March 29, 2020

A Casualty on the Battlefield of Amazon’s Partisan Book Reviews

In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook and Twitter to solicit negative reviews of a new biography of the singer. They bombarded Amazon with dozens of one-star takedowns, succeeded in getting several favorable notices erased and even took credit for Amazon’s briefly removing the book from sale.

“Books used to die by being ignored, but now they can be killed — and perhaps unjustly killed,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell sociologist who has studied Amazon reviews. “In theory, a very good book could be killed by a group of people for malicious reasons.”

In “Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson,” Randall Sullivan writes that Jackson’s overuse of plastic surgery reduced his nose to little more than a pair of nostrils and that he died a virgin despite being married twice. These points in particular seem to infuriate the fans.

Outside Amazon, the book had a mixed reception; in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “thoroughly dispensable.” So it is difficult to pinpoint how effective the campaign was. Still, the book has been a resounding failure in the marketplace.

The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate. “Sullivan does everything he can to dehumanize, dismantle and destroy, against all objective fact,” a spokesman for the group said.

But the book’s publisher, Grove Press, said the Amazon review system was being abused in an organized campaign. “We’re very reluctant to interfere with the free flow of discourse, but there should be transparency about people’s motivations,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of Grove/Atlantic, Grove’s parent company.

Amazon said the fans’ reviews had not violated its guidelines but declined further comment.

The retailer, like other sites that depend on customer reviews, has been faced with the problem of so-called sock puppets, those people secretly commissioned by an author to produce favorable notices. In recent months, Amazon has made efforts to remove reviews by those it deemed too close to the author, especially relatives.

The issue of attack reviews, though, has received little attention. The historian Orlando Figes was revealed in 2010 to be using Amazon to anonymously vilify his rivals and secretly praise himself. The crime writer R. J. Ellory was exposed for doing the same thing last fall.

Attack reviews are hard to police. It is difficult, if not impossible, to detect the difference between an authentic critical review and an author malevolently trying to bring down a colleague, or organized assaults by fans. Amazon’s extensive rules on reviewing offer little guidance on what is permissible in negative reviews and what is not.

With “Untouchable,” Grove had hopes for a modest best seller. The book was excerpted in Vanity Fair, and Mr. Sullivan, a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone who lives in Portland, Ore., promoted it on “Nightline” and “Good Morning America.” Amazon selected it as one of the best books of November, encouraging readers to “check out this train wreck of a life.” The retailer also selected it as one of the 100 best e-books of the year.

None of that helped when Mr. Sullivan tried to complain, saying reviews of his book were factually false yet being voted up by the fans so that they dominated the page for “Untouchable.” The bookseller replied with boilerplate. “Rest assured, we’ll read each of the reviews and remove any that violate our guidelines,” adding, “We’ve appreciated your business and hope to have the opportunity to serve you again in the future.”

In an interview, Mr. Sullivan asked: “Should people be allowed to make flagrantly false comments about the content of a book or its author? This is suppression of free speech in the name of free speech.”

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?partner=rss&emc=rss