Anonymity Doesn’t Only Protect The Trolls (It Protects Nice People, Too)

trolls amazon change misfortune

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 their 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.

18 thoughts on “Anonymity Doesn’t Only Protect The Trolls (It Protects Nice People, Too)

  1. Pingback: Do You Write Under A Pen Name? (& Other Fun Facts) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  2. Pingback: Beware: Anonymous Commenters & Those Who Seek To Unmask Them | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Agree with you 100% AMB for the reasons you so eloquently give. This applies not only to Amazon but to any discussion forum. Although I prefer to stand by comments I might make in my own name there are, as you say, good reasons that perfectly sound people may not wish to do so.

    1. Thanks! Amazon reviews of all types would decrease with forced attribution. It would seem particularly unfair for Amazon to allow authors to publish and distribute books under pseudonyms (and possibly commit consumer fraud by using fake bios like JK Rowling did as “Robert Galbraith) while forcing the reviewers of those books to use verified accounts!

  4. Sssssss

    “Forced attribution” sounds so, um, bad. I’ll have to think about the points you raised a little more deeply before I figure out how I feel about the issue. Ad hominem attacks on Amazon sound like a really terrible problem, and I’m not sure I think its enough to tell an author to ignore it. Then again, I can also see how verified accounts would deplete all types of reviews, even the good ones. I wouldn’t want anyone I know IRL to find out that I read “Freedom”! He he! I’m joking–I’ve never actually read it. 😉

    1. Hey, you’d be surprised how many people wouldn’t want their friends to know they read Franzen! Joking aside, there are probably many readers who don’t want their reading lists to be public.

  5. Last year, a writer who was entered in a contest she very much wanted to win took to Amazon to post nasty one-star reviews on her competitor’s books in the hopes of destroying their chances of winning. That I heard about this means Amazon did too, and those reviews were no doubt dealt with.

    I have recently heard that Amazon is considering restricting reviews to those who are verified purchasers, which I disagree with. I’ve bought books I loved from third-party vendors (sometimes the author’s publisher) and wanted to leave a review on Amazon. Being unable to to that because I bought the book elsewhere would be detrimental to the author, as Amazon is the biggest seller of books in the world.

    As an author, I often give advance copies of new releases to reviewers. Should they now have to buy a book in order to review it on Amazon? Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.

    Amazon has to consider their options carefully before proceeding, because how they choose to move forward could really be destructive to writers.

    1. Yeah, Amazon is definitely going to have to consider its options carefully. It won’t just be the trolls who stop reviewing products on Amazon if they force attribution on reviewers. It would be rather odd if Amazon allows authors to publish and distribute books under pseudonyms and potentially fake biographies (like JK Rowling as former military member Robert Galbraith) while forcing attribution on the readers who review those books!

  6. I always liked reading the negative comments, it says a lot about how people have changed in society. People are less conservative in their thoughts, expressing what they really think rather than what people expect them to say in polite conversation. It feeds the responses and takes the conversation in different directs.

    1. Hi Donna! I sometimes appreciate reading the negative comments more than the positive ones. I’ve often bought books based on the negative comments. I’m one of those readers who likes to know what all the fuss is about.

  7. Great points – I always thought that allowing anonymous reviews helped feed the trolls, but I have to change my views on this – as you point out, there are a lot of good reasons non-trolls would want to review anonymously as well. And I don’t like the idea of “forced attribution” either. I think unfortunately, getting bad and sometimes outright hostile reviews is just the nature of the business; it happens to all authors at some point. Doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, though, I’m sure. 😉

    1. Hi! I’m glad that my post on the merits of anonymity online gave you something to think about. 🙂 It certainly isn’t an easy issue. I can see why the authors who signed the petition would want verified accounts to dissuade hostile reviews. Of course, it would seem a little odd if authors are able to publish on Amazon under pseudonyms (and claim whatever they want in their biographies, as JK Rowling did as “Robert Galbraith”), while those who review those books would have to do so under their real names!

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