Just some links to Ersatz Culture’s detective work

Ersatz Culture has been doing some deep data-driven detective work on Goodreads sockpuppet accounts. It’s covered in three (so far) Twitter threads and I want to discuss some of the things being revealed but not quite yet. I’m putting links to them here for reference:

[ETA one more thread from EC]

I will note one thing as it is pertinent to both EC’s examples and also the troll examples I discussed earlier this year. To register an account with Goodreads you have to give an email address BUT unlike most websites these days there is no email verification step i.e. you don’t NEED multiple actual email addresses to set up multiple accounts. The system is wide-open for abuse.

It is trivially easy to set up a fake Goodreads account. How easy? https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/111117965-sock-puppet (I will delete Monsieur Sock Puppet later and he won’t be rating anything obviously)

Goodreads: Aftermath

Looking this morning at the book that was targetted as part of a cyber-stalking/troll attack (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/49247279-in-the-black) it does appear that the inundation of defamatory and doxxing “reviews” have stopped for the time being. I know many people were having to play a game of whackamole by flagging seemingly endless reviews and comments.

Although the attacks on this specific book may have stopped, I can see that some of the fake accounts that have been impersonating authors still exist. Goodreads offers no simple means of reporting accounts. The same trolls have simply picked up and moved on to other books. Elizabeth May has been particularly targetted:

We’ve witnessed over many weeks now very flagrant breaches of not just Goodreads policies on ratings and reviews but also flagrant breaches of the community guidelines as well defamatory posts, identity theft and “reviews” that were purely names and addresses of private individuals. All of this on a book that we know only two actual people have read.

To get action on this has required multiple people (including many notable authors) repeatedly flagging fake comments, complaints to support, as well as people taking to social media to attempt to bring pressure on Goodreads to take action.

While spotting “real from fake” might be genuinely difficult in many cases, when it is a review/comment from an account posting nothing but PRIVATE ADDRESSES (i.e. zero to do with the book) using an account name that is impersonating an author and there is say 20 of these all identical, honestly, that is not hard to spot as a fake review.

Goodreads systems and processes have failed on very basic issues such a protecting book reviews from obvious spam. It also failed in preventing dummy accounts designed to impersonate authors (at one point most of the board of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America was impersonated). It also failed in preventing defamation and it also failed in preventing basic issues of internet safety — allowing private information to be disseminated and individuals to be intimidated.

Some basic measures Goodreads needs:

  • More active spam protection
  • Automate prevention of identical reviews of the same book (at least make spammers and trolls work a bit harder)
  • Proper email verification of new accounts
  • Add the capacity to directly flag/report accounts
  • The capacity to limit or shutdown pre-emptive reviews of unreleased books (yes, authors will want reviews of advanced copies but it much easier to swamp an unpublished book with negative reviews)
  • More active moderation and much faster response time to complaints

Goodreads helped enable putting people in actual physical danger by the dissemination of people’s real world physical addresses. And this is just the case that we know about involving people that I know. Who knows how much more abuse or more subtle attacks are going on.

How to report an issue on Goodreads

Just as a quick guide.

  1. Anybody, whether you have a Goodreads account or not, can email support@goodreads.com directly to raise an issue.
  2. There is a contact form on the help pages https://www.goodreads.com/about/contact_us
  3. You can flag individual reviews. It’s not obvious as you have to sort of hover over the review with the cursor for the little flag icon to appear. There is an explanation here https://help.goodreads.com/s/article/How-do-I-report-abuse-1553870936122
  4. You can also flag individual comments on a review. To do this click “see review” so the individual review opens on a new page. The flag icons will then appear next to comments on the review.*
  5. The community guidelines are here https://www.goodreads.com/community/guidelines and the pertinent ones include:
    • Hate speech, bigotry, threats, and ad hominem attacks are not tolerated.
    • Please don’t misrepresent your identity or create accounts to harass other members, abuse features, or evade our rules. Spammers and scammers are not welcome.
    • Artificially inflating or deflating a book’s ratings or reputation violates our rules. This includes activity like creating fake accounts to manipulate book ratings, purchasing reviews, and incentivizing votes, likes, or other actions on Goodreads.
  6. I don’t know if snail-mail will get any attention but the address is 180 Spear Street, San Francisco, CA 94105, US.

