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The Ethicist
September 20, 2010

Randy Cohen writes "The Ethicist" column in The New York Times Magazine. If you'd like help with a moral dilemma you're facing at school, at home, or at work, send your question to: ethicist@nytimes.com or The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10018, and include a phone number.

Impersonating a Reviewer

I work for a company that creates iPhone apps. Whenever we release a new one, our boss urges the staff to download it at the App Store and give it a five-star rating—even employees who don't own a device that can run it. I think such false reviews are wrong and that our boss shouldn't pressure employees in this way, but I want to support our company. What should I do?
NAME WITHHELD, Dallas, Texas

NOT WHAT your boss is asking. Let's count the shenanigans. Misdeed No. 1: Nobody can review an app without actually using it. Misdeed No. 2: People can't objectively review a product they or their buddies helped develop, or on which their paycheck relies; it's an obvious conflict of interest. Misdeed No. 3: Your boss is demanding not a review but pure praise, thus gaming the system. And Misdeed No. 4: He's pressing his employees to do something that's beyond the scope of their jobs and, perhaps, runs counter to their own values. An impressive total.

It's true that many user ratings are of dubious value. For example, Amazon reviewers have been known to gush about a friend's book. But just because this practice is commonplace doesn't make it OK.

Product reviews from objective users can be helpful when a bonehead like me shops for a camera or music or clothes. Posting bogus reviews is like circulating counterfeit money: It undermines the credibility of a useful institution.

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 143, September 20, 2010)