The Spreading Psychodrama Of Being Rated Online

User ratings systems on service apps and websites are making some people obsessive about their online reputations, even as customers. Where is all this headed?

Only four stars???
Only four stars???
Guillemette Faure

PARIS â€" According to his rating on the car-sharing website BlaBlacar, Olivier, an occasional driver who wishes to remain anonymous, is a "really friendly doctor who strikes up super interesting conversations." Though all but one of his passengers have given him a five-star rating, Olivier has trouble accepting the lone rebuke. "Those three stars still gnaw at me," he says.

Christophe Duhamel, founder of the French recipe-sharing website Marmiton, remembers that when the website was launched users often removed their recipes when they were poorly rated. "No one understands their genius," he quips. Others hesitate to post at all, out of fear of bad ratings.

In a world of "serial likers," it's hard to cope with negative remarks. They resurrect our worst school-day prototypes, from the boot-licker, ("We spent the day cleaning the apartment because the prospect of a good rating got us excited"), to the scapegoat ("A guy rated us poorly on Drivy because we rated him poorly, and that brought our average down"), and the rebel ("I refuse to enter this rating system").

"Give me a 10"

Annual company ratings, customer service appraisals, user-to-user websites. It's now possible to spend half the day rating and the other half being rated. When a smartphone owner downloads an app, he is pestered and prodded to decide how many stars to give it. Ask Uber drivers how they cope with the pressure of ratings, and they'll answer, "You know, we rate them too." Discreetly, once they've left the vehicle. And when drivers answer a request, the platform gives them the customer's average score.

Monitoring it in the Philippines â€" Photo: InsightsUnspoken

In a supply and demand market, scores are meant to push people to give their best and allow users to have access to the best services. In reality, the fear of poor ratings is turning our society into a world of permanent obsequiousness. Everyone is running after good ratings. A hotel receptionist recommending a good museum to a customer will add, "You'll remember my evaluation on Travelocity, won't you?"

Heard recently from a salesperson at a top French mobile phone and Internet provider: "You'll receive a text asking you to rate me from 1 to 10. If you give me less than 10, it's useless to me."

When ratings don't help

Officially, ratings are used to inform users to reassure them when they call on the services of a stranger. In 2015, I rented a car using the private rental website Drivy. When parking next to a sidewalk, I damaged a hubcap. With a traditional rental car company, I would probably have returned the car hoping the breach would go unnoticed. But overcome with panic by the idea of being publicly labeled a bad driver, I changed the hubcap and admitted my mistake. "You shouldn't have," the owner said in the end. And, "You won't forget to leave a few words on the website?"

In this way, ratings are not so much to inform future users as for us to have each other by the short hairs. In a system where everyone rates everyone openly, tacit agreements are made. This is what explains the inflation of good grades in American universities, where students also grade their professors. Mutually grade each other, and everyone will get by fine.

Last year researchers from Boston University calculated that the average Airbnb rating is 4.7 out of 5, with 94% of listings rated between 4.5 and 5. On private-contact platforms, they found that there were lots of very good ratings and a very small number of very poor ratings.

"It's a system that teaches people how to work together," Drivy founder and CEO Paulin Dementhon says. Or, more rarely, to tear each other's guts out, especially because it's possible on his website to change a rating that has already been given ("He gave me a poor rating, so I'll give him a poor one"). For that matter, the website's customer service center receives many calls from users upset by their ratings.

Dementhon doesn't much like his website's public evaluation system â€" transparent, but not necessarily reliable in terms of information. More opaque evaluation systems such as Uber's or Heetch's are more efficient to inform the user but less so to settle problems.

Certain platforms have tried finding a middle ground. Since the summer of 2014, ratings of the renter and the customer on Airbnb are hidden before being published simultaneously, or 14 days after the end of a stay, without the possibility to change it. BlaBlacar has based its "opinion" system on the same method, "for more sincerity." A pioneer of use ratings, eBay has also evolved its rules over time.

Against the tide

The perversion of rating systems isn't unique to the Internet. It also happens in continuing education, where immediately assessing tutors is mandatory. Some educators even calibrate the end of their work groups to be exciting by making the attendees applaud themselves, for instance, just before rating sheets are distributed. Curiously, this boom in permanent rating comes at a time when schools are going against the tide by developing self-assessments, color grades and other tricks to avoid numbers.

It's the same with businesses. Audit giant Accenture announced last year that it was removing the rating system and the annual ranking of its 330,000 employees. It was too much time and money for limited interest. Two years earlier, Microsoft made the same decision.

But the digital world has a different take on this. At least five start-ups have worked on a possible merger of the user ratings from one app to another, allowing for the "portability" of e-reputations, for better or for worse.

Dementhon concedes, "Everyone rating everyone. That's scary, and it's a sensitive topic."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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