*[updated after a few experiments]

Goodreads is still a garbage fire but maybe they are waking up (slowly)

There are further reports of people being doxxed and fake accounts at Goodreads as part of the on-going harassment of Patrick S Tomlinson and the ensuing identity theft of a large number of SFF authors and notable fans. (for background see https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/looking-deeper-into-the-goodreads-troll-problem/ ) The current targets now include Paul Weimer who has been targetted by these cyber-stalkers before for speaking out against their harassment.*

After a clean up yesterday (see https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/01/07/goodreads-troll-update/ ) the same unreleased book has been flooded again with appalling comments including detailed personal details about people. Manifestly, Goodreads trying to deal with this on a review-by-review basis with users having to flag each one is not working. Goodreads does not even appear to be implementing basic spam protection as many of these ‘reviews’ have the same username and the same (or almost the same) content over and over.

In progress-but-slow-progress from Goodreads, I did get a personal response to a complaint I sent days ago:

“Hi Camestros,
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We’re in the process of carefully investigating the accounts that have rated Patrick Tomlinson’s books on the admin side, and we’ve removed the ones that have raised our standard red flags for illegitimacy. 
Unfortunately, this process can take some time so we appreciate your patience as our team continues to work on this. Please let us know if you have any further questions or concerns. 
Sincerely,  The Goodreads Team”

via email support@goodreads.com Tue 7/01/2020 3:35 PM

2020 is starting with a tough competition for Weakest Response to a Crisis in the topics I’m covering. Obviously Australian PM Scott Morrison is well in the lead with his whole country on fire, but elsewhere the RWA board and Goodreads are doing what they can to look as disastrous in principle as our boy Scomo is in practice.

Goodreads Troll Update

Jason Sanford has a long piece on his Patreon page (freely available) on the issue, which includes an interview with Patrick Tomlinson. https://www.patreon.com/posts/32921860

Sanford also reports on Twitter:

The number of reviews on the as-yet-unreleased book In The Black has dropped sharply from the 124 I last reported on to 19 today. Many of the 19 are supportive genuine reviews posted as a counter to the trolls. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/49247279-in-the-black?from_search=true&qid=M6Hc8tuRyG&rank=6

However, there are still plenty of fake and abusive comments on the book (I won’t quote them as many are highly defamatory) left. It does look like Goodreads are starting to respond more assertively but it is still a far from adequate response to deal with organised trolling at this scale.

Earlier posts:

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2019/12/29/goodreads-troll-problem/

https://camestrosfelapton.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/looking-deeper-into-the-goodreads-troll-problem/

Looking deeper into the Goodreads troll problem

[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.

Goodreads’ Troll Problem

Goodreads, the book review site, is about thirteen years old and has had systemic troll problem for most of those years. Matters had reached crisis proportions way back in 2012 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodreads#Competition_and_review_fairness ). Some of the issues arose not from trolling as such but from the inevitable conflict between authors and readers when assessing the content of books (e.g. see https://www.salon.com/2013/10/23/how_amazon_and_goodreads_could_lose_their_best_readers/ )

You would think that over that period of time Goodreads would have developed some robust systems and processes for dealing with trolls and abuse. After all, you would imagine that a review site descending into a slime pit would inevitably lead to both authors and readers looking elsewhere. That does not seem to be the case.

Notably, author Patrick S Tomlinson is currently being targetted by a sustained cyberstalking attack on Goodreads. Multiple fake accounts are leaving insulting reviews of a book of his that has not yet been published (not even as an ARC). The fake accounts have been quite blatantly using fake names and identities, including a fake account pretending to be Otis Chandler one of the founders of Goodreads.

Another author targetted for harassment and identity theft is former SFWA President Cat Rambo:

With little moderation and few tools available for reporting fake accounts or harassment, a coordinated troll attack can be very difficult to stifle even when the reviews are absurdly and blatantly false.


ETA for additional context: