Bogus reader reviews have long been a problem for websites like Amazon and Goodreads. Intended as a mechanism to allow readers to dabble in literary criticism, their accessibility has left them vulnerable to political and personal vendettas.
Despite the efforts of Amazon to stamp out the practice on its website, a recent controversy involving Vampire Chronicles author Anne Rice and an infamous online activist suggests it remains a hot-button issue for authors.
The topic has attracted renewed attention due to the involvement of Randi Harper, a controversial activist, in an apparent review-trolling campaign against a book by the technologist Vivek Wadhwa on Amazon. Harper has previously been accused of using her position as CEO of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative (OAPI) as a means to divert attention from her own bullying behaviour on social media, and many of her critics are presenting this as another key example in a trail of controversy.
Critics of Harper, such as the blogger Stephanie Green, have previously drawn attention to her behaviour on social media, in particular her penchant for setting online mobs against political opponents. Harper has also been observed telling critics to “get fucked” and “set themselves on fire“. In one well-known case, a woman was driven to tears after being set upon by Harper and her supporters.
This sort of abuse is not uncommon on social media, of course — but it is certainly strange behavior for someone who claims to campaign against online abuse. Breitbart has covered Harper’s controversies before, in particular her creation of a Twitter autoblocking tool that claimed to block “trolls” and “abusers”, but in fact targeted innocent academics, journalists, and businessespeople — as well as, bizarrely, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
The latest controversy involves her participation in an online shaming campaign against the prominent technologist Vivek Wadhwa. The website Stop The Goodreads Bullies, which tracks cases of book review abuse, recently highlighted a review of one of his books by Harper, in which she accuses Wadhwa — an outspoken advocate of diversity in tech — of trying to “profit off feminism” and “silence women”. Crucially, the review did not discuss the content Wadhwa’s book, which Harper later admitted she had not actually read. Amazon, which has recently been trying to clamp down on review abuse, removed Harper’s review after it was reported to them.
To someone unfamiliar with the topic, it may sound like a storm in a teacup. But authors take the gaming of online reviews very seriously, especially if it is suspected that such reviews are the result of a vendetta or a public shaming campaign. This certainly seems to have been what happened in the case of Vivek Wadhwa, who was facing a concerted attack from activists across the blogosphere when his Amazon page became a target. So it wasn’t entirely surprising when Anne Rice, the world-famous author of The Vampire Chronicles caught wind of the controversy.
Anne Rice has been a supporter of Stop the GoodReads Bullies for some time, and regularly links to their posts on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. In an interview with Canadian broadcaster CBC earlier this year, Rice drew attention to the emails she had received from authors and reviewers about gangs of review trolls on Amazon. “It’s unbelievable”, said Rice “I got an email from one writer who said all she did was review a book by an author they were targeting, and they came after her like hornets. They descended on her own books and neg-voted the good reviews, and flooded it with one-line bad reviews.” Rice emphasized that her own works were too well-known to be under threat, but that review trolls were a huge problem for younger, independently-published authors.
After using her Twitter account to draw attention to Harper’s behaviour, Rice came into contact with her own swarm of internet hornets. As soon as news of Rice’s post began to spread, allies of Harper began deluging the 73-year old author with hysterical accusations, calling her “toxic” and a “cyber terrorist“. Elsewhere, the controversial columnist Arthur Chu (another longtime ally of Harper) took the opportunity to inflame the situation by posting another bogus review underneath Wadhwa’s Amazon page. The website of Stop the Goodreads Bullies also came under attack after Harper and her followers became involved, with concerted efforts by anonymous reviewers to lower the site’s score on website safety rankings.
Rice, who has seen many controversies during her 42-year writing career, is unperturbed. In an email to Breitbart, Rice emphasised that she had no interest in Harper or her followers as individuals, and wanted to focus on tackling the wider issue of bully tactics on Amazon.
“I have no particular interest in Ms Harper”, wrote Rice. “My concern has always been bullying on book review sites and online bookstores. She wrote a “review” which was not a review, but a personal attack on the author. It was reported and removed. The issue has never been whether this is a nice person or a bad person. The issue is honest authentic customer reviews as opposed to bully attacks.” Responding to claims that she had banned Harper from her Facebook page, Rice said “I found her posts to my page combative and hostile and disruptive. So I deleted and banned her. Again, it’s the issue that matters.”
The criticism from Rice and Stop the Goodreads Bullies is yet another blow to Harper, whose claims to be an “online abuse activist” were already under severe scrutiny. Her involvement with bogus Amazon reviews — which have recently become a major issue in the sci-fi community as well — will reinforce claims that her purported opposition to online abuse is simply a mask for her own bully tactics.
In the murky world of online controversies, the name Randi Harper is becoming increasingly notorious.
Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter.