The online retail giant acknowledged that it is rethinking the way the review system works, with a spokesman saying it is examining its “policies regarding activism reviews.”
Amazon.com is revising its product review system six weeks after The Seattle Times reported on activists posting reviews to push their political and social agendas.
“We are taking a close look at our policies regarding activism reviews and are considering changes,” Amazon spokesman Tom Cook said in a statement.
The Times article reported on coordinated attacks by Amazon reviewers on Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a 6-year-old boy murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut three years ago Monday. Lewis wrote “Nurturing Healing Love: A Mother’s Journey of Hope and Forgiveness” to describe her journey after the massacre.
Dozens of reviewers — conspiracy theorists who believe the shootings were an Obama administration hoax to push for gun-control legislation — savaged Lewis on the Amazon book Web page as a liar and opportunist.
Most Read Business Stories
- Retail survivors: How four family-owned Washington shops have made it in the Amazon era
- The latest pricing glitch spooked Vanguard shareholders | Your Funds
- I shared my phone number. I learned I shouldn’t have.
- Zombie debt: how collectors trick consumers into reviving dead debts
- Apartment owners race to add luxury amenities
Lewis, among others, called on Amazon to remove the reviews. Amazon has removed some of the most malicious ones. Gone is a postwritten Oct. 16 by “Kenny,” who called Lewis “a real sick human being.” Another no longer there is from “David Weiss,” who branded Lewis “a lying traitor.”
Amazon declined to disclose details of the review system. So it’s unclear whether they would prevent attacks like those on Lewis.
One change the company has already made is the removal of its “General Review Creation Guidelines” Web page. Those rules barred reviews with “profanity or spiteful remarks,” as well as “advertisements, promotional material or repeated posts that make the same point excessively.”
That page was taken down this week.
Instead, the company redirects Web traffic to its “Customer Review Creation Guidelines.” Those rules are a bit more vague.
Amazon, for example, prohibits “Hate Speech & Offensive Content” without any mention of spiteful comments. That could allow Amazon some leeway in determining what’s suitable for its website.
But even as the company has scrubbed the particularly callous comments regarding Lewis, still remaining are dozens calling the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax.
“Complete and utter bullcrap,” a reviewer who goes by “Airborne Media” wrote about Lewis’ book in a Nov. 8 post that remained on the site Tuesday afternoon.
Reviewer “ThisIsWhatsGoingOn” posted on Nov. 3 that “Sandy Hook NEVER happened!!”
Apparently, reviews buying into the conspiracy theory that the murders were staged don’t meet Amazon’s offensive-content standard.
And the current guidelines say nothing about repetitive posts, except to prohibit using “other people’s material (including excessive quoting).”
That would seem to allow activism campaigns, such as the effort last year by the Rainforest Action Network and SumOfUs to target a new soda, Pepsi True.
The two groups have condemned PepsiCo for its use of so-called “conflict palm oil,” the harvesting of which is causing deforestation, in its Doritos and other snack products. So they teamed up to encourage their Facebook and Twitter followers to post negative reviews of Pepsi True, and nearly 4,000 obliged.
Amazon’s biggest challenge is figuring out the best way to discover violations of its reviews guidelines. It’s hardly a trivial task. Amazon doesn’t disclose the number of products it lists for sale, but a survey conducted by the investment firm Robert W. Baird & Co. in July estimated the company listed about 365 million items at the time.
That’s far too many for humans to police, particularly for a company that prefers to automate as many business processes as possible. So Amazon has largely relied on algorithms to catch the worst offenders of its guidelines. But that didn’t prevent people from targeting Scarlett Lewis.
The Amazon staff that took down the most malicious reviews targeting Lewis cannot move fast enough. On Tuesday afternoon, customers could find a Nov. 15 review by “Jeremy B. Bowers” that describes the book as being “Full of lies and fictional fantasies of a get rich quick Millionaire parent capitalizing on her child’s death to make another million.”
Another, written by “Nannoshi” on Nov. 5, reads, “Stand up Lewis and admit the treason.”
Moreover, Lewis isn’t the only Sandy Hook author who’s been attacked.
In videos posted on YouTube, conspiracy theorists have also called on followers to trash “Choosing Hope: Moving Forward from Life’s Darkest Hours” by Sandy Hook Elementary first-grade teacher Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis. In an Oct. 16 post, a reviewer named “Sarah” wrote on the book’s Amazon page, “This women (sic) is a traitor to humanity to publish this kind of trash for money.”
One way to quiet the coordinated campaign would be to restrict reviews to customers who’ve actually purchased products on Amazon. Most of the activists are unlikely to buy the products they are criticizing.
But that limit would force the company to walk away from a valuable asset — detailed shopping interests of customers, both on Amazon.com and beyond.
A tiny fraction of the reviews on Amazon are posted by activists and conspiracy theorists. Most are written by well-intentioned shoppers who want to share their insight with other consumers.
But Amazon also collects their viewing habits, and they feed Amazon’s recommendation algorithms to suggest other purchases. Limiting reviews only to purchases made on Amazon would rob the company of valuable data.
Moreover, the simple act of writing reviews brings customers to Amazon’s site who might not otherwise have come. That creates an opportunity to sell them something.
And Amazon reviewers, some of whom have posted thousands or reviews, have their own community. Amazon ranks them by the “most helpful” reviews, and even has a “Hall of Fame” for the best contributors.
“Amazon doesn’t want to shoot the goose laying the golden egg,” said Trevor Pinch, a Cornell University science and technology professor who has studied Amazon’s review system. “Amazon is hoping these issues will go away, and by tinkering with (the reviews system), it will address the issues without having to make big changes.”