I’ve heard from several authors who have stopped using Goodreads over the years. As Camestros Felapton reports, they may have a point, as Goodreads seems to suffer from a chronic troll problem. Matters reached crisis proportions way back in 2012. But recently, it looks like things have got worse.
Author Patrick S Tomlinson is currently being targetted by a sustained cyberstalking attack on Goodreads. Multiple fake accounts are leaving insulting reviews of a book of his that has not yet been published (not even as an ARC).
The fake accounts have been quite blatantly using fake names and identities, including a fake account pretending to be Otis Chandler, one of the founders of Goodreads:
@otown Hello Mr. Chandler. It may interest you to know criminal cyberstalkers have stolen your identity as part of a fake review bombing campaign against my next book, which is still in editing. They're also impersonating former @sfwa pres, @Catrambo.https://t.co/mv3YPhsGsF
— Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek) December 28, 2019
And a GoodReads stalker made an account with former SFWA President Cat Rambo’s father’s name and picture, taking the latter from the announcement of his death 3 days ago!
A Growing Troll Problem
With little moderation and few tools available for reporting fake accounts or harassment, a coordinated troll attack can be very difficult to stifle even when the reviews are absurdly and blatantly false.
Tomlinson seems to be targeted since he got one of the most hated troll communities on Reddit banned and thousands of their accounts suspended for harassment and copyright infringement a few months ago.
This kind of coordinated pre-emptive spamming of negative reviews isn’t new. The film-rating site Rotten Tomatoes had to take steps last year to curtail a right-wing attack on the as-the-time unreleased Captain Marvel.
Fighting the Trolls
Camestros Felapton makes a number of good suggestions for fighting the trolls.
Preventing reviews of unreleased properties seems like a minimum first step in limiting the capacity of coordinated campaigns to hijack a review site. While it won’t prevent other coordinated attacks on released books, unreleased (but listed) works are more vulnerable as they have no natural reviews being written.
The identity theft aspect of these specific attacks is also a great concern. The overt and blatant aspect of the impersonations makes it unlikely that people would be easily tricked into thinking the accounts are genuine. However, the extent of them and how easily the trolls have generated multiple accounts using real identities, demonstrates that Goodreads is open to more subtle mischief and identity theft.
The existence of a documented online harassment campaign really should be enough for a major website to take added measures. For example, Wikipedia limits the capacity of people to edit pages (particularly biographies of living persons) when there is repeated vandalism or disputed content. A temporary block on reviews on a Goodreads entry would be a wise measure to have available in the event of an alleged spam attack. Notably, a book receiving large numbers of reviews from accounts that are both new and which have made only one review should be an obvious red flag.
Actions that undermine the readers’ ability to trust reviews and which undermine the capacity of authors to identify themselves manifestly undermine the basic aspects of the Goodreads model as a service. This makes the difficulty the site is having dealing with this specific issue surprising. The ease with which a troll campaign can brazenly manipulate the site, strongly implies that a less overt campaign can manipulate ratings or spread disinformation unnoticed.
Camestros Felapton contacted a Goodreads spokesperson via email to see if there was an official perspective on the issue:
I was wondering if Goodreads had an official statement about the specific issue. More generally given the existing community guidelines against impersonation, spam and manipulating ratings are there any moves to consider other means of enforcing community standards at Goodreads?
To Goodreads credit, they did offer a response that was courteous and took the email seriously. However, the spokesperson was not able to give a detailed response to the questions:
As a general policy, we don’t comment on specific cases. Also, as I’m sure you can understand why, we don’t provide details about our future plans for our moderation process. We take the integrity of our reviews and the trust of our members very seriously and continue to invest in new tools and processes for our moderation team.
Many people have moved away from Goodreads for various reasons. In the circumstances, that is understandable. However, when you consider the large amount of volunteer labor that users put into collating books, rating books, and reviewing, it is a shame if the site becomes unusable because of coordinated attacks like this.
More broadly, the current situation on Goodreads shows that major websites and services are still slow in developing techniques to deal with these kinds of actions. Sadly, once again, the bad guys are one step ahead of the good ones.
Thanks Nicholas for the information. By highlighting this problem, you’re helping writers everywhere. At least, Goodreads is aware they need to address this issue if they want to maintain the integrity of their site.
I feel sorry for the volunteers there. It feels like Amazon is taking them for a ride.
Thank you, Nicholas, for this important information regarding Goodreads. It’s made me aware of the whole trolls, fake accounts, and identity theft to a much larger extent. Appreciate your work.
Thank you, Dorothy! It can be scary at times but I’d like to think that the good far outweighs the bad 🙂
I feel fortunate that I haven’t encountered trolls on Goodreads. (I’ve gotten a few snarky one-star reviews that I ignore, but haven’t noticed a concerted trolling effort). I do hope that Goodreads finds a way to address this since the site is so popular and a great way to connect with books, authors, and reviewers. Thanks for sharing, Nicholas.
So glad to hear you’ve had a mostly positive experience so far, Diana! I, too, have been lucky that way, but I was starting to feel I was in the minority 🙂
I didn’t realize this problem existed until I read your article. Thanks for the enlightment.
I’d heard of it but was unaware of the extent of the problem. Reading some of the comments makes me feel pretty lucky to have dodged that bullet so far, thank God!
I love Goodreads and enjoy posting my reviews there, but this is terrible. I hope Goodreads gets it under control soon and exposes the trolls.
Nice to hear from someone who’s having a positive experience! Thank you for that, Michelle 🙂
Why on Earth do these people see the need to be nasty? I just don’t understand it, there is too much of this going on across the social media that writers use. It’s terrible.
I’m hardly surprised that you can’t understand their mentality, as research suggests that trolls are sociopaths: https://nicholasrossis.me/2014/09/29/its-official-trolls-are-sociopaths/ !
This is definitely a terrible shame, NIcholas. I really enjoy Goodreads and the community there.
I don’t really use it, to be honest, but I’m glad to see people are still happy with it 🙂
It’s so sad and frustrating that mean people can so easily cause pain, seemingly without any fear of being stopped, much less being punished. It really makes me rethink where exactly I stand on the sliding scale between total freedom of expression and total control of online speech.
As a reader, I still enjoy Goodreads, but I tend to use it to read (and post) longer, more carefully crafted reviews rather than pay much attention to average ratings.
Total freedom of speech is great as long as people are always honest and truthful! As for GR, I confess I don’t really use it much, even though I’m on it.