Reviews on Amazon (AMZN) are becoming attack weapons, intended to sink new books as soon as they are published.
In the biggest, most overt and most successful of these campaigns, a group of Michael Jackson fans used Facebook andTwitter 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.”
“Untouchable” is 586 pages of text, with 200 pages of notes. Much of it focuses on Jackson’s chaotic last years, including his efforts at comebacks, his struggles to remain solvent, his shocking death in 2009 and the battle over his estate.
It is a largely sympathetic portrait. For instance, Mr. Sullivan seeks to refute the popular notion that the singer had troubling relationships with young boys. Jackson was found not guilty of child-molesting in a criminal trial in 2005.
Yet even before the book was officially published on Nov. 13, the rapid response team declared, “It’s time for action!”
Within two weeks, the book had nearly 100 anonymous one-star reviews that included such comments as: “A disgrace and a disgusting insult to the greatest artist and entertainer the world has ever known.” “There is not one actual fact in this book.” “Sullivan seeks to criticize Michael’s spending habits? It’s none of his business what Michael spent his money on.” “Michael Jackson has dedicated his entire life to helping others. He doesn’t deserve this.” “The audacity to term Michael Jackson’s life a ‘train wreck’ is nothing less than evil and uneducated.”
For several days in late November, Amazon stopped selling physical copies of the book after buyers said copies were defective, in a development first reported by The Portland Oregonian. Mr. Entrekin said Amazon was the only sales outlet that had received such complaints.
The fans took the credit for removing the book from sale. “Book stopped selling,” one of them noted in a Nov. 26 post on the Facebook page. “MJ fans we have done it again!!! Who’s BAD!!!”
About that time, other readers started leaving positive reviews of the book and criticizing the negative reviews, turning the review forum into a full-scale brawl. The fans labeled these reviewers “haters,” saying: “Do not fight with the haters but we need you to focus on the book and leave negative reviews of the book. Rate it with one star. We do not want the book rating to go up.”
It also encouraged the fans to report “the MJ hating trolls” to Amazon for making “inappropriate and personal” attacks against those who left negative reviews.
Tom Mesereau, the Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer who became a hero among Jackson fans when he successfully represented the singer in his molesting case, was a major source for Mr. Sullivan. In early December, he made a YouTube video calling the attacks on “Untouchable” a “disgusting, sophisticated, Hollywood-style P.R. campaign.”
In reality, the campaign is being run a long way from Hollywood. An administrator for the rapid response team, who identified himself as Steve Pollard, said five people run the Facebook site and Twitter efforts, only three of them in the United States. Going after “Untouchable” was “a moral responsibility,” said Mr. Pollard, a 52-year-old resident of Detroit. He explained, “If you were to drive by a graveyard and see someone steal a corpse in order to make a profit, you would feel some responsibility to do something.”
He said that the response team did not tell fans what to say in their Amazon reviews and that they did not try to have the book removed, despite messages to the contrary on the Facebook page. But he added in an e-mail that some of the favorable reviews of “Untouchable” “were removed (I think) because they were attacks against fans and not reviews of his book. We reported the attacks of course.”
Mr. Pinch, the Cornell researcher, said he got the sense that “Amazon is hoping that all these problems with positive and negative reviews will go away.” He added: “But as more and more abuses come to light, the overall effect will be a slow undermining of the process. There are so many ways to game the system.”
Grove distributed 16,000 copies of “Untouchable.” Nielsen BookScan, which tracks sales in most outlets, counted only 3,000 copies sold. For a time this month, “Untouchable” was being outsold on Amazon by a book on Jackson’s body language, “Behind the Mask.”
That book, published by the author, had something going for it that “Untouchable” did not: the endorsement of the fans. “Michael Jackson would be pleased that such an objective book was written about him,” one reviewer wrote on Amazon.