Planet of Astroturf

A fascinating article in the New York Times this weekend traced the career of Todd Rutherford, an “entrepreneur” who made a fortune selling fake online reviews for books.  For a fee, Rutherford would create glowing reviews of books and post them on consumer-driven review forums, notably, in the space where ordinary folks are invited to post their thoughts about a book they have purchased.  His endeavor was successful enough to require subcontracted review producers, who were paid a commission for each review they posted.  One of them cheerfully admitted to the Times that she didn’t even bother reading the books, instead doing a little online research to obtain material that could be worked into a plausible “amateur” review.

Rutherford’s enterprise eventually collapsed when (irony of ironies!) an unhappy customer began complaining about him in online forums.  However, gaming these amateur review systems turns out to be extremely common, particularly in the realm of self-published e-books.  The Times quotes a researcher who found that “60 percent of the millions of product reviews on Amazon are five stars and an additional 20 percent are four stars,” while “about one-third of all consumer reviews on the Internet are fake.”  This requires a lot of sock puppetry, because “almost no one wants to write five-star reviews, so many of them have to be created.”

For the record, Rutherford and his contributors, along with some other bogus review gremlins cited by the Times, made thin efforts to convince themselves they had a shred of integrity – there was no explicit requirement that paid reviews consist of nothing but soaring praise, a hired reviewer could back away from writing a rave about something he didn’t really like, etc.  Rutherford says they were “marketing reviews, not editorial reviews,” as if that somehow justifies abusing the trust of consumers by filling forums they trust with electronic chaff.  The Times suggests some of the people producing these phony reviews saw them as comparable to the blurbs routinely printed on the back of physical books, attracting bookstore shoppers to unfamiliar works with praise from authors they recognize.

Online retailers like Amazon have rules to prevent such manufactured opinion, but those rules are very difficult to enforce.  There isn’t enough manpower at the big retail sites to monitor the authenticity of “customer reviews,” and it would be extremely difficult to weed out inauthentic praise.  A few elementary precautions by review scammers… ahem, “creative and aggressive marketing consultants”… should be enough to make enforcement all but impossible.

Of course, a glance at online forums reveals that veteran Internet users tend to be highly skeptical of manipulated review forums, with cries of “plant!” filling the air when the hand of a marketing representative is detected.  But the less Internet-savvy can still be fooled; many casual consumers won’t even look beyond easily-distorted aggregate review scores.

Rutherford’s explanation of the psychology behind his business model is interesting: as the Times relates, he concluded that amateur reviews “were no longer there to evaluate the book or even to describe it but simply to vouch for its credibility, the way doctors put their diplomas on examination room walls. A reader hears about a book because an author is promoting it, and then checks it out on Amazon. The reader sees favorable reviews and is reassured that he is not wasting his time.”

Some of Rutherford’s customers were very pleased with the results of employing his service, crediting the flood of bogus rave reviews with substantially increasing their book sales.  It’s not a new concept – there have been scandals about sock-puppet reviews before, and any veteran of old-school video rental stores is well familiar with the highly suspicious rave reviews that often appeared on the boxes for horrible movies.  (My favorites were the grade-Z films that would put something like “EXPLOSIVELY ENTERTAINING!” in quotes on the cover, without ever identifying the source of the quote at all.)

Adding a dash of Internet power to industrialize this process transformed it into an assembly line for manufacturing consensus and credibility.  It’s a “business model” that extends far beyond the sale of books.

It can be used to sell ideas, as well.  Obama advisor David Axelrod’s “astroturfing” operation in the 2008 campaign was legendary – campaign operatives and crowd-sourced volunteers manufactured web forum postings and letters to the editor to assist the Obama campaign, often while pretending to be a “concerned Republican.”  This year’s version of Axelrodian astroturfing includes the phony “Republican Women for Obama” ad, in which far-Left activists pretend to be lifelong Republican voters who suddenly discovered they can’t stay in the GOP because it nominated fire-breathing conservative extremist Mitt Romney.

We shop, and vote, on a planet of Astroturf now.  The Information Age has created an incredibly powerful assembly line for the manufacture of opinion, and validation.