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Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’

From The Federalist:

Amazon is refusing to publish many reviews and ratings of the No. 1 best-selling “Justice on Trial: The Kavanaugh Confirmation and the Future of the Supreme Court,” according to multiple reports from readers who purchased the book directly from Amazon.

The behind-the-scenes dive into the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which was written by Carrie Severino and The Federalist’s Senior Editor Mollie Hemingway, debuted at No. 1 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books.

The Federalist independently confirmed that many reviews by verified purchasers of “Justice on Trial” were not being published by Amazon. Some fake reviews from non-purchasers and reviews from those who clearly had not read the book, however, were published immediately. As of Wednesday evening, the online retailer had allowed only 16 reviews of the top-selling book to be published.

One reviewer whose critique was published by Amazon accused the authors of “stay[ing] away from using the term rape” regarding unsubstantiated accusations of sexual assault made against Kavanaugh during the confirmation process in 2018. A word search of the Kindle version of the book shows that the term was used 41 times by the authors. Another review, from an individual who did not purchase the book from Amazon, wrote that it was the “[w]orst book ever” and rated the book with one star.

. . . .

In a canned statement provided to The Federalist by an Amazon spokesperson, the company said, “Our policy includes a delay before reviews appear on our website while we ensure reviews follow our participation guidelines.” The spokesperson did not explain why troll reviews from commenters whom Amazon hadn’t verified have purchased the book were nonetheless published without delay while reviews from verified purchasers were quarantined and remain hidden.

. . . .

The company also refused to disclose the percentage or number of unpublished reviews written by verified buyers, or what the average rating was for verified purchasers whose reviews were being hidden by Amazon.

In 2018, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon employees were being investigated for manipulating product reviews in exchange for cash.

“The going rate for having an Amazon employee delete negative reviews is about $300 per review, according to people familiar with the practice,” the Wall Street Journal noted. “Brokers usually demand a five-review minimum, meaning that sellers typically must pay at least $1,500 for the service, the people said.”

A 2019 expose published by The Hustle dove deep into what it called Amazon’s “massive fake-review economy.”

“Amazon likes to think of its marketplace as a merchant meritocracy where the best products get the best reviews by virtue of quality and honest consumer feedback,” The Hustle wrote. “But the vast size of the platform, coupled with a ferocious competition among sellers to get higher product rankings, has spawned a problem: A proliferation of fake reviews.”

Fake reviews have become such a significant problem that multiple services like Fakespot and ReviewMeta have popped up offering to help potential consumers sort the signal from the noise. Fakespot estimated that up to 30 percent of Amazon reviews are fake or unreliable.

Link to the rest at The Federalist

Amazon, Reviews

45 Comments to “Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’”

  1. Why Is Amazon Blocking Reviews of the No. 1 Best-Selling ‘Justice on Trial?’

    Because Bezos was a major opponent of Kavanaugh?

    • You should read the article, Terrence. The book is being protected not that it’s being cheated.

    • Bezos owns Washington Post. No more to be said.

      • True but Amazon’s history shows they don’t let politics get in the way of making money. If anything controversies boost sales.

        I think it is a bit of a stretch to assume Bezos these days cares much about books, much less “here today, forgotten tomorrow” political books.

        He has other things to worry about, like his post divorce life. 😉

        • I suspect he doesn’t tinker with the robots at the warehouse in Coffeeville, KS. But his policies and the patterns he set have a great influence on how it is managed.

          • “He set.” Right.
            Past tense.

            That’s where the “distribute anything and everthing” part comes from. The OP is presuming new policies without showing meaningful evidence of change.

            • Terrence OBrien

              When a leader sets policies, and does it well, subordinates often follow a general idea without specific direction. Amazon employees know Bezos was a strong opponent of Kavanaugh. It’s reasonable to speculate a subset would follow that general guideline in their management of reviews of books by supporters of Kavanaugh.

              Bezos brought Amazon into the political arena with the actions of the Washington Post. The Federalist is a strong opponent of the WP on just about everything. So, we have a situation where the Federalist is criticizing the WP, owned by Bezos.

              Bezos did call for “distribute anything and everything.” But he does lots of other stuff, too. Bezos, himself, may recoil at the idea of using review management for a political agenda. But we have seen similar things happen at Google and Facebook without specific direction from the CEO. So, it’s reasonable to think Amazon may follow suit.

              Earlier this year, we saw the curious removal of the Tommy Robinson book, followed by its reinstatement. I’d love to know the story there.

              The jury is still out on how Bezos’ political involvement will affect Amazon and its shareholders. It will be great fun to watch

              • I’ve found this whole section of the comments a bit puzzling as there is no evidence at all that the Federalist’s complaint is justified. I’m actually surprised that there are so few negative reviews as it appears to be the kind of title that would incentivise progressives to post one star reviews (not that I’m suggesting that negative reviews are being suppressed by Amazon).

                • Terrence OBrien

                  The evidence that the title would incentivise progressives to post one stars seems to mirror the evidence that Amazon has the same attitude toward this book that it displayed toward Tommy Robinson’s book.

                  God Bless speculation, for it’s the first step to hypothesis.

  2. Amazon thinks it has a review meritocracy? That’s a joke. About a third of the product pages I look at, the reviews aren’t even for to product being sold on that page. I do wonder if they aren’t reusing ASINs. That could account for the intermingling. Doesn’t help the customer though.

  3. Sounds to me as if The Federalist has an axe to grind. Maybe 67 reviews is not a great number for a bestseller – even if it’s only been out for three days – but the huge majority are positive so Jeff Bezos does not appear to blocking favourable reviews. I suspect that this is the kind of book – like Hilary Clinton’s memoir whose treatment by Amazon draws the OPs ire – that will get a lot of reviews by non readers making a political point. Maybe only verified purchasers should be allowed to review which would get rid of the one star review but also of about ⅓ of the five star ones.

    • Maybe we can all stop with the WAGs (Wild Ass Guesses) about why this and why that and admit that we haven’t the first clue about why some reviews are not posted.

      The article raises this question: Does Amazon censor reviews that Bezos disagrees with? Let’s assume it does. What will we do about it? What can we do about it? Amazon is his house. Do we demand that Exxon-Mobil allow BP to advertise in their lobby?

      In my house, Mein Kampf is not welcome. Nor are racial slurs. I am the judge of what constitutes a racial slur in my house, and there is no appeal. Break that rule and you will be asked to leave. Refuse to leave and you will be thrown out. And likely badly injured in the process.

      The First Amendment prohibits the government from practicing censorship. It does not prevent companies, public or private, from doing so. To the best of my knowledge, Amazon has not become a public utility.

      • With its market power it’s a monopoly.

        • Terrence OBrien

          A monopoly has market power. But market power does not mean a company is a monopoly.

          I would love to see an example of a retail monopoly. A monopolist controls supply, and the zillions of sellers on Amazon are free to sell their stuff anywhere. And they do.

          Many object to the new kind of social, political, market power we have seen emerge with digital network advances. But the mechanisms of the past are not suited to dealing with it. The people who want to curb them will have to develop a new set of concepts. It’s way too easy to refute claims net firm are in violation of concepts developed in 1900.

        • From the Oxford English Dictionary:

          1.0 NOUN
          monopolies (plural noun)

          – the exclusive possession or control of the supply of or trade in a commodity or service.
          “the state’s monopoly of radio and television broadcasting”

          – a company or group having exclusive control over a commodity or service.
          “passenger services were largely in the hands of state-owned monopolies” · “France’s electricity monopoly, EDF”

          – a commodity or service in the exclusive control of a company or group.
          “electricity, gas, and water were considered to be natural monopolies”

          – the exclusive possession, control, or exercise of something.
          “men don’t have a monopoly on unrequited love”

          2.0 TRADEMARK
          – a board game in which players engage in simulated property and financial dealings using imitation money. It was invented in the US and the name was coined by Charles Darrow c.1935.

