Last week, Joya Banerjee published a distressing account at Slate of an anti-circumcision fringe group's efforts to bury a book about the AIDS epidemic under a pile of blistering customer reviews. It seems the tactic worked.
It's a cautionary tale for anyone publishing a science or medical book on a controversial topic. The book, Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It, by Craig Timberg of the Washington Post and Daniel Halperin of the University of North Carolina, was published by Penguin in March, according to the Slate account. The book received a favorable review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review at the end of April, and favorable mentions elsewhere. Timberg was interviewed on NPR's "Fresh Air" and, according to Banerjee, the book "jumped to within the top 150" on Amazon's sales charts, and stayed there for several weeks. Not a barn-burner, but not bad.
When the anti-circumcision activists began to post "viciously negative one-star reviews," the book's sales fell, Banerjee reports. The activists not only published negative reviews, she reports, but also marked favorable reviews as unhelpful, pushing them to the bottom of the heap of customer reviews, currently numbering 78. Interestingly, the three comments at the tope of the list are now favorable. Apparently the authors, or their friends, or somebody started marking the favorable reviews as "helpful" and outgunned the activists. Review number four by CitiTutors says the book "is a work of camouflage" that "appears to be a one-man crusade by the author to promote genital mutilation (circumcision) on innocent babies." I believe that would be a two-man campaign, CitiTutors.
At this writing, the book's sales rank is 26,207.
It's unknown whether the book would have gone there anyway, and Banerjee doesn't report evidence that the activists coordinated their attack, beyond what anyone can see by looking at the reviews. Nor does she interview any of the activists.
Mediabistro's PRNewser blog recaps the Slate story and wonders what public-relations people can learn from this story. "It reveals the significant power of coordinated online smear campaigns to damage reputations and depress sales numbers," Patrick Coffee writes.
I don't know what the solution to this sort of thing is; Amazon, Coffee writes, has a hands-off policy on customer reviews.
If you're publishing a controversial book, best watch your back.
This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.