Astroturf Reviewers on Amazon

Long-time followers of this blog will have read before my comments on the importance of getting feedback on your manuscript, from people other than your family and friends. I have had my manuscript, Conspire, read by a beta reader, and Times of Trouble was reviewed by a manuscript assessor. Feedback is important when you’re in the final stages of completing a novel, as it gives you a chance to improve your work. Post-publishing, reader feedback takes on a new importance – as reviews of your work are a key source of publicity and promotion, especially for e-books on Amazon.

Times of Trouble has been available online for a couple of years, and it has received some great reviews on Goodreads and Smashwords. It is quite common for new authors to get their family and friends to publically review their work. I’m not that concerned with this, as even if these reviews are completely biased, in most cases the family member or friends would have read the book and have every right to provide their review online. What really concerns me, however, is that there are nasty people in the world, who spend time giving books bad reviews because they don’t agree with their central themes. These are people who haven’t read the book and their interest in writing negative reviews is to further their political or religious agenda, to undermine their competition or to just be a horrible person.

Yesterday I watched this documentary, which is a bit out of date now, but still fascinating. It’s called The Billionaires’ Tea Party, and is written, directed and presented by Australian filmmaker Taki Oldham. Taki did a tour of the US to find out more about the Tea Party movement and where it originated. As part of this research, he attended training sessions for the Tea Party activist movement. Suffice to say he soon discovered this was not, in fact, a grass roots movement, and was actually funded by the likes of billionaire industrialist, David Koch, who use fake grass roots support – astroturfing – to further their own self-interests (to get even richer than they are already). The propensity for large groups of Americans to fall for this scheme is astounding. Going back to the topic of this post, there was one scene in the film that horrified me. Taki was in a workshop run by Austin James, from American Majority, where the group were learning how to become ‘digital activists’. James described digital activism as follows:

“We identify the medium, we learn the medium, we manipulate the medium. It was the printing presses then, it’s the internet now. That’s where we influence the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens. The Tea Party’s got us running up the hills, the American Majority is trying to give you the tools, the muscats.”

What he said next made my blood boil:

“So, here’s what I do. I get on Amazon, I type in liberal books, I go through and I say one star, one star, one star, one star {audience laughs}. The flip side is go to conservative, libertarian, whatever, find their products and give them five stars. So literally 80% of the books I put a star on, I don’t read. So that’s how it works, ok.”

He then goes on to say that he spends about 30 minutes a day giving bad ratings or reviews to liberal books and movies. Work he has never seen or read. This is completely unethical. It makes me really sad and angry to think that right wing ‘activists’ believe this is acceptable behaviour. Not one person in the group showed any sign or outrage. They were, instead, laughing like it was oh so very amusing. James’s message was that you win over the hearts and minds of your side of politics, by denigrating and lying about anything that doesn’t suit your opinions. (Think climate change).

Times of Trouble is not a political story, so wouldn’t be vulnerable to this sort of fakery. But Conspire is extremely vulnerable. It’s a progressive thriller, whose villains are based on the very people who fund the Tea Party. It’s disappointing to think that it might get bad reviews from people who have never even read it. It’s also disappointing that people who join movements like the Tea Party are so willing to be taught how to ‘manipulate’ their audience, by being deceptive and straight out lying.



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