Harare, Zimbabwe(News of the South)-There are stars that twinkle and shine in the firmament and yet others that determine the destiny of authors. In the case of the latter, every author wishes for an Amazon page that is, much like the Coldplay song, “full of stars”.
Hillary Clinton, former US presidential candidate, and author of the testily titled What Happened, was not such a fortunate author. A mere day after it was released, Clinton (or, more likely, one of her many publicists) found her book’s Amazon page to be a battleground.
Within 24 hours of the book’s release, 1,500 reviews had been posted and – like the American electorate – divided between ardent love and ferocious hatred for the book and its author. The former slathered on five stars, the latter a single, sulky one. The election, it appeared, was being replayed in Amazon reviews.
But while power and strategic string-pulling were unable to turn the election, they did come to Clinton’s rescue in the review wars. The day after the book’s release, Amazon chose to remove nearly 900 reviews from Clinton’s page, a move that brought the book’s rating up from 3.2 stars to a dazzling 4.3.
Ever cryptic, Amazon alluded to its “community guidelines” and cited “mechanisms in place to ensure that the voices of the many do not drown out the voices of the few” as a reason for the excision. Supporters of Amazon’s move went further: the reviews could not have been legitimate, they opined; so many people could not possibly have read and then loved or hated the book in a single night.
One week later, What Happened was averaging five stars, based on more than 1,500 reviews. Only one recourse remained for the Hillary haters: voting up the few remaining one-stars from “verified purchases” as “most helpful”.
Amazon is not always sympathetic to sad sagas of political animus wrecking the review destinies of authors. The story of Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, is an example. Bray’s book, published by Melville House, happened to be released the Monday after neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that led to a counter-protestor being run over and killed.
This placed Bray’s book right in the middle of President Trump’s blame for “both sides” by likening Antifa to neo-Nazis. Eager to fight, some of the so-called “alt-right” took to Reddit with a screenshot of Bray’s Amazon page and the instruction: “Currently at 3.5 stars. You know what to do.”
They did: in no time, the book’s listing was, in the words of its publisher Dennis Johnson, “flooded” with single-star reviews. Johnson complained to Amazon – via the automatic submission forms provided to the non-Clintons of the world – and a few one-star reviews were removed, but at that point there were now about 50 of them.
Johnson even sent Amazon a screenshot of the Reddit page, but was still unable to speak to a human representative. The reviews, meanwhile, slowed the book’s sales, claiming that purchasing the book would support violence. In an odd and unlucky irony, the gap in intellectual history that Bray had attempted to address in his book – the US’s inattention to anti-fascist resistance – manufactured the material for its condemnation. A book about fighting evil was characterised as evil.
Others have chosen to harness the power of Amazon stars in other ways. Nancy MacLean, author of the National Book Award-nominated Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, for instance.
MacLean’s book alleges that work of Nobel-prize winning economist James Buchanan laid the groundwork for a vast, rightwing conspiracy to deny the majority political power.
In July, a month after her book was released, MacLean, who was being pilloried for shoddy research and inaccuracies by academiesg, took to social media, complaining that the “academic operatives” employed or funded by the tycoons she critiqued in her book were working hard to “kill” her book and “destroy my reputation”.
“I really, really NEED YOUR HELP,” MacLean pleaded in a Facebook post: her followers needed to take to Amazon and vote up good reviews for her book.
With her appeal, MacLean executed a rather clever sleight of hand, one easily enabled by the anger-laden polemics of US politics. Even though her critics (unlike most of Bray’s) were academics, she equated them with far-right trolls, foaming at the prospect of vanquishing a female academic on the liberal left.
But her assessment ignored the historians on the left who had issues with her research; one of them, Sam Haselby, expressed his doubts: “The idea that this mild-mannered, somewhat obscure academic economist was the key figure in the US’s move to the right over the past half-century requires real credulity. It may mark the start of a historiography for an era in which conspiracy theories have entered the mainstream of American political life.”
All three of the books affirm a single, discomfiting truth: the rage-filled American present is at war with the American past, each side prone to slanderous fits and discarding facts that don’t suit them.
In the midst of this squabble is Amazon, a corporate giant whose stars can anoint or destroy, whose silence can doom one book of history, redeem another and provide a third with a venue to convert conspiracy into history. With the truth rendered tenuous, stars on Amazon take its place, making reviewing a political act for a divided polity. Even weeks after its publication, no one agrees on What Happened and Clinton’s ability to assess her own past.
But in post-truth America, the truth that becomes history may well be decided by star-rating.-The Guardian0
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