When you write about the internet as often as I do, and over the course of so many years, one might be forgiven for thinking that one’s capacity to be surprised has been exhausted. And yet, and yet… something always comes along that leaves you open mouthed, once again.
For some time now, I’ve been wanting to write about the seed parcels sent by Chinese e-commerce companies to huge numbers of people around the world, most of whom had never ordered them. Such was the scale of the phenomenon that the US authorities went so far as to suspect bioterrorism, warning recipients to forward the seeds to the Department of Agriculture for examination and possible destruction — warnings that in many cases, proved futile: many Americans planted the seeds and some even ate them.
The reality, fortunately, wasn’t a bioterrorist scheme designed to flood the United States with dangerous species or to drug the population en masse. In many cases, the seeds were generally harmless and had been sent from a false account created with the data of the recipient (which implies that this data was available somewhere, which should concern them), so a false review about some product could be written to improve its popularity.
How many of these kinds of scams are out there? It’s hard to know, but probably a great many. The practice, called brushing, has been popular in China for many years, and in part explains the astonishing rise in popularity of ecommerce there: many orders are fake, but they are used to increase the popularity of many products, as well as the turnover of the companies involved, typically in the run-up to events like Singles Day. Fierce competition and search rankings weighted by sales figures and positive reviews has created a vast opportunistic ecosystem of companies dedicated to selling such sales services and fake evaluations.
The practice has grown to such an extent that Beijing has finally decided to take action by forcing e-commerce providers to pay taxes on these fictitious sales calculated according to machine learning algorithms over the last three years, which means, in many cases, a very large bill. Discussions on Chinese forums reflect the terror among the companies involved: the size and extent of the practice could plunge many small Chinese ecommerce providers into bankruptcy.
How stupid do you have to be to create a practice that sends fake orders to real customers containing empty packages or low-value items and then makes up fake accounts with the names of those customers so as to write fake product reviews? How can someone set up a whole imaginary universe, a huge house of cards, based on cheating at solitaire? How far must the short-term practice of growth hacking go before someone finally decides to put a stop to such stupidity?