There has been a lot of talk lately (and in the past) about the merits (or lack thereof) of anonymous reviews on Amazon and other websites.
Many believe that anonymity encourages the trolls, those mean-spirited people whose only purpose on the Internet is to irritate and harm others. So, the argument goes, removing anonymity will improve the discourse on these websites.
Thousands of people who believe this argument have signed a petition on change.org to encourage Amazon.com to prohibit anonymity in reviews (which I call “forced attribution”).
The petition is directed at Jeff Bezos and Jon P. Fine and asks them to “protect Amazon.com users and indie publishing authors from bullying and harassment by removing anonymity and requiring identity verification for reviewing and forum participation.”
I certainly sympathize with these authors. It can’t be easy for an author to pour her heart and soul into a book only to have it ripped apart by a faceless reviewer who might not have even read it. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that there is a difference between reviews that offer genuine criticism and reviews that are harassing or defamatory. The former may be rude and sarcastic but is otherwise legitimate, while the latter is inappropriate in our society and thus potentially illegal.
While I believe that Amazon should make an effort to prevent harassing or defamatory conduct on its websites, I question whether it should impose a speech-chilling solution (forced attribution) on its users when there are less extreme alternatives.
First, as the petitioners admit, Amazon already has the tools in place to address the problem of unduly mean-spirited reviews. Per its own guidelines, Amazon “reserve[s] the right to remove reviews” that contain “spiteful remarks.” The “Important Note” to the petition says, “If Amazon simply enforced their own guidelines, much of the problem would be resolved.”
I do not know how (or if) Amazon enforces this provision, but I would hope that they would not invoke it for every comment flagged as potentially abusive. There is always the possibility that the offended person is just overly sensitive to the criticism, or that an author is trying to cull honestly-written negative reviews. Removal should be reserved for only the comments that truly target an author in a personal and intimidating way (harassment) or that allege untrue facts that damage an author’s reputation (defamation).
Second, if a comment on Amazon is actually defamatory, the author has the option of suing that commenter under state law. These cases are notoriously difficult for plaintiffs, but not unheard of, and the harmed party could get the identities of pseudonymous or anonymous commenters by court order. See Pilchesky v. Gatelli, 2011 Pa. Super. 3 (2011)(“The court must expressly balance the defendant’s First Amendment rights [to speak anonymously without government intrusion] against the strength of the plaintiff’s prima facie case [that the defendant defamed the plaintiff].”).
As a private company, to which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not apply, Amazon may allow as much or as little speech on its websites as it likes; however, given Amazon’s role in our society, and the longstanding tie between books and free speech, I would hope that they take into consideration First Amendment principles. As the New Jersey Superior Court recognized in Dendrite Int’l, Inc. v. Doe, No. 3, 342 N.J. Super. 134 (2001), there are many good reasons to protect the right to speak anonymously:
People are permitted to interact pseudonymously and anonymously with each other so long as those acts are not in violation of the law. This ability to speak one’s mind without the burden of the other party knowing all the facts about one’s identity can foster open communication and robust debate. Furthermore, it permits persons to obtain information relevant to a sensitive or intimate condition without fear of embarrassment. (Quoting Columbia Ins. Co., v. Seescandy.Com, 185 F.R.D. 573, 578 (N.D.Cal.1999)).
Exactly. Anonymous speech encourages debate and allows us to speak our minds more freely. Removing anonymity on a major reviewing website would have effects far beyond trolling, harassing, or defamatory reviews. It could decrease the prevalence of honest negative reviews (which is good for authors, but not so good for readers trying to avoid books they won’t like), and, indeed, it might reduce the number and enthusiasm of positive reviews. For example, people might not feel comfortable admitting publicly that they read books in certain genres (erotica? self-help? romance?), about certain subjects (AIDS? sexual assault?), or by certain authors (E. L. James? Franzen?). What about a book for child abuse victims? It’s not hard to imagine that forced attribution would result in far fewer genuine reviews of books about intensely private matters.
Anonymity or semi-pseudonymity doesn’t just encourage spiteful trolls; it also encourages speech from the self-conscious, the perfectionists (who wouldn’t ever publish something under their own name without at least a proofreader!), those of us trying to keep a line between different facets of our lives (personal vs. professional, online vs. in real life), and people with medical or personal secrets that they want to keep private.
Besides, while I suspect that forced attribution would decrease the number of unduly harsh reviews, it certainly wouldn’t prevent it completely. Readers aren’t necessarily nice people. In fact, research suggests that their love of books might even enhance their ability to bully effectively by improving their assessment of their target’s emotional state. Let’s not forget that some of the harshest reviews are actually called “literary criticism,” written by people using their own names, and published in places like The New York Times. Remember William Giraldi? Well, he’s not only responsible for equating book bloggers to leeches, but also for incredibly mean-spirited reviews. There is even a “Hatchet Job of the Year Award” for the most hostile reviews, all written under the reviewers’ actual names!
Forced attribution of reviews on Amazon isn’t the answer. For situations that aren’t severe enough to warrant a lawsuit or removal, the best alternative solutions to objectionable speech are to respond with “more speech” (which I wouldn’t recommend to an author) or to simply ignore the review. An overly harsh comment speaks for itself. Any sensible reader browsing for books on Amazon will just roll their eyes at it.
Or, just maybe, they’ll buy the book to see what all the fuss is about.