A recently published book, “Behind Bars” by NDTV journalist, Sunetra Choudhury has 31 reviews on Amazon India. Out of these, 20 have given it a one-star rating and written negative reviews. There is nothing unusual about a book getting negative reviews but a closer look reveals that 19 out of these 20 have not even purchased the book. What is going on? Welcome to the world of online trolling of authors and organized campaigns to manipulate of the ratings of their books.
Product reviews on an online platform like Amazon are designed to help customers make purchase decisions. There has been a large scale misuse of this feature and negative reviews have appeared within hours of books being published, sometimes even before it is physically possible to download and read the book.
Recent books by Indian journalists have seen two kinds of people leaving reviews: Those who have actually read the book and those who are only interested in trolling the author. Manipulation of ratings of a book to influence future purchase decisions is clearly a form of sabotage. Our review of some recent books has revealed that it is not a case of a one-off incident of someone leaving a negative review due to a grouse against the author. It is a well-organized troll industry that garners support through social media campaigns to systematically down-rate books of specific authors. It is a deliberate, well-planned and concerted online mob attack.
Who are the targets of this sabotage? Clearly, the online hate brigade has targeted books by authors who are seen as critical of the BJP and its brand of politics. They are the journalists or liberal voices who are regular targets of abuse by the so-called nationalists on various social media platforms.
Let us look at some books that have been victims of such attacks. Amazon has the functionality to filter reviews to see how many of them are based on verified purchases from the site. An analysis of one-star ratings and negative reviews and whether they are based on a verified purchase, reveals an interesting pattern.
Case 1: “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s fault lines” by Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt’s book is perhaps the best example of concerted efforts to down-rate a book. The book has a total of 446 reviews, out of which 327 are one-star. If we drill down into these one-star reviews, we find that only 20 are based on verified purchases and 307 (94%) have been posted by those who have not purchased the book.
The large number of one-star ratings has brought down the overall rating for the book to 1.9 stars. If we remove the unverified purchases, the rating doubles to 3.8 stars.
A former BJP volunteer, Sadhavi Khosla revealed in an interview that when Dutt’s book came out, the BJP-volunteers group was full of plans to ensure it flops. She said, “when Barkha Dutt’s book came [Dutt’s book, This Unquiet Land, was released in December 2015], the entire [WhatsApp] group was full of posts and plans to make sure that her book was a flop.”
In her tweets Barkha Dutt expressed her frustration over the large number of negative reviews by those who have not purchased or read the book. She also tweeted about the misuse of the forum by abusive trolls.
Case 2: “Gujarat Files” by Rana Ayyub
Rana Ayyub’s book has a large number of reviews but a similar pattern of one-star ratings based on unverified purchases can be seen here as well. Out of a total 725 reviews, 181 are one-star. Of these 181, 164 or 91% have been left by those who did not make a verified purchase.
Ayyub’s book has a very high number of verified five-star ratings but as a result of the unverified one-stars, the overall Amazon rating is 3.8 stars. If we take the unverified purchases out, the rating goes up to 4.7 stars.
Rana Ayyub too tweeted about the organized trolling of her book on different online platforms.
Case 3: “I am a Troll” by Swati Chaturvedi
The book on organized trolling by the BJP IT cell was a target of intense trolling when it was published in Dec 2016. One-star ratings started to appear as soon as the book was announced. With comments like “presstitute” or “the author herself is a troll”, the trolls targeted the author rather than the book.
Out of a total of 296 ratings, the book has 129 one-star ratings, of which only 5 are after a verified purchase and the remaining 124 are ratings left by people without purchasing the book.
The overall Amazon rating for the book is 3.1 whereas if you take out reviews based on unverified purchases, the rating goes up to 4.5 stars.
Case 4: “Burnt rotis, with love” by Prerna Bakshi
A sudden spate of negative ratings for Prerna Bakshi’s book, “Burnt Rotis, with love” is a recent example of concerted efforts to down-rate a book. Though not a journalist, Bakshi is a vocal liberal voice on twitter. Her book is not available on Amazon but the trolls have hunted it down and left negative reviews. Interestingly, though the book was published in January, 2016, ten of the eleven reviews have appeared in April. With comments like “anti –India writer” and “Pokistan”, there is clearly a trolling campaign that has found its way into the review of her book. One of the reviewers has even left a review in Hindi. Needless to say, all are one-star ratings.
A familiar pattern
The above four instances give an insight into the organized troll attack on books. There is a clear pattern that emerges:
- Down-rating of books is not spontaneous. It is a well coordinated and accompanied by social media campaigns asking supporters to leave negative reviews for the book. In some cases this may be initiated by a high profile right-wing accounts. The same pattern was seen in the case of Snap Deal – Aamir Khan incident where there were calls to lower the rating and fall in ratings was carefully monitored.
After a spate of negative ratings, when the ratings for Choudhury’s book “Behind Bars” were found to be restricted by Amazon to verified purchases, users shared a work-around. One user explained the process when he tweeted, “All you need to do is place an order in COD mode. Once the order is confirmed, give shittiest rating and review. Cancel the order”. However if ratings are restricted to verified purchases, not many may make the effort to go through this process.
- Nearly 90%+ of the negative ratings come from those who have not purchased the book from the website. It is clear that many have not even read the book. If you go in to their profiles, you will find that many reviewers have never even reviewed a book. Others may have left negative reviews for all authors who may be critical of the BJP or the right wing Hindu nationalists. For example, this reviewer K. Ramesh who has recently given one-star ratings to “Behind Bars” , has given similar ratings for “Gujarat Files” and “This Unquiet Land” as well.
- The attack is personal. It is an attack on the author, not on the book and its contents. The comments often target the author than the book itself, like:
“Neither she is a good reporter nor good writer. So don’t read her book”
“This is coming from an NDTV jouno. Say a lot.”
“Gave her one-star because I used to follow her on Twitter once…..and got blocked”.
Where the comment is about the book, it is often not a genuine critique. Many reviews don’t contain more than a few words like, “worthless”, “toilet paper”, “waste of money”, “lies and propaganda”
The concerted attacks reveal the viciousness of trolls who are ready to trash the efforts of an author without reading the book. Trolls have been successful in lowering the overall rating of books quite significantly by leaving one-star reviews. If we take out the reviews by non-buyers, a very different picture emerges.
|Book||Overall rating on Amazon||Real rating based on verified purchases*|
|This Unquiet Land||1.9||3.8|
|I am a Troll||3.1||4.5|
* Calculated by Alt News by removing the ratings that are not based on a purchase of the book
It is not about rating a book negatively. It is about trolling. There is no problem in reading a book and leaving a negative review about it. All authors welcome a genuine critique. In the case of a memoir by a Fox News anchor, Amazon had suppressed negative reviews from users who had not made a verified purchase of the book. Till Amazon India too finds a way to remove negative ratings by organized hate groups or filter out non-buyers from leaving a review, Indian authors will continue to face the wrath of the troll brigade.