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05/09/2013 11:15 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

One Star Revenge: When Reviews Become Malicious

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How did a book on conservation in Madagascar that was published over a decade ago become another casualty of the sensationalized Jodi Arias trial? In the weird world of cyber-trolls, it took little time for someone to find an academic book on the environment relevant to criminal justice in Arizona.

It went like this. In 2002, I wrote an ethnography on the health-impacts of a conservation project in Madagascar, with the unfortunately mind-numbing title of Endangered Species: Health, Illness and Death Among Madagascar's People of the Forest. It was a well-received academic book that was nominated for prestigious awards, used in many university classes and noted in several anthropology textbooks. But the review system of Amazon was in its adolescence back then, and so it was the book that received only three reviews, all of them five stars.

Flash forward to 2013, and I find myself working as a ghostwriter, cranking out memoirs and non-fiction books and writing for popular blogs. Among them are The Huffington Post and Psychology Today, where I recently published a series of pieces on the Jodi Arias trial. The first of these was about my experience with the case popularized as The Burning Bed, when Francine Hughes murdered her abusive husband in 1977. I wrote about how vastly different this landmark case was from the Jodi Arias self-defense claim, and concluded that a defense witness in the Jodi Arias trial, Ms. Alyce LaViolette, was taking domestic abuse back 35 years in her incredulous claims that Ms. Arias was an abused woman and the victim, Travis Alexander, her abuser.

The post was well received and I published another in Psychology Today regarding Ms. LaViolette's presentation suggesting that Snow White was a battered woman. I noted that the fairy tale character was indeed abused, but not by the Seven Dwarves. It was the Wicked Witch who stalked, deceived and tried to kill Snow White.

But when Ms. LaViolette began getting death threats, I became concerned. One of the areas I now write extensively about is mobbing, a form of group aggression through shunning, gossip, accusation and sabotage. Mobbing is common in the workplace with the target being dehumanized, vastly outnumbered, and characterized as deserving of the abuse -- which inevitably intensifies until the target is eliminated. Consequently, I published a piece titled The Mobbing of Alyce LaViolette in which I noted how the legitimate concerns about Ms. LaViolette's testimony were running amuck, with Facebook sites devoted to hating and ridiculing her, a petition circulating to demand she not be allowed to speak publicly on the topic of abuse, and over 1,000 one-star reviews posted on Amazon by people who hadn't read her book. I called for civility and focus in the critique of her, noting that it remains legitimate and even necessary to voice concerns about how she was portraying domestic abuse. But if left unrestrained, I cautioned, the aggression turns into something different altogether.

The response was predictably mixed with many agreeing with me and many disagreeing. Some comments were pretty off the wall and even furious that I would "defend" Ms. LaViolette, "sympathize" with her, or make her out to be a "victim." After a week or so the comments slowed to a trickle, but when the case went to deliberation and the spectators no longer had a TV show trial to keep them entertained, a new deluge began, this time meaner and madder and increasingly personalized.

Within a single day, a series of comments were posted on the Psychology Today site accusing me of everything from hating George Bush (I never mentioned or alluded to him) to deserving the same treatment Ms. LaViolette received. Realizing what was to come (after all, the other defense witnesses in the case against Ms. Arias received similar, though far fewer, one star reviews), I checked my own book's reviews. Sure enough, just like the past 10 years, there they were, all three of them, left undisturbed. But in the following hour, when more aggressive comments came in on the Psychology Today site, I thought I'd better check again. Sure enough, there was the first of my one-star reviews by a woman whose only other book she had reviewed was Alyce LaViolette's. That's when I pulled the plug on her Psychology Today comments and deleted them, because I was not going to tolerate online harassment, which her action had made of her blog comments.

The next day, came another one-star review, this time from someone claiming to have gone to Madagascar and spoken to the Malagasy-speaking "forest people" about me. He included details gleaned from the other reviews, but clearly, after 10 years with no reviews, his specious review was clearly not genuine. He followed with further malicious comments to my legitimate reviews, succeeding in bringing my limited reviews down a few notches in no time.

Now let's face it, this old book of mine is not going to be selling more copies, so the malicious reviews won't exactly impact my sales, although I do depend upon my on-line reviews to support my reputation as a writer. But as I indicated in my essay about the mobbing of Alyce LaViolette, when humans act aggressively and without restraint, there is no limit to how far the aggression will go. So the question arises, just how common a tactic will malicious reviews become if there is no accountability on the part of the sites that publish them? If human aggression is any indicator, we can expect that character assassination of authors (or sellers of products) for wholly unrelated acts will become commonplace, with more and more examples of mass-malicious onslaughts such as Alyce LaViolette and her co-author have recently received.

Alyce LaViolette's book was related to her testimony, and for that reason, there is a credible argument to be made for retaining the one-star reviews on the Amazon site (although I do not share that view because it was clearly a spiteful campaign aimed at interfering with her business). But what if the book she had written had had nothing to do with domestic violence? Let's say she had written a cookbook. Is it a stretch of the imagination to consider how her unpopular public visibility in a wholly unrelated matter could inspire retaliatory one-star revenge on a book about cupcakes? Suppose there were other authors who had the same name, having no relation to the target of attack? Would they, too, find a slew of one-star reviews purporting to have read their books and found them worthless? What about others, like me, who merely spoke up regarding the attacks? Group fury almost always extends its range to peripheral targets. In the case of my book, the act and impact were negligible, but other authors or sellers in other contexts may have far more serious impacts from such "collateral damage" that comes of orchestrated online attacks.

There is a significant difference between a poor review aimed at expressing a low opinion of a work, and a poor review aimed at inflicting punishment on the author of the work (or the seller of a product), a distinction which Amazon's current policy has ineffectively addressed. Clearly Amazon cannot police every review, but when a sudden onslaught of hundreds of one-star reviews hits the site, or a 10-year lull is shaken by a sudden smattering of one-star reviews hours after the author has been threatened that her career would be ruined, Amazon should recognize the red flags and act responsibly. But for now, while it removes clearly specious five-star reviews, when it comes to one-star reviews, Amazon provides a fruitful forum for libel and malicious interference with business relations. Amazon boasts of being the "Earth's most customer-centric company." But publishing hatred masked as reviews is not customer-centric. It's irresponsible.

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