Cyberbullying’s Latest Frontier: Amazon Book Reviews

5 minute read

Correction appended, March 10, 2014

The creature with which Anne Rice is most commonly associated is the vampire, but that doesn’t mean she’s a stranger to trolls — at least of the online variety.

The Guardian reports that the author has signed on to a petition to encourage Amazon to stop allowing reviewers and forum participants to hide behind anonymity. Under the current system, the petition says, those who dislike an author are able to bully him under the guise of reviewing his work:

People have found ways to exploit this flaw in the system and are using it to bully, harass, and generally make life miserable for certain authors on Amazon. These people are able to create multiple accounts and then use those accounts to viciously attack and go after any author or person that they feel doesn’t belong on Amazon or who shouldn’t have published a book, made a comment on a forum post, etc.

Rice has a personal stake in the petition, though she didn’t start it: responses to her posts in Amazon’s “meet our authors” fora have led her to identify what she describes to the Guardian as an “anti-author gangster bully culture.”

Cyberbullying is pretty unanimously acknowledged as a problem, and nobody who’s ever been online would be surprised that comments can get nasty. But book reviews are new ground for this fight. Reviews are one of the only places where saying whether you don’t like the thing you’re discussing is kind of the point. An adult author who publishes a book should be prepared for some negativity, especially in a world where often chaotic Amazon reviews — some of which, in a separate issue, have been bought and paid for — have made a dent in professional book criticism. (Bad reviews from book criticism professionals are already on the way out, anyway.)

It can be hard to muster anti-bullying support when the movement can come off as anti-bad-review. A prominent blog in the review-bullying conversation, STGRB, dedicated to stopping Goodreads bullies, tries to get ahead of that accusation with the tagline “taking a stand against bullies, not against reviews,” but Anne Rice in particular already has a reputation for what some have seen as overenthusiastic responses to bad reviews of the old-fashioned variety, ones that are not exclusively ad hominem attacks. Actual examples of not-okay responses to authors do exist: the Guardian cites True Blood author Charlaine Harris receiving death threats from readers angry with her plot choices, and at least based on some preliminary poking around, the I-hate-your-book-so-you-should-die reviews seem to be aimed nearly exclusively at female authors — but they must be kept separate from unpleasant but non-bullying reviews if this movement is going to get anywhere.

In the end, however, that may not matter. It’s probably easier to change Amazon’s policies than to change readers’ minds.

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Yes, it seems pretty unlikely that a petition with about 2,000 signatures would have any effect on whether Amazon continues to allow reviewers to use pseudonyms — but the situation isn’t hopeless for those who agree with Rice.

For one thing, a similar effort has already succeeded. Last year, a parallel but less ambitious petition circulated about cyberbullying of authors on the site Goodreads (which was purchased by Amazon last March) and an author was quoted in Salon about how provoking Goodreads users’ anger — in the linked example, the author questioned those who used “reviews” to indicate interest rather convey than post-reading impressions — led to some of those users calling for her to be raped, though she later backed down on her claims. In September, the site clarified their reviewing policy to state that ad hominem attacks would be deleted from the site, a move that drew cries of censorship from some users.

And, while ending anonymity is a much bigger deal than deleting out-of-bounds posts — Goodreads, for the record, allows user names — and changing Amazon is a much bigger deal than changing Goodreads, the world outside of the petition is already changing. Amazon has also had to contend with concern over fake reviews that are actually advertising in disguise, written by the creators of the thing being reviewed, and with those who think reviews should be limited to customers to actually purchased the item in question.

Moreover, a larger movement away from online anonymity is underway, motivated partly by an attempt to stop trolls. Late in 2013, YouTube integrated with Google+ and meshed usernames with real Google identities. Many users were disappointed, but the change stuck. The Amazon petition may not do much, but if the company follows that trend, they may end up taking the petition’s suggestion anyway.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the number of authors quoted in Salon about threats they received on Goodreads, and did not mention the conclusion of that episode. One author is mention in the linked article, and she later withdrew her claim.

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