Sock Puppets Infest Amazon Reviews

In my last post a mentioned my lack of confidence in Amazon reviews, and in the comments Rebecca asked about that. It made me realize that people inside of publishing pay more attention to this kind of thing than people outside, so here I am, writing about it.

attack of the sock puppets

I stopped writing Amazon reviews maybe six years ago. There were a couple of simple and practical reasons for this, but there was also the sense that things were not always what they seemed. So for example:

1. After a glitch in their computer software, Amazon/Canada’s reviews suddenly no longer showed screen names, but the review writer’s real name.  A couple of authors were thereby exposed: they were writing glowing reviews of their own work, and not-so-glowing reviews of other people’s work.

2. There have been various expose-type investigations into fake or false reviews, in which author’s friends and family organize good-review campaigns.The Cincinnati Beacon has a story about multiple reviews of a novel that can be traced back to the author’s staff. The New York Times did an indepth story about sock puppet reviews:

[so] writers have naturally been vying to get more, and better, notices. Several mystery writers, including R. J. Ellory, Stephen Leather and John Locke, have recently confessed to various forms of manipulation under the general category of “sock puppets,” or online identities used to deceive.  [emphasis added]

3. In 2012 a research group estimated that by 2014, 30 percent of all  reviews would be fake — paid for by advertising entities:

With over half of the Internet’s population on social networks, organizations are scrambling for new ways to build bigger follower bases, generate more hits on videos, garner more positive reviews than their competitors and solicit ‘likes’ on their Facebook pages … Many marketers have turned to paying for positive reviews […] in order to pique site visitors’ interests in the hope of increasing sales, customer loyalty and customer advocacy through social media ‘word of mouth’ campaigns. [emphasis added]

A whole new industry has sprouted up around the problem of fake reviews, with different research groups trying out various ways to put an end to it:

“People have been very naive and trusting initially, and then they get taken” by deceptive reviews and imposters, says John Clippinger, an MIT Media Lab research scientist and executive director of ID Cubed. “So now you’re seeing the development of services that are vetted so that [reviewers’] reputations actually mean something.”

3. This trend extends to organized groups of people who try to bring a book down by bombarding it with negative reviews — even if they haven’t read it — because it makes claims which they find off-putting. One example:  a biography of Michael Jackson.

Another example on the Goodreads discussion forum.

There are author herds (sometimes referred to as ‘fan poodles’) who can be made to stampede specifically to trample anyone they believe has wronged their author of choice.  One particularly messy war-of-the-fans took place on Goodreads last year (a full breakdown of the mess can be found in an article on Salon).

We all know about freedom of speech, the right to express an opinion. Unfortunately, that concept seems to have been banned from some corners of the internet. Sometimes even a innocuous comment will trigger an Attack of the Fandom. HelenKay Dimon experienced a vicious fandom attack on the basis of a review she quoted — did not write, mind you, but quoted — which incited the wrath of Diana Gabaldon readers.

4. It’s not great when vigilante fans ride out to punish the competition (or naysayers) but it’s far worse when authors themselves get involved, trying to recruit fan herds to join them in the attack on negative reviews. As in this case, where some of the battle happened on Amazon, in the reviews of a particular book. One excerpt:

The first few comments surprised me – I didn’t think about my review being seen but I had forgotten about Emily pointing people to the one starred reviews, which would mean that mine would come up.  Crap.  I then went and looked at the comments on the other low starred reviews and saw that already her fandom was attacking.  I girded my loins and prepared for it to get ugly but initially, the support was mostly positive.  Then someone must have alerted Emily to the post as I was shocked to see my review pop up in my Facebook feed being blasted by Emily.

So in the end, I see little reason to trust Amazon reviews. I hope they manage to rethink and revamp at some point, but they don’t seem to be very worried about it all.