Case study: Amazon shill reviews and purge

J. Michael Bailey‘s 2003 book The Man Who Would Be Queen was an an important turning point in asymmetrical information warfare. Transgender activists had to employ novel strategies to fight the anti-transgender bias that was being put forth via socially-credentialed sources. One of the sites of dispute was the Amazon listing for Bailey’s book, where Amazon manipulated the consensus to remove the majority of negative reviews while sparing positive reviews by the author’s friends and colleagues.

The nascent online practices of “academic logrolling” vs. “review bombing” came to wider notice when a glitch in Amazon’s Canadian system revealed the names of anonymous reviewers, exposing how much of this activity was occurring on Amazon’s platform. Amazon later implemented a number of changes, including giving more weight to verified purchases and allowing readers to vote and comment on reviews. Because their ultimate goal is to make money by selling books, Amazon is generally going to favor the side of shills.

Shill reviews

The pro-Bailey shill reviewers in the first year included a number of colleagues and supporters, several of whom are mentioned in the book:

It also included a number of proponents, some of whom have clarified their earlier positions.

April 2004 Amazon purge

This page went live in 2003 as part of a systematic plan to document everyone involved in this debate. Trans people had begun reporting difficulties getting their reviews accepted, suggesting Amazon was manually blocking negative reviews:

I spent over a month of fighting with Amazon to get them to post my review. Amazon is systematically censoring negative reviews. You have to follow their rules precisely to get things posted and even then people may have to fight. I advise anyone trying to post a review to followup with an e-mail if it is not posted within a week. And then if it is not posted, it is key to ask for the supervisor in charge of book reviews and demand that it be posted (lest they be accused of censoring, which they are definitely definitely doing)

In April 2004, the book had a 2-star rating based on 80 reviews.

By March 10, 2004, Amazon had removed 24 customer reviews from the review section, including several from famous trans writers and scholars, and even a Top 500 Amazon reviewer (Geoff Puterbaugh). All but one of these reviews gave the book the worst numerical rating possible. Amazon’s actions raised the book’s overall rating from 2 stars to 3 stars.

The purge removed negative reviews by many notable people, including scientists and clinicians:

The reader who reported difficulties getting her review posted was one of the 24 suppressed in the purge.

Single-purpose reviewers

From the 2004 purge into June 2006, someone posted 40 different 5-star reviews under different names. In almost every case, Bailey’s book was the only review ever made by the account. It’s very likely these were all posted by the same person familiar with the controversy, probably Denise Magner. Magner compulsively used sockpuppets, starting with an Amazon review by her sockpuppet Stephanie Alejandra Velasquez on May 4, 2003. That review was taken down in the Amazon purge, and the 40 new reviews began appearing immediately after. Many of the names used are puns on people involved in the controversy, like Simon LeVay and John Bancroft.

Why this mattered

Book publishers and authors were just learning about how to improve sales by manipulating Amazon, something Amazon encourages. Right below an author’s Amazon Sales Rank is an invitation: “(Publishers and authors: improve your sales)”

Publishers increasingly use these unconfirmed reviews edited by an unnamed Amazon employee as evidence about a book’s reception. Joseph Henry Press Executive Editor Stephen Mautner cited Amazon reviews in his open letter about Bailey’s book:

As of June 13, 2003 there were 27 1-star (lowest) ratings, and 11 5-star (highest) ratings, with only 5 in-between.

Source: Stephen Mautner, 2003 (PDF)

From the start, this book was marketed as controversial. The trans community had to use a number of innovative methods to fight the unscientific ideas presented in this book. Many of these methods have since been widely adopted, like online petitions and this kind of systematized documentation to expose patterns of bias like Amazon’s.


Amazon reviews: The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Harmon, Amy (February 14, 2004). Amazon Glitch Unmasks War Of Reviewers. New York Times.