Over the past week or so, a particular (tiny) battle has been raging over on That Other Site because an author not only spammed her book but also set up numerous sock puppet accounts, some with the aid of her "fiancé." The furor has died down a bit now that some eight or nine of these illegitimate accounts have been removed, along with their 5-star ratings of this book and their 1-star ratings of competing books.
But another larger battle has been much more quietly going on over another author and another army of sock puppets. At first someone just noticed that a group of books had literally hundreds of new 4- and 5- star ratings, all from accounts with gibberish names ending in numbers and all saying they were from a single US city. Further investigation revealed that many of the books may have infringed on another author's copyright; at least it was determined that the books had been previously published under other authors' names (yes, more than one) and some with different titles.
Some of the fake accounts were removed, even as more appeared. Many of us watching this drama observed that the pattern changed, almost as if a computer program/script were being tweaked in real time. It was a program that appeared -- to my non-techie eyes at least -- to generate accounts with random names and random profiles and random profile pictures.
As the process evolved, the accounts became more individualized. Instead of gibberish names like "aichlttskn99856," they became "tammy" and "dave" and "michelle" and "josh." All just single ordinary first names. The profiles lacked details beyond gender and date (month/year) joined.
The profile pictures, however, prompted more suspicion. Some avatars appeared to be screen shots of Facebook profiles, with identifying data blurred. There were many, many duplicates, where the same picture was used for two or more profiles. Most appeared to be .jpg images collected from the Internet, with little relationship between the gender of the name on the account and the gender of the person in the picture.
All of these particular accounts targeted the books written by one particular author. A daily check on that author's books found new accounts, day after day after day. Some included review comments that usually consisted of one line, such as "Definitely A Five Star Read!" even though that review was accompanied by a 4-star rating.
But the process continued to evolve. Now the accounts showed up with other books by other authors listed as "read" or "wants to read." Sometimes the books by this author weren't rated, just shelved as "wants to read," while a select few other books were given five stars.
As far as I can see, none of the accounts ever have updates. No new books are added after the account is opened and populated. No reviews are written, no replies made to comments. The most recent accounts I've found were added 11 November 2013.
Last night -- 15 November 2013 -- I did a little sleuthing. I located a picture on a private blog that matched one used for two of these suspicious accounts. The photograph was taken by the blogger himself and is of a named private individual. I have contacted the blogger to see if he knows about the use of the photograph by account holders at That Other Site. So far I haven't heard back from him, but it is the week-end. I've also passed the information along -- with appropriate URLs and other links -- to the Support People at you-know-where.
But now I've found, just a few minutes ago, something even more disturbing.
Remember I said some of the accounts appeared to have as profile pictures screen captures of Facebook profiles with identifying information redacted? Well, here's one that isn't.
"I hack web apps at Automatic" is the statement under the photo. The location of this person is listed as San Francisco, but when I did an html save of the webpage, the account shows up as being in Germany.
Is the photo stolen from Beau Lebens? More than likely. Is Beau Lebens actually a hacker? Who knows?
The point here is that That Other Site is indeed infested with fake accounts and the staff isn't addressing it. They've purged real people who wrote real reviews about real books and real authors, but they allow this kind of sock puppetry to go virtually unchallenged.
I am a single individual who is not particularly tech savvy. I have absolutely no clue how the software and coding and what-not over at That Other Site works. How is it, then, that I'm able to figure this out and produce some pretty strong evidence that one particular author -- who may not even be a real person and who is claiming other authors' work as her own -- is being supported by a veritable army of sock puppets and pretty much nothing is being done about it?
Real people writing real reviews of real books by real authors have been reprimanded and silenced. Their reviews have been removed, and they have been threatened with expulsion from That Other Site if they continue to tell the truth.
It's true that author Rick Carufel has had numerous sock puppet accounts removed. It's true that author Eve Thomas has had numerous sock puppet accounts removed. It's true that author Victor Bertolaccini has had numerous sock puppet accounts removed. It's true that author Sharon Desruisseaux has had numerous sock puppet accounts removed. It's true that author Rachel Florence Roberts has had numerous sock puppet accounts removed. These authors -- and some others, but these were ones I actually saw in action -- blatantly broke the Terms of Service at That Other Site and they paid the price. They were given warnings that they ignored and they had to suffer the consequences. Some of them decided to behave and are still quietly active on That Other Site. Others have gone elsewhere to bitch.
That Other Site reserves the right to remove any account for any reason. They don't have to appear in court and produce evidence; they are a private operation and can pretty much do as they please. There is no reason why, if they want authors to believe the site is a safe and welcoming and encouraging and supportive venue, that they should allow this kind of blatant corruption of their own system.
Or perhaps they don't care. Perhaps the only thing that matters is selling books. It's no longer about the readers at all; it's only about the Amazon bottom line.
That means the entire operation is corrupted. No one knows who's a real person and who's a computer generated sock puppet. The ratings and reviews and recommendations are all suspect, except by the ignorant. And it's obvious that such ignorance is fostered by That Other Site.
What would be the height of manifest irony involves the very author whose petulant outrage sparked much of the huge battle that led to the erasing of shelves and deletion of reviews and exodus of members.
Lauren Howard/Pippa's rampage began when she discovered someone had rated her not-yet-released book with 2-stars. Insisting it was impossible for anyone to rate her book without reading it and that it was impossible for anyone to have read her unreleased (but ARCed) novel, she proceeded to slash her way through That Other Site. No matter how many times it was pointed out to Lauren that the site allowed ratings of unreleased books, she continued to rant and rave. No matter how many sympathetic accounts boosted her book with 5-star ratings even though they had never read it, Lauren would not be pacified. She blogged and tweeted and pissed and moaned.
There was some examination of the account that produced the 2-star rating, and I don't think I was the only one who suggested -- are you ready for this? -- that it might have been a computer-generated account. That account still exists. After its initial activity in August 2013, including the shelving/rating of Lauren Howard/Pippa's book, it had no activity at all until 4 November 2013. So maybe it was a real person. Or maybe not.
That Other Site is a great database, and it has a great platform for discussions. But its reviews and ratings and recommendations absolutely must be viewed through a lens of distrust. While I am sure there are plenty of real people writing real reviews about real books -- and that includes negative reviews of poorly written books by badly behaving authors -- I am just as sure that a lot of those reviews and ratings are coming from ... some where and some thing else.