Amazon Reviews and The Wisdom of the Mob

It’s official. The old trope “There’s no such thing as bad press” can be retired. For good.

Witness the campaign against Randall Sullivan’s Michael Jackson bio Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson. As reported in The New York Times, Sullivan’s book focuses on the superstar’s last years and, despite being characterized as a generally sympathetic look at Jackson, has come under siege by a group of fans who take issue with some of the book’s statements. And so they launched a flotilla of mostly anonymous one-star reviews seemingly aimed at not just discrediting the book, but killing it.

As the barriers to publication and mass media continue to dissolve, and the line between who is and is not a journalist is further blurred, the wisdom of the crowd can quickly turn into vigilante justice. Yes, the days of “just spell my name right” are gone.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently with the head of a university journalism department about the growing popularity of the journalism major—this despite the dire forecasts for the traditional bastions of the profession. It seems that many are seeing journalism as a good foundation—in the same way previous generations viewed an English degree—one that prepares them in a general way for the world, a world which practically bestows on each of us multiple outlets to report and broadcast our lives. It’s refreshing, in a way, to think that tomorrow’s Tweeters, Tumblrs, Pinners, Stumblers and commenters might emerge from school trained in journalistic ethics, libel law and the like. With great power, etc., etc.

But what of the platforms that have found themselves in one way or another outlets for expressions of journalism—reporting, analysis, criticism or otherwise? What editorial obligations do the Amazons, Googles and Apples of the world—organizations that through product and app reviews, news aggregation, self publishing and the like have become huge repositories of original content—to ensure that their platforms are used ethically? Sort of hardwired into most (ethical) media outlets is the idea that you’re responsible—literally and spiritually—for the content you create and, now, the discourse it inspires. I wonder if non-traditional media feel the same way.

I don’t know if I agree with Sullivan’s assertion that the negative review campaign against him is “suppression of free speech in the name of free speech,” but I don’t know that I disagree with it either. I do know that as it stands, Amazon is not only the king of the mountain when it comes to book distribution and ebook discoverability, it’s also the bully pulpit from which unpopular ideas can be shouted down by a small but vocal minority. Sure, today it’s a Michael Jackson bio being beat up by fanatical supporters, but the precedent is certainly unnerving.

First they came for the Jacko bios, and I did not speak out…

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  • Rio Spooner

    A sobering and true assessment. What if anti-abortion groups start targeting Amazon reviews of health books which mention abortion? We could be starting down a slippy path.

  • Paul Mackintosh

    Here’s a related piece of news: Time has come, alas, when vigilante or just fanatic flashmobs can gang up on anything they don’t like. Time has also come for Amazon etc. to start policing the platforms they provide and protect free speech by preventing people from shouting others down.

  • Michael Weinstein

    I’m curious to see what happens with reviews on the new book about Scientology…

  • DVA

    Amazon (and other) ‘book reviews’ would be of more value if restricted to ‘verified buyers. Possibly even making them worth considering……