          Some would add:

          3.0 A much abused term popular with luddites in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Not so popular with antitrust judges who are fixated on the words “exclusive” and “possessive”.

          (Amazon is a distributor. One of many and not even the biggest. They neither own nor exclusively control the products they distribute. They *are* strong market players in homegrown ebook readers, home automation hubs/internet-connected speakers, media tablets, and streaming devices as well as corporate CLOUD computing services but do not begin to approach monopoly status in any of those product categories.)

          Note that US antitrust is about consumer harm first, lack of competition a distant second, and protecting specific competitors never.

          • The OED omits a vital economic factor. There must be barriers to entry for anyone else who wants to enter the same market. The exclusivity has to have an enforcement mechanism.

            Otherwise the first guy to offer some good or service is automatically a monopolist. He isn’t because I can enter the market and compete.

      • Antares, I trust your reference to “wild ass guesses” was not directed at me (even though it was in a reply to my comment). I was very careful to avoid any speculation about the blocking of reviews and simply pointed out that the evidence does not support the OP’s complaint that positive reviews are being blocked whilst negative ones are let through. This continues to be the case with the number of reviews growing and being almost entirely positive, though as is often also the case the most useful review is the lone three star entry.

        Whilst I would agree that in many cases we have no idea why a review night be removed, my understanding is that there is good, if anecdotal, evidence that Amazon’s algorithms try to identify personal links (family relations and friendships) between reviewer and author(s). It may be that these would be more likely to find such a link – not necessarily accurately – for very early reviews as these would typically be posted by people who had received a pre-publication copy which indicates some kind of link to the authors. Assuming, of course, that the reviewer had actually read the book!

        Finally, your WAG acronym already means “Wives and Girlfriends” as applied to the female associates of professional sports teams – normally the ones avid for personal publicity and celebrity status – and is best preserved for this purpose.

        • Different circles, I suppose: in the tech world WAG has meant “wild ass guess” for decades, for what are at best gut feelings. It is commonly used in engineering for quick, back-of-envelope estimates. Usage is harmless if self-deprecating but dismissive if applied to others.

          I’ve used it offline and online for quite a while without ever hearing of any other meaning.

          There is also a less common sarcastic variation: SWAG — for “scientific” wild ass guess, wrapping WAGs in less than relevant scientific justification.

          I went online and found this:

          http://onlineslangdictionary.com/meaning-definition-of/wag

          Apparently it’s another case of transatlantic vocabulary divergence. In Australia it is apparently used in place of “playing hooky” or “cutting classes”.

          I never heard the latter two uses. Learn something new every day.

        • Mike, I assure you I intended no offense. I respect you. For time to time, I may differ with your opinions and give them no countenance. It will not offend me if you return the sentiment.

          Yes, the OP leaped to the conclusion that Amazon acted maliciously. I find that improbable. Amazon has a vested interest in maintaining a semblance of integrity in its reviews. David Gaughran — among others — has decried the apparently capricious manner by which Amazon has struck reviews. A moment, please. Well, it appears Amazon has deleted my review of Joe Haldeman, All My Sins Remembered. I bought the book when it came out in paperback, lo, many years before Bezos incorporated Amazon. I wrote a review, but my purchase was not ‘verified’, and now it’s gone. C’est la guerre.

          Why did my review go the way of the pteranodon? I don’t know, and Amazon ain’t sayin’. And that’s the trouble. If Amazon said why, gave us a little glimpse into their sogenannte decision-making process, we would not be happy but we would understand and accept. But Amazon acts like a cheap magic act, never revealing its tricks, and leaving the audience with the feeling that it did not get its money’s worth.

          It is a little funny. Amazon took these measures to protect the integrity of its reviews. They did so with such a heavy hand that the cure has become worse than the disease. Their correction has done more damage to the integrity of reviews than the problem they sought to correction. And corporate silence in the face of a multitude of complaints damaged them even more.

