[Updates on this post: https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/category/goodreads/ ]
The repeated spamming of Patrick S Tomlinson’s unpublished book with fake reviews continues on Goodreads [see earlier post]. Looking at the long list of reviews (currently 124 ratings) it is clear that some have been removed, presumably after being flagged by multiple people. However, with the trolls targetting the book easily generating new accounts the net number of fake reviews continues to grow.
Current authors whose names have been stolen for fake reviews include:
- Chuck Wendig
- Gareth Powell
- Beth Cato
- Cat Rambo (and her deceased father)
- Patrick Tomlinson himself
- Will Tate
- Monica Valentinelli
- Marshall Ryan Maresca
- Mary Robinette Kowal
- Tobias S Buckell
- Sarah Pinkser
- Elizabeth May
This kind of coordinated pre-emptive spamming of negative reviews isn’t new. The film-rating site Rotten Tomatoes had to take steps last year to curtail a right-wing attack on the as-the-time unreleased Captain Marvel. [see https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/5/23/18637464/rotten-tomatoes-audience-verified-score-trolls-brigading-review-bombing ]
Preventing reviews of unreleased properties seems like a minimum first step in limiting the capacity of coordinated campaigns to hijack a review site. While it won’t prevent other coordinated attacks on released books, unreleased (but listed) works are more vulnerable as they have no natural reviews being written.
The identity theft aspect of these specific attacks is also a great concern. The overt and blatant aspect of the impersonations makes it unlikely that people would be easily tricked into thinking the accounts are genuine. However, the extent of them and how easily the trolls have generated multiple accounts using real identities, demonstrates that Goodreads is open to more subtle mischief and identity theft.
The source of the attacks is from members of a disbanded subreddit that have been engaged in a sustained harassment campaign against Tomlinson since 2018. Tomlinson himself has a longer explanation that documents the harassment in other venues: https://www.patrickstomlinson.com/2018/09/29/how-trolls-hack-twitter-to-silence-us/
The existence of a documented online harassment campaign really should be enough for a major website to take added measures. For example, Wikipedia limits the capacity of people to edit pages (particularly biographies of living persons) when there is repeated vandalism or disputed content. A temporary block on reviews on a Goodreads entry would be a wise measure to have available in the event of an alleged spam attack. Notably, a book receiving large numbers of reviews from accounts that are both new and which have made only one review should be an obvious red-flag.
Based on Twitter comments there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the response from Goodreads. For example:
Actions that undermine reader’s ability to trust reviews and which undermine the capacity of authors to identify themselves manifestly undermine the basic aspects of Goodreads model as a service. This makes the difficulty the site is having dealing with this specific issue surprising. The ease with which a troll campaign can brazenly manipulate the site, strongly implies that a less overt campaign can manipulate ratings or spread disinformation unnoticed.
I contacted a Goodreads spokesperson directly via email yesterday to see if there was an official perspective on the issue. After outlining who I was and the background I asked: “I was wondering if Goodreads had an official statement about the specific issue. More generally given the existing community guidelines against impersonation, spam and manipulating ratings are there any moves to consider other means of enforcing community standards at Goodreads?“
To Goodreads credit I did get a response that was courteous and took my email seriously. However, the spokesperson was not able to give a detailed response to my questions.
“As a general policy, we don’t comment on specific cases. Also, as I’m sure you can understand why, we don’t provide details about our future plans for our moderation process. We take the integrity of our reviews and the trust of our members very seriously and continue to invest in new tools and processes for our moderation team.”Goodreads spokesperson via email
I note that in the comments to my earlier post on the issue, many people saying that they have moved away from Goodreads for various reasons. In the circumstances that is understandable but when you consider the large amount of volunteered labour that users have put into collating books, rating books and reviewing over the years, it is a shame if the site becomes unusable because of coordinated attacks.
More broadly, the current situation on Goodreads shows that major websites and services are still slow in developing techniques to deal with these kinds of actions.