Telco Astroturfing Or Elaborate Double-Reverse Sabotage Fakeout? You Decide
from the point counterpoint dept
You may recall that we recently wrote about the likelihood of telco astroturfing on professor Susan Crawford’s book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. If you don’t remember, Crawford’s book is highly critical of the telco industry and the fact that serious broadband competition is lacking in the US and that we’ve fallen way behind many other countries.
The book came out in January, and around March, there was suddenly a bunch of one star reviews that started appearing that all had tell-tale signs of being fake. I spent an evening comparing the then 31 one-star reviews to the then 41 5-star reviews, noting some oddities in the one-star reviews. For example, almost none of the one-star reviewers had ever reviewed another product on Amazon, while nearly all of the 5-star reviewers had a bunch of other reviews. Most of the 1-star reviews felt the need to mention their profession and that they lived in a “rural” area for no clear reason at all. Almost none were “verified purchases” or used Amazon’s Real Names program. I concluded that there was fairly strong and compelling evidence that these were astroturf reviews — fake reviews put forth by the telco industry, their friends or lobbyists to try to drag down the star ratings of the book.
I never thought that defenders of the telcos would respond to the claims. After all, there are times when it really is best to shut up. However, it would seem that some cannot resist. Richard Bennett — a long time apologist for the telcos’ position on nearly everything — has decided to step to the plate with an alternative theory for those obviously fake one-star reviews, and followed it up with a series of mocking tweets directed at me, claiming that I am a “poor journalist” for never even considering his alternate theory and suggesting that I would never “dare” to discuss it.
So, in the interest of “fairness,” I thought I’d present the two competing theories side by side, and let the readers decide which one makes more sense. For some background, Bennett has been a long time denier of any problems with US broadband, insisting that it’s been highly competitive and super fast and innovative for years and years. He works for ITIF, which was among those who fought hardest against net neutrality rules and was the “think tank” behind the original plan that turned into SOPA. When the MPAA was desperately seeking tech experts who would support SOPA, the only ones they turned up all had connections to ITIF (and weren’t particularly experts on technology anyway). That gives you a hint of ITIF’s standard operating procedures. More recently, Bennett co-authored a report claiming that US broadband was highly competitive and working wonderfully — a report that was discredited thoroughly and repeatedly by a variety of experts, making it a bit of a laughing stock.
But… he’s sure he knows where those one-star reviews came from. You see, as we mentioned in our original post, Bennett was among the short list of “named” reviewers of the book. As I noted, nearly all of the named reviewers were well known in DC telco policy circles, working for think tanks, like ITIF, that had a long history of repeating AT&T’s talking points. I have no problem with that, because he was clearly named there, and didn’t try to hide anything, and his one-star review was well written and gave a full explanation of his position. That’s fine. So, here’s his alternative theory, followed by my theory:
- All of those obviously faked one-star reviews — which he admits are clearly faked — weren’t actually done by telco lobbyist/astroturfers, but rather they were done by Free Press or their supporters, an organization that has been a big supporter of Crawford’s book and the view that the telcos are abusing their power and providing us substandard broadband. But, you ask (and I did!), why would an organization like Free Press who supports Crawford’s work litter her Amazon book page with one-star reviews? According to Bennett, the answer is obvious to someone of his great intellect (a rarefied club to which I do not belong): it was to do two things (1) bury his own absolutely brilliant critique of Crawford’s work so that potential buyers would not read it and (2) so that six months later, a complete stooge like me would come along, find the fake reviews that were really written by Free Press (again, supporters of the book) and write an article blaming those reviews on telco lobbyists.
Because this is a slightly complex strategy, let me repeat it, just to be clear: Bennett is claiming that Free Press — an organization that supports Crawford’s book — purposely sabotaged the reviews on the book’s page, piling up about 25 obviously bogus one-star reviews solely to demote his own one-star review, and at the same time lead “gullible” people such as myself to pin the blame on telco shills.
His evidence for this is that his own brilliant review has many “unhelpful” votes and just a few “helpful” votes, and that could only have happened because Free Press set up this complex string of dominoes, knowing that one day I would tip them over, getting the story on Reddit and having lots of people on Reddit vote down his unimpeachable critique of Crawford’s duplicitous book. Or, he believes, Free Press is so frightened by the intellectual might and persuasive power of his review, that it unleashed an unruly and uninformed mob of its followers armed with blatant misinformation, to click that his review was “unhelpful.”
- Or, you know, my theory: most of those one-star reviews were from telco astroturfing groups designed to pull down the star rating on the book.
I will in admit that, as Bennett suggests, I had not considered his alternative scenario, in part because I am simply not as smart as Bennett, but also (perhaps in larger part) because it sounds like the most ridiculous and convoluted strategy I’ve ever heard of, involving both a massive overvalued view of the important persuasive power of his own review, as well as a truly epic confusion about Amazon reviews and the process under which they work and how potential buyers view them. But, I will concede, his version is not impossible. Just completely nutty.
For what it’s worth, since my original post did end up on the front page of Reddit, and got a ton of traffic, a bunch of folks added their own 5-star reviews (and one absolutely hilarious one-star parody review), which have since shifted the numbers so that there are many, many more five-star reviews on the book, many of which admit that they haven’t read the book but are trying to counter the astroturf reviews. As I noted in my original story, I don’t think this is particularly helpful, and Bennett now uses those reviews to argue that there is some sort of equivalence between the clearly faked astroturf reviews and the “faked” 5-star reviews.
So, there we go. Since Bennett claims that I am too gullible and stupid to see the truth, I will leave it up to the readers here to suss out which of the two theories is more plausible. Theory one, in which supporters of the book purposely sabotaged the ratings, driving down the overall star rating, just to bury Bennett’s own brilliant review and get it buried with “unhelpful” votes, or the apparently facile explanation that the bogus one-star reviews came from telco astroturfers. And, of course, for Bennett’s theory to be accurate, it would mean that people don’t really care so much about the overall star ratings on a product as they do about how many “helpful/unhelpful” votes there are on each review — and therefore loading up the book page with one-star reviews, just to drive people to vote Bennett’s single review as “unhelpful” was the strategy. But, perhaps I’m wrong in my assumption that most people focus mainly on the star ratings, and Bennett in his vast store of knowledge has ferreted out the real plot from those nefarious consumer advocates at Free Press.
I’ll leave it open for you to decide.