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How Amazon reviews became the new battlefield of US politics

13 October 2017

From The Guardian:

There are stars that twinkle and shine in the firmament and yet others that determine the destiny of authors. In the case of the latter, every author wishes for an Amazon page that is, much like the Coldplay song, “full of stars”. Hillary Clinton, former US presidential candidate, and author of the testily titled What Happened, was not such a fortunate author. A mere day after it was released, Clinton (or, more likely, one of her many publicists) found her book’s Amazon page to be a battleground. Within 24 hours of the book’s release, 1,500 reviews had been posted and – like the American electorate – divided between ardent love and ferocious hatred for the book and its author. The former slathered on five stars, the latter a single, sulky one. The election, it appeared, was being replayed in Amazon reviews.

But while power and strategic string-pulling were unable to turn the election, they did come to Clinton’s rescue in the review wars. The day after the book’s release, Amazon chose to remove nearly 900 reviews from Clinton’s page, a move that brought the book’s rating up from 3.2 stars to a dazzling 4.3. Ever cryptic, Amazon alluded to its “community guidelines” and cited “mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of the many do not drown out the voices of the few” as a reason for the excision. Supporters of Amazon’s move went further: the reviews could not have been legitimate, they opined; so many people could not possibly have read and then loved or hated the book in a single night. One week later, What Happened was averaging five stars, based on more than 1,500 reviews. Only one recourse remained for the Hillary haters: voting up the few remaining one-stars from “verified purchases” as “most helpful”.

Amazon is not always sympathetic to sad sagas of political animus wrecking the review destinies of authors. The story of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is an example. Bray’s book, published by Melville House, happened to be released the Monday after neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to a counter-protestor being run over and killed. This placed Bray’s book right in the middle of President Trump’s blame for “both sides” by likening Antifa to neo-Nazis. Eager to fight, some of the so-called “alt-right” took to Reddit with a screenshot of Bray’s Amazon page and the instruction: “Currently at 3.5 stars. You know what to do.” They did: in no time, the book’s listing was, in the words of its publisher Dennis Johnson, “flooded” with single-star reviews. Johnson complained to Amazon – via the automatic submission forms provided to the non-Clintons of the world – and a few one-star reviews were removed, but at that point there were now about 50 of them. Johnson even sent Amazon a screenshot of the Reddit page, but was still unable to speak to a human representative. The reviews, meanwhile, slowed the book’s sales, claiming that purchasing the book would support violence. In an odd and unlucky irony, the gap in intellectual history that Bray had attempted to address in his book – the US’s inattention to anti-fascist resistance – manufactured the material for its condemnation. A book about fighting evil was characterised as evil.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

Amazon, Reviews

23 Comments to “How Amazon reviews became the new battlefield of US politics”

  1. A day after the book is released it gets 1500 reviews rated from 5 to 1 stars. Yet only the one star reviews are removed because they couldn’t have read the book so fast. The five star readers were speed readers I guess. Verified by Bezos himself? Or the political arm of Amazon?

    • It’s like those authors who complain that their books get too many one stars on goodreads.
      They blame it on trolls or organised campaigns to destroy their reputation, and in some cases it might be true, but somehow I don’t see them raising up such a fuss if they mostly got a five star reviews.

    • I believe they actually cleared out all unverified purchase reviewers, regardless of wha rating it got.

      • thanks AP

      • That seems fair to me. I prefer informed opinions, so a 1-star or 5-star review from someone who read the book carries more weight with me than someone who fanatically likes or hates the author.

        I’d also be fine with reviews from someone who bought the book elsewhere and is able to quote from it and engage with what the text said. But vetting that type of review would require human intervention, which Amazon doesn’t usually do, so wiping out unverified purchases is the next best option.

        • The bottom line is that a book written by someone like Hillary Clinton isn’t going to get a lot of legitimate negative reviews when limited to verified purchasers. Because almost everyone in the US has a strongly formed opinion on her and her politics, and she isn’t likely to give readers anything they don’t already know about her, or rock the boat in any way. So, people who would actually buy her book are predisposed to like it. And almost no one else will buy it.

        • I really think that Amazon’s practice of making Verified Purchase reviews most visible (on any book, I have to do additional clicks to see all reviews) is part of their plan to gain a monopoly on books. A long-term goal, perhaps, but when you start to only allow people who’ve bought the book from your company–as opposed to people who may have bought it elsewhere–to review the book, it seems pretty clear where you’re trying to go with that. Whatever the reason for removing all “unverified purchase” reviews.

          This is one of the big reasons I don’t like that they own Goodreads. Pretty much the two main sites where people can look up reviews of books are under Amazon’s direct control. I don’t think it’ll be too long before Amazon *only* allows you to review products you’ve bought from them, and ultimately, either folding Goodreads more directly into Amazon itself or similarly limiting reviewing options there.

          • That possibility is another reason why it would be good if Amazon had some real competition in this arena.

          • I really think that Amazon’s practice of making Verified Purchase reviews most visible (on any book, I have to do additional clicks to see all reviews) is part of their plan to gain a monopoly on books.

            A monopolist has to control production. Otherwise consumers can buy from someone else.

            A retailer who wants to be a monopolist also has to be a monopsonist (Single buyer). Otherwise producers can sell to another retailer. So, again he has to control production.

            There are lots of commercial producers, and zillions of independents. Amazon doesn’t control production.

            • If they get to the point where they effectively control the vast majority of distribution (which certainly seems to be their end goal in the case of a lot of products, like books), then the difference between that and having a legal monopoly is a matter of semantics. Lawyers might care about semantics, but consumers and most vendors (such as authors) generally do not.

      • That appears to not be true. I looked and the #1 liked review is a one-star, verified purchase that says they’ve twice had their review removed.

        My respect for Amazon’s attempts to make their reviews mean something no longer exists.

  2. “What Happened” was automatically checked out to me yesterday.

    I did vote for and support Hillary in the election, but I didn’t exactly throw myself upon the ramparts, if you know what I mean.

    Politics aside, I downloaded the book, opened it, started reading and was immediately hooked. You know how people keep saying you have to grab your reader in the first paragraph or so? This book did that to me. So far I’m fluctuating in the neighborhood of 4 stars. Sometimes more, sometimes less. It occasionally descends into preachy self-righteousness but so far it is not as bad as you might otherwise think.

  3. Is it more likely Amazon removed the one-star reviews due to a political motive or a financial one? One-star reviews don’t help sell books but five-star reviews do.

  4. I’m not sure doing from 3.2 or 4.3 or whatever has any real meaning; I doubt few people who voted against Hillary would purchase her book, much less read it. While the Hillary fans who click in will probably buy it no matter what the rating is.

  5. Bezos was a very strong supporter of Clinton.

  6. Just about every comment thread I come across these days, is a battlefield for US politics, even the ones in other countries on obscure topics.

    • Widdershins, Yeah, and it’s a shame. I get US politics even on sites that are dedicated to German language and Korean language. But I don’t get US politics on Brazilian sites because they have their own national scandal.

  7. How interesting the ‘sham negative reviews’ only plague beloved liberal authors like Clinton and a leading Antifa terrorist. Poor victims.

  8. This “book” is a politico manifesto. The ratings reflect the political views of the readers not an actual book review as it would be with any other book.

  9. There are some current negative reviews, that are verified purchases, that claim they’ve had their reviews deleted multiple times. This makes me sad. I can’t get Amazon to remove a one-star review because the person ‘didn’t like that the book wasn’t on sale’ to save my life. But they bend over backward to help HRC.

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