Michael Jackson

Just a couple of years ago, a positive review on Oprah could turn writers, cooks, filmmakers and all manner of gurus into instant celebrities and millionaires. Oprah was the proverbial brass ring. Just ask Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz or Rachel Ray. The same can happen, more frequently but perhaps on a more modest scale, with social media. Positive reviews on Amazon, Yelp and other commerce and review sites can produce increased revenue. In the event that a product goes viral, it can be very much like the Oprah effect of old.

There have been some crackdowns on planted positive reviews. Amazon for example has cracked down on authors (and their friends and family) who plant glowing reviews and removed them. On sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor some of the planted reviews, so-called “sock puppets,” don’t read “right” or they seem quite similar to one another. Now, for the first time, commerce and review sites are dealing with the problem of organized smear or other negative campaigns.

The New York Times reports that Amazon has become a “battlefield” for supporters and critics of Randall Sullivan’s book about Michael Jackson, “Untouchable.” Jackson fans calling themselves Michael Jackson’s Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, have mounted a campaign to overwhelm Amazon with negative, one-star reviews. According to the Times the critics say that they are “exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate.” This morning there were 117 one-star reviews and 70 five-star reviews, clearly an indication that the reviews to an issue larger than the literary quality of the book.

The book has proved to be a flop since its release but it’s unclear whether that books the book, which has received mixed reviews, is not very good or because the campaign has clicked. At one point, claims that the physical book was defective led Amazon to stop sales of everything other than the ebook. On the group’s Facebook page one entry read, “Book stopped selling. MJ fans we have done it again!!! Who’s BAD!!!”

It’s interesting that the book is not seen by perhaps more objective observers as an exercise in character assassination. Sullivan for example does not come up with anything relating to longstanding of Jackson’s alleged relationships with young boys. Claims that repeated plastic surgeries led Jackson’s nose to be little more than two nostrils and that he died a virgin seem to have been what got the fans going. Amazon has not done much to address the issue other than to respond with some boilerplate remarks that they will remove comments that violate its policies.

This campaign has ramifications for future releases of controversial content. Under the guise of freedom of speech critics could gang up to attack all forms of content. They do have that right. Things do get a little bit murky when they begin to make unsubstantiated or false claims. Then there’s the issue of “astro-turfing” which is what happens when a company, person or firm undertakes an organized, often well financed effort to undermine someone or something. The goal in this case is to make the campaign appear to be grass roots or organic.

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