Posting sockpuppet reviews is not free speech

Joe Konrath defends the practices of buying fake reviews, leaving malicious one star reviews to trash the books of rivals and leaving sockpuppet reviews as free speech. Because an author deliberately leaving one star reviews on books by rival using sockpuppet accounts is apparently the same thing as a reader leaving a one star review on a book they actually read that really annoyed him or her for some reason. And anyway, it wasn’t as if anybody was really harmed. John Locke, Stephen Leather and R.J. Ellory didn’t kill anybody after all.

I wouldn’t consider myself a Konrath fanboy. His tone is far too strident for my taste and he’s too much of a free market radical (a common problem among indie writers), though he does offer some valuable insight and advice on occasion. This post, however, is really over the line.

Especially as Konrath pulls out an argument that pretty much kills every discussion dead in the US, namely that posting fake sockpuppet reviews to trash rivals or posting fake reviews in general is free speech. And in the US “free speech” is one of those arguments you just cannot counter (there are a few others, some of which depend upon religious and political orientation). So being against sockpuppeting and fake reviews means that you are against free speech, which means that you are against America and quite possibly a Communist and so on…

Now I’m not an American. And while I’m very strongly opposed to censorship by German standards, I nonetheless think there should be some limits to free speech. Such as incitement to hatred or libel. And while fake one star reviews used to trash rival authors are not incitement to hatred, they might be considered libel. Besides – as we’ve heard repeatedly during the PayPal erotica debacle some time ago – businesses like Amazon or other e-tailers are not engaging in censorship when they don’t want certain kinds of free speech on their sites. So why is refusing to carry “Fuck me, Stepdaddy” erotica not censorship, but doing something about fake and sockpuppet reviews is?

What disappoints me is that Konrath isn’t alone in his opinion. After some initial outrage about John Locke paying for reviews, Stephen Leather using sockpuppets and R.J. Ellory and Orlando Figes (neither of whom are indie writers) using sockpuppet accounts to trash rivals with fake one star reviews, the tide quickly turned on indie hangouts like the Kindleboards and suddenly writers speaking out against practices like sockpuppeting or buying reviews were forming a lynch mob or conducting a witchhunt (really? I don’t recall anybody calling for Locke or Leather or Ellory or Figes to be strung up at the next tree or burned at the stake) and besides, the critics were “just jealous” and wished they’d thought of buying reviews first.

Now personally I don’t put too much stock in Amazon reader reviews. Nor do I put too much stock in “official” reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus (who have a paid review service and horrible taste besides) and various review blogs. I do read reviews and they may influence my decision to buy, if the reviewer’s tastes regularly align with mine or are usually the complete opposite. But I rarely base my decision to buy on reviews alone.

I suspect that part of my relationship to reviews is cultural. In Germany, literary critics tend to be a lot harsher (as explained here), reviews are more detailed and reviewers have generally read the book and the backscratching that is common in the Anglo-American publishing industry is less common here. For example, we rarely have those “Best book ever” blubs by Insert Famous Author, to the point that I was utterly baffled when I first ran across those endorsements on the covers of American books, because what exactly was the point? I also caught some heat earlier this year for daring the voice the opinion that there was no such thing as a completely objective review. Apparently, someone had neglected to inform me that God died and appointed the editors of a certain webzine as the supreme arbiters of taste.

But paying for reviews is wrong, whether it’s Kirkus or the service that John Locke used. Posting sockpuppet reviews and trashing rivals via anonymous one star reviews is wrong. Posting one star reviews, because “this book is too expensive”, “there is no e-book edition” or “someone said that this book contains something abhorrent to me, but I don’t know for sure, because I haven’t read it” is wrong.

Besides, as Chuck Wendig points out here, the people who are really hurt by fake and paid for reviews are the readers.

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4 Responses to Posting sockpuppet reviews is not free speech

  1. I have an even simpler argument to make: If you have to hide behind an alias to conceal what you’re doing online, then obviously you must not want your name associated with the behavior in question. If you don’t want your name associated with your behavior, it’s because you know it’s wrong.

    As for the “free speech” silliness — the Constitution protects speech from GOVERNMENT intrusion (save for cases of libel, threats, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, etc.). Mr. Konrath’s mistake is extrapolating this right to those who are rightly disgusted by the practice in question. If that’s the case, then Mr. Konrath is violating his own extrapolation by condemning the the critics and attacking them for exercising THEIR free speech rights to remark on Mr. Ellory’s behavior.

    Mr. Konrath can’t have it both ways.

    • Cora says:

      I totally agree. If people like R.J. Ellory or Orlando Figes had genuinely considered the books by their rivals bad, they should’ve argued their opinions and publicly stood by them. Nobody doubts that e.g. a renown historian like Figes is able to judge another historian’s book on his area of expertise. But writing “This is crap” reviews under the name of his wife is just cowardly. Ditto for Ellory.

      As for Konrath, he uses “free speech” as what we call a “kill it dead” argument in German – an argument that is designed to kill any discussion, because no reasonable and right thinking person can be against X, X being free speech in this case. He also seems to misunderstand what free speech means, but that’s not unusual.

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