Ivan himself.

When buying something new or trying out a new service, many of us head online to check what other customers think. In fact, over 80% of adults in the United States occasionally read online customer reviews before buying something for the first time. But only half of those who read reviews think they give an accurate description of the product, according to the Pew Research Center.

That is because online reviews and ratings can be manipulated. I know firsthand just how easy it is to fake credibility online: in 2017, I created a fake Russian named Ivan Stravensky. Clearly, Ivan has never been to the Argentinian restaurant in Birmingham, but that didn’t stop “him” from writing a five-star review for it. One person even found it “useful.”

All that is needed to create a person out of thin air is a unique name, a few social media accounts and some content—and this can be done repeatedly to create several shell accounts. With new online identities, anyone could easily review CEOs on Glassdoor, products on Amazon, hotels on TripAdvisor and dog grooming services on Yelp.

But blockchain could soon make it more difficult to create convincing fake accounts. The result could be a more trustworthy, reliable and transparent internet.

Radical transparency of online reviews

Last year, a U.S. based car dealership was forced to pay a $3.6 million fine after it was discovered that it had planted fake reviews. You might also remember the guy who managed to manipulate TripAdvisor’s ratings system to turn a shed in his backyard into the top-ranked restaurant in all of London.

But with blockchain, there will be ways to track whether the person leaving a review actually ate dinner at the restaurant they’re reviewing, groomed their dog at the salon they’re rating or purchased the product they’re giving five stars.

Blockchain records quantifiable data and stores it in a block, which is then added together in a chain of similar information blocks. Each block needs to be verified across a network of computers before it can be added to the chain; once it has been verified, it cannot be altered, meaning the data is both transparent and secure.

This system can be used to create a digital map of someone, almost like an online ID; birth records, home addresses and university certificates can all be kept on blockchain.

Blockchain could also track our day-to-day activities. When linked with data generated through the Internet of Things, blockchain can record and verify that an employee was at a certain office location on workdays via location data, or track customers’ shopping habits through their payment data.

In short, blockchain enables us to track and authenticate that we have firsthand knowledge of the products and services that we are reviewing.

Early-stage startups missing the mark?

Reviews are big business—so much so that one man is being sued in the U.S. for a three-star review he left on TripAdvisor. The lawsuit alleges that he did not go on a specific tour that as he claimed he had been on in his review. Using blockchain, the tour operator would be able to quickly verify this information.

Blockchain will be fundamental in the creation of new and radically transparent versions of review sites like Yelp, Glassdoor and TripAdvisor.

Indeed, the system’s radical transparency is already transforming other industries. All Public Art uses blockchain to verify the provenance of works of art. The core principles of blockchain—namely, its ability to authenticate and verify transactions—can easily and quickly guarantee the validity of a previous transaction, thereby confirming the ownership of the artwork.

But startups using blockchain to verify online product reviews, such as Zapit and Revain, are currently focusing on using cryptocurrency to pay users when they post true and accurate reviews. But blockchain is capable of far more than simply offering an “incentive for honesty.” Instead, a review could be immediately authenticated by checking a user’s ID and their transaction and location history on the decentralized database.

The downsides of anonymity

User anonymity is central to the spirit and personality of sites like Reddit and niche networks such as Amino apps. Usernames can be basic or creative, and do not need to reference the user’s actual real-world identity, which helps to foster communities where people feel free to express their opinions. At the same time, anonymity also frees individuals to express hateful views and make threatening remarks that, without the internet’s veil of namelessness, they may not make. But when it comes to looking for unbiased information to help make purchasing decisions, anonymity is not helpful to other potential customers: how can they trust the review, when for all they know it could be written an entirely made-up character?

Sites that have systems of verification are more credible. Apps like Uber, Turo and Airbnb are tied to Facebook accounts and credit cards. Face ID, thumbprints and other verification methods give users confidence in the reviews; they also make users care about the reviews they receive as a “guest” or “rider,” because those ratings will follow them around afterwards. Obviously, it would be easy to create accounts on these platforms under a shell account, but these methods—documentation, user data, facial recognition—are solving issues of verification.

Soon, this conversation may take on a higher level of importance, especially now that AI bots are able to write reviews that are strangely convincing. In fact, it will soon be impossible to tell the difference between reviews written by bots and those written by real people.

Therefore, blockchain’s contributions to radical transparency and an increase in trustworthiness on the web is a positive development. It may be the innovation that puts our minds at ease about fake news and fake reviews.

Being realistic about implementation

However, verification and decentralization do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Imagine that Walmart uses blockchain technologies to track apples from the farm to their store to your table. How do you know the apples you bought are actually organic or from a certain farm if Walmart owns every node on the chain? At the beginning of the chain you are trusting that farmer; throughout the rest of the chain, you are trusting Walmart the same as you would without the blockchain.

Verification protocols need to be incorporated with the wealth of data available and a certain amount of decentralization to make any sense. When it comes to creating a more trustworthy world, blockchain holds incredible promise; however, there is still a ways to go.