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Amazon's attempt to remove "sock puppet" reviews results in the deletion of legitimate reviews (November 2012)

Mass deletion of suspected inauthentic review activity also impacts hundreds of legitimate reviews, prompting frustration about overly restrictive policies.

Summary: As is the case on any site where consumer products are sold, there's always the chance review scores will be artificially inflated by bogus reviews using fake accounts, often described as "sock puppets."

Legitimate reviews are organic, prompted by a buyer's experience with a product. "Sock puppets," on the other hand, are bogus accounts created for the purpose of inflating the number of positive (or -- in the case of a competitor -- negative) reviews for a seller's product. Often, they're created by the seller themself. Sometimes these faux reviews are purchased from third parties. "Sock puppet" activity isn't limited to product reviews. The same behavior has been detected in comment threads and on social media platforms.

In 2012 -- apparently in response to "sock puppet" activity, some of it linked to a prominent author -- Amazon engaged in a mass deletion of suspected bogus activity. Unfortunately, this moderation effort also removed hundreds of legitimate book reviews written by authors and book readers.

In response to authors' complaints that their legitimate reviews had been removed (along with apparently legitimate reviews of their own books), Amazon pointed to its review guidelines, claiming they forbade authors from reviewing other authors' books.

We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we've removed your reviews for this title. Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.

Multiple authors sought to have their legitimate reviews reinstated (including reviews of their books written by readers), but Amazon refused, insisting that authors reviewing other authors' books constituted a violation of its review guidelines, even if authors had no financial interest in the books they were reviewing.

Amazon's handling of reviews in response to sock puppet activity continues to be criticized periodically, most recently over the mass removal of one-star reviews for Hillary Clinton's 2017 book about her presidential election run.

Decisions to be made by Amazon:

  • What characteristics do “sock puppet” reviews have, that make them distinct from legitimate reviews?
  • Do more steps need to be added to the process of verifying reviewers?
  • When targeting sock puppet activity, are options considered that might reduce the chance of negatively affecting legitimate reviews?
  • Would more flexibility in moderation decisions help or harm efforts targeting abusers of the review system?
  • Is the loss of goodwill towards the company by sellers an acceptable tradeoff for moderation efforts that remove possibly legitimate reviews of their products?
  • Can moderation efforts be handled with more human interaction to reduce the number of legitimate reviews inadvertently targeted?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • As the number of vendors and products continues to expand, how reasonable is it to expect reviewers to avoid violating the rule forbidding reviews of products by someone offering a competing product?
  • How much moderation should be left to automatic mechanisms when dealing with suspected sock puppet activity?
  • Does the inevitable collateral damage of these efforts raise or lower the legitimacy of the remaining reviews in the eyes of potential customers?
  • Would more transparency on review moderation efforts lead to more or less abuse of the review system?
  • Do mishandled moderation efforts harm buyers or sellers more? Which harm is more acceptable?

Resolution: Amazon reacted to news reports about sock puppet activity involving major authors by engaging in mass removals of anything that appeared questionable to moderators. Legitimate reviews/reviewers were caught up in the sweep, resulting in several authors publicly criticizing the company for not being more careful with its moderation efforts.

Written by The Copia Institute, July 2020

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