          BTW, IMO Amazon does everything well but this. The way they handle complaints reminds me of Lily Tomlin’s old skit. (<– click to view) This is the soft spot in their armor. It spells opportunity for someone.

          And BTW, I never heard your definition of WAG before, but I have heard and been using mine for half a century. I may be mistaken, but I am willing to wager sizable sums that my take on the acronym came before yours.

          • As Felix likes to remind me, two nations separated by a common language often applies, in particular to acronyms. I’m happy to accept that the US meaning of WAG is much older than the UK one, which is very much a product of the tabloid press.

            I’m sorry to hear about your Haldeman review vanishing and can’t even imagine why an Amazon bot would do this. Good older books need reviews and these will mostly not be by verified purchasers. The only time when I think a limit to verified might be justified is if a political campaign is being got up – probably on Twitter – to post false reviews. Or maybe for YA where the field seems to be a bit toxic for trad published books.

            I do wish that Amazon would delete the reviews I report as I only complain about things that are nothing to do with the contents of the book, like “one star because I couldn’t download it”.

            Meanwhile, all the evidence continues to indicate that Amazon is not blocking positive reviews in this case (currently 157 reviews, 92% five star).

      • Amazon, and other social media companies, lobby in front of the government that they are NOT publishers, merely forums, of ideas. This gives them cover from lawsuits.

        However, they ACT like publishers when they do all of the things you admit they do. This puts them in a different category concerning the law and slander, etc.

        Then they LIE about it in front of congress. They should be held to the same legal standards as newspapers if they are going to pick and choose what gets published.

        • How exactly are they like newspapers?

          To me they’re more like community bulletin boards where people can attach random notes. Amazon reviews simply present other people’s ideas, typically both pro and con, without actually endorsing them. More, reviews are understood to be *opinions*, not facts. In the US you can’t usually sue over opinions. (YELP aside.)

          https://finance.yahoo.com/news/what-the-yelp-lawsuit-over-a-bad-review-means-for-you-195542730.html

          Newspapers (and some blogs) by default support as factual the ideas they present which is why they are legally liable.

          At most, Amazon flags ideas as popular or “(reportedly) useful to customers” but as we all know popularity is no reflection of veracity.

          If anything, Amazon’s clumsy algorithms and known mix of false reviews proves they aren’t like newspapers and, in fact, the more people gripe about the reviews, the stronger their legal protection.

  4. Why shouldn’t Amazon block reviews when Facebook and Twitter block or cancel service of whom they don’t agree politically with? Of course for the ones of the left persuasion who welcome the “Communist Manifesto” that may be fine, but that’s censorship performed by private monopolies. It is one thing for Nike to ban Betsy Ross American flag on their sneakers, and if I object I can buy competitor’s sneakers, and another thing when the only source of service is a monopoly.

    • Terrence OBrien

      I suspect I can find reviews of the subject book in a variety of places. Amazon has no monopoly power over reviews. Nor does it have monopsony power. Reviewers are free agents who can submit all over.

      Amazon chooses what reviews to publish. That’s fine. One can speculate on how they vet what they publish. We can do the same with the Washington Post or Breitbart. We can even speculate on things over which we have no control.

      • The manipulation of reviews violates Amazon’s own policy and terms of service. From Amazon:
        “Customers trust that they can shop with confidence on Amazon. Reviews provide a forum for sharing authentic feedback about products and services – positive or negative. Any attempt to manipulate reviews, including by directly or indirectly contributing false, misleading or inauthentic content, is strictly prohibited.”
        They do not offer any exemption for themselves in that statement. Specifically excluding positive reviews (or negative reviews in order to boost a product) is a manipulation of the process as authentic feedback is not presented.

        • Terrence OBrien

          Sure. The terms of service might say all kinds of things. And there are all kinds of things we might not like. But refraining from publishing a review is not evidence of a monopoly.

    • Offensive though many find the Twitter and Facebook blocking policies, neither is actually violating laws, mores, or ethics.

      On the other hand, selling user data for lucre (Which google also does) definitely violates ethics, probably violates western mores (though not Chinese ones), and possibly a law or two. Maybe.

      Given that Amazon shares nothing with outsiders, they aren’t a good comparison to either. If anything, they are closer to Apple and Microsoft who use user data to fine tune internal services.

      The media does nobody any favors lumping all these disparate companies into a single pigeonhole. It muddies the waters and makes rational judgements harder to reach.

      • On the other hand, selling user data for lucre (Which google also does) definitely violates ethics, probably violates western mores (though not Chinese ones), and possibly a law or two. Maybe.

        Google and Facebook are not free to the consumer. The consumer pays with his data. The companies then trade it for money, put some in their pocket, and use the rest to finance the service provided to consumers. And then the consumer provides more data…

        This is hardly a secret, so I would question the ethical problem with people freely contributing data they know will be sold. It has become a free exchange.

        • Your point depends on the public knowing exactly what Google and Facebook do with their data. The current scandals prove they didn’t just as the handwringing over MS and Apple data collection shows a lack of understanding of what they collect and how they use it. As opposed to say, Android apps that collect data even after being told not to:

          https://www.cnet.com/news/more-than-1000-android-apps-harvest-your-data-even-after-you-deny-permissions/

          The lack of ethics is in exploiting that user ignorance is instead of clarifying it and then letting the public decide. That is no different than the hidden clauses in the “industry standard” publishing contracts that defang of even nullify other more prominent clauses.

          Willful deception may not often be illegal but it is unethical.

          • The public doesn’t have to know exactly what the data is being used for. They know it is being sold and used for a wide variety of purposes.

            Knowing that, they freely give the information, and there is no exploitation. It’s a trade. one party provides information that will be sold. The other provides a network service.

            There is no deception, and it has nothing to do with publishing contracts. Knowing he is ignorant of the exact nature of the transaction his data will be part of, he freely gives the data.

            The public can decide. And they do decide. They click, or they don’t click.

            • The evidence, here and elsewhere, is that at least a plurality had no idea of the data collection and sale. Most thought the pri e was just ads they ignored.

              They were blinded by *free!* and looked no further.

              Google/Facebook knew this and counted on it. It’s a variation of the grifter creed that “you can’t con an honest person”.

              Makes it legal but doesn’t elevate Google/facebook ethics.

              • Blinded? Those who didn’t know had their eyes closed. It’s all over the news and has been for years.

                When Gmail debuted about 20 years ago, it was big news that Google was going to read your mail to gather data and use it to target you. Activists complained. The people disagreed and clicked. Activists continue to complain.

                People certainly know now, and they keep paying for service with their data. They are making a choice some other folks don’t like. But that hardly makes it unethical. They don’t care what the activists want them to do.

                Almost everyday we can find some news story about how Alexa and the Google gizmo listen to everything we say in our houses. Yet people continue to buy them. That’s another data trade. Observation shows zillions of people don’t care.

                Some people want Amazon, Google, and FB to design products so the firms don’t collect and sell data. I have yet to hear how the firms are supposed to finance their operations without those sales.

                We may be headed to a bifurcated society. One group freely shares their data and gets the networking benefits from doing so. The other group refuses to pay with data, and is left out of the larger network effect. There is an opportunity for someone to design products for the second group. Not sure what or how.

                God Bless the Mouse, for we are all free to click… or not.

                • Nope.
                  There is a third way.

                  People can *pay* with actual money.
                  Legal tender.

                  I pay for my email instead of letting google scan my emails and make money off that.
                  I pay for my internet, for my online storage, VPN, word processor, and online videos.
                  On the handful of occasions I pay with my data I do it with companies that keep the data to themselves and use it to fine tune their product. The more I hear companies complain about Amazon not sharing data, the more confident I about doing business with Amazon.

                  To say the future is to pay with privacy or do without is a false dichotomy.

                  The future is Hulu and Kindle, not GMAIL.

                • Terrence OBrien

                  There is indeed a third way. Probably a fourth and fifth, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the opportunity I mention above uses that approach. That would leave us with the bifurcated system. Pay with money, or pay with data. Choice expands and consumers decide.

                  And the future of Kindle, Hulu, and Gmail? Consumers will decide. Lots of people pay money for lots of things. Others make a different choice.

                  No matter how it works out, consumers will pay. And the market has delivered different ways to pay. Ain’t this a great country?

  5. The main problem with the OP is that it presents no verifiable, quantified data on whether Amazon is in fact blocking reviews unfairly.

    It is complicated by the nature of reviews and review blocking which are both arbitrary practices regardless of motivation and both lack any kind of bias-free fairness baseline for comparison.

    Politics aside, the issues are the same as for books: nothing will ever please every one, be they reader, critic, or corporate algorithm or “censor”.

    There really is no “solution” to be found that won’t annoy a separate category/faction. Probably why Amazon just follows the money: the least they can do is the most they will do. And nobody can force anything else.

    Probably one of those things that are best pondered and shrugged off before getting back to the business of business.

  6. Periodical reminder – as it pops up in virtually every article on fake reviews – that sites like ReviewMeta are completely bogus. Explanation here: https://davidgaughran.com/2018/04/24/psa-reviewmeta-is-not-accurate/

    A more interesting question, perhaps, is whether Amazon uses a similarly flawed algorithm to determine fake reviews.

  7. Ah, The Federalist, a reactionary, right-wing site, has its undies twisted into a knot. Cry me a river. 🙁

    • If you think The Federalist is “reactionary” you need to get out more.

    • What does reactionary mean?

      • Don’t like the way things are going and object to it. Its applicability is normally limited to changes from the current status quo to avoid the need to call all liberals reactionaries.

        Whether or not this is a good thing depends on where the ship of state is heading. If things are going to hell in a handbasket then being a reactionary is probably fine. Climate change campaigners are definitely reactionaries, but only the traditional conservatives amongst them probably realise this.

        And yes, I did realise your question was rhetorical but I never see this as a good reason to avoid answering.

        • Reactionaries want to turn back the clock, not just preserve the status quo.

          Reactionaries don’t just dislike women’s lib but rather want women “barefoot and pregnant” as the saying goes.

          Saying “enough for now, things are acceptable as is” does not a reactionary make.

          (By your definition, BREXIT opponents are reactionaries because they prefer the status quo. Which renders any change “good”.)

          https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reactionary

          Like many social/political terms it is abused intentionally to drive the baseline definition of normalcy towards a politically desirable condition.

        • Well, it’s not a rhetorical question. We hear so much mush today in social discussions, it’s good to drop the buzz words and ask what people are really talking about.

          Makes one wonder if Thurgood Marshall was a reactionary when he led the forces opposed to Plessy in Brown v Board of Education.

          And Letter From The Birmingham Jail? That one would be great fun.

          • For that matter, how is it reactionary to say “the current system is bad but your ‘solution’ is worse”?

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2y8Sx4B2Sk

            Life isn’t black or white. There’s room for shades of gray.

            • Terrence OBrien

              I suppose we might also wonder if it’s reactionary to say, “We made a mistake. This thing sucks. It has to go.”

              Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. And that’s why we owe so much to guys like Marshall and King.

  8. As far as I know, although it requires you to have spent $50 on their site within the past 12 months, Amazon still doesn’t require you to have purchased the item on the site in order to post a review about it. That’s not the case with Audible. You need to have the audiobook in your library in order to post a review. I don’t understand why they don’t just make the policy consistent across platforms? Give an author 50 codes for free distribution of their ebook as review copies, as they do with audiobooks, then require all the others to be Verified Purchase reviews. I suppose it doesn’t address the arbitrary nature of their process for accepting/rejecting reviews, but surely it would help at least a little? Also, in reviewing their Verified Purchase policy just now, it looks as though they won’t attach the badge to a book that’s been purchased at a deep discount. I did not know that.

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