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:

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

Internet troll | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

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.

Goodread’s Reaction

Goodreads logo | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

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.