Organized groups are using the Amazon review system to push political and social agendas often only tangentially related to the products being sold.
Most book authors know they need to endure critics, even comments that may be malicious and personal.
But the venom that runs through more than three dozen reviews on Amazon.com of Scarlett Lewis’ latest book are particularly scathing.
“This Scarlet Lewis person is a real sick human being,” writes one reviewer named Kevin.
“Scarlett Lewis is a fraud and a sellout to all of humanity,” writes another, anonymously.
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“Scarlett Lewis is a lying traitor,” writes a reviewer named David Weiss.
Those reviews might suggest that Lewis is a polemic politician, treasonous spy or scurrilous financier. She’s none of these. Lewis is the mother of Jesse Lewis, a 6-year-old boy who was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School three years ago.
She wrote “Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope and Forgiveness” to describe her journey after the massacre and help others choose love and forgiveness instead of anger and resentment in their darkest moments.
The rage in those reviews is fueled by the conspiracy theory that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax, perpetuated by the government to push for tougher gun-control laws. Several were posted after a YouTube user who goes by the handle “RadMc02” uploaded a video on Oct. 18 encouraging viewers to “Truth Bomb the Shit Out of Amazon Reviews!”
Reviewers have long used Amazon as a platform to vent about products that failed to live up to their expectations. Some have even used it to attack authors whose views differ from their own.
Increasingly, though, people are launching coordinated campaigns to push political and social agendas through negative reviews often only tangentially related to the product for sale. They are able to do so because Amazon welcomes reviews regardless of whether the writer has actually purchased the product.
Lewis isn’t the only target of the Sandy Hook tragedy deniers. “We want to hit this woman as hard as we can,” says a narrator in a YouTube video as he walks viewers through posting 1-star ratings and negative reviews for “Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life’s Darkest Hours,” by Sandy Hook Elementary first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis. The video, posted by “Peekay22,” even guides viewers to click a “Yes” button indicating they found other negative reviews helpful.
Since Peekay22’s video posted on Oct. 16, “Choosing Hope” has received more than 170 1-star reviews out of just over 250 total reviews. That’s tanked the book’s rating down to 2.1 stars out of 5.
“Amazon is giving these people a forum … ,” Lewis said. “Obviously, Amazon should remove (the reviews).”
But Amazon appears to have no intent of doing so. To the company, as long as the reviews are “authentic,” they have a place on its website.
“All authentic reviews, whether the reviewer bought the product on Amazon or not, are valuable to customers, helping them make informed buying decisions every day,” Amazon spokesman Tom Cook wrote in reply to questions about its review policy. He declined to address questions about specific reviews.
Critics long welcome
Amazon’s reviews system has long been a source of pride for Chief Executive Jeff Bezos. In his 2003 letter to shareholders, Bezos crowed about ignoring critics who wondered why the company would allow negative reviews that might discourage shoppers from buying products on Amazon’s site.
“Though negative reviews cost us some sales in the short term, helping customers make better purchase decisions ultimately pays off for the company,” Bezos wrote.
Still, Amazon has cracked down on some bogus reviews. Earlier this month, it filed a suit — the second this year — against reviewers who post positive product evaluations in exchange for payment from third-party sellers on the site.
“We continue to use a number of mechanisms to detect and remove the small fraction of reviews that violate our guidelines,” the company said after filing the most recent suit. “We terminate accounts that abuse the system and we take legal action.”
But Amazon doesn’t view coordinated campaigns to flood its review system with negative comments as abuse.
“We terminate accounts that abuse the system and take the appropriate legal action, whether it’s a 1- or 5-star review,” Cook, the Amazon spokesman, wrote. “The issue isn’t whether the reviews are negative or positive, it’s whether they are authentic or not.”
Forum for activists, too
It’s not just angry conspiracy theorists who use Amazon’s review system to air their views. Grass-roots political activists have figured out how to turn Amazon.com into a bullhorn as well.
A year ago, PepsiCo launched a new mid-calorie soda called Pepsi True exclusively on Amazon. That caught the attention of activists at the Rainforest Action Network and SumOfUs, who have condemned PepsiCo for its use of so-called “conflict palm oil,” the harvesting of which is causing deforestation, in its snack products such as Doritos.
The two groups decided to target Pepsi True through Amazon’s review system because they knew it was a low-cost way to make a high-impact statement. SumOfUs called for a “Pepsi True Amazon.com takeover!” on its Facebook page, and the Rainforest Action Network called on its Twitter followers to “Join in” the effort.
And it worked. Nearly 4,000 followers gave Pepsi True 1-star ratings and posted negative reviews that, among other things, ripped Pepsi for supporting “rain forest destruction by buying unsustainable palm oil.” Pepsi was caught so off-guard that it asked Amazon to take down the page.
“We totally sabotaged their product launch,” said Laurel Sutherlin, a Rainforest Action Network spokesman.
Pepsi, which eventually decided to revive the product page despite the negative reviews, said in a statement that Pepsi True was “subject to an orchestrated effort to post inaccurate information” about the company’s palm-oil policy. A spokeswoman declined to comment beyond the statement.
Even one of Amazon’s own products has been targeted by a coordinated, agenda-driven campaign. Greenpeace has long criticized Amazon’s lack of transparency regarding the type of energy it uses to power the massive data centers that run its cloud-computing business, Amazon Web Services.
Greenpeace brought that concern to last year’s debut of Amazon’s Fire Phone, launching an email campaign that encouraged users to post negative reviews and leave 1-star ratings on Amazon’s own website.
Gary Cook, Greenpeace’s senior IT analyst, said the group stopped counting reviews related to its environmental concerns after the number reached 1,500.
“We got an overwhelming response,” he said. “People enjoyed having the opportunity to talk to Amazon where it lives.”
While the Fire Phone failed on its own, the Greenpeace-prompted comments — including “Make a ‘smarter’ phone supported by clean, renewable energy!” from IT-Berater — remain on the site.
These campaign-driven negative reviews may promote agendas, but they often add little to the discussion about the product itself. That’s because the vast majority of reviewers responding to those calls-to-action have never used the products they are critiquing, a point they often acknowledge in their reviews. In the process, those reviews often overwhelm comments from customers who have read the book or used the product.
Rainforest Action Network’s Sutherlin believes removing reviews would limit the expression of opinions. But Amazon has always retained the right to control the information posted on its site. Its “General Review Creation Guidelines” include plenty of restrictions, including barring reviews with “profanity or spiteful remarks,” as well as “advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively.”
It would be hard to argue that some of the posts about Scarlett Lewis aren’t spiteful. And the very purpose of these coordinated campaigns is to make the same point excessively so as to drown out positive appraisals. Amazon’s Cook declined to respond to questions about the company’s process for determining if reviews violate its guidelines and how they are taken down.
One way to stifle the coordinated outrage would be to limit reviews to those who have actually purchased the product they want to evaluate on Amazon. The company already lets shoppers filter reviews by “Verified purchase only,” though that’s not the default. Sutherlin acknowledges that such a limit would have made the campaign against Pepsi True impossible.
“I doubt that most people weighing in would buy the product,” Sutherlin said.
“System is creaking”
But don’t expect Amazon to make that change. Cornell University science and technology professor Trevor Pinch, who has studied Amazon’s review system, said the company benefits from as many shoppers posting on its site as possible.
“The reason Amazon cannot just use verified reviews is simple. Most of the content at the site is from free customer reviews, and it would mean it would lose most of its content,” Pinch said.
And while some of those reviews are spiteful, repetitive and off-topic, the vast majority are not.
But Pinch also cautions that coordinated campaigns of negative reviews, as well as bogus paid-for positive reviews, can’t help but take a toll on the system’s credibility.
“These are signs that the whole system is creaking,” Pinch said. “As cases of abuse mount up, it does lead to more distrust.”
For her part, Scarlett Lewis is living her book’s message of compassion and understanding. She refuses to be upset by the hateful reviews or Amazon’s decision not to remove them.
“Once you’ve had a child murdered, shot in the forehead, there’s not a lot that can ruffle your feathers,” Lewis said.