PR Stunt: Activists Sink Amazon Bestseller with Fake Reviews

We’ve written a good bit about the use and abuse of fake “user reviews” recently, and we couldn’t help but share this bizarre story of a “crowdsourced” effort to sink a certain Amazon bestseller—all organized and executed by people who hadn’t actually read the book in question.

The reason for this anti-PR stunt is a little unusual. The book, titled “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It“, is by (almost) all accounts a well-researched tome that traces the history of the AIDS epidemic, the effect of Western colonialism on its gradual spread and the potential for the West to curtail it via international policy. The book also happens to contain a section on the importance of male circumcision as a preventive measure used to reduce HIV rates in certain Western African countries. (Multiple studies have shown the practice to lower HIV infection rates by as much as 70%.)

Here’s the catch: a small and extremely devoted group of activists really hate circumcision for some reason. At their most extreme, they compare the practice to female genital mutilation (a custom unfortunately common in some societies that is in no way similar to male circumcision), arguing that it violates the rights of newborns and that all studies extolling its health benefits are junk science.

They get into some conspiracy theories and vaguely anti-Semitic themes as well, but we won’t elaborate on those here. Let’s just say their efforts remind us of Scientology’s ongoing war against psychiatry or the activists who continue to claim that childhood vaccines cause autism.

So a group of these anti-circumcision activists organized a smear campaign on the book’s Amazon page:

They posted dozens of one-star reviews calling the book “misguided propaganda” and attacking its authors, then voted their own negative reviews “helpful” and other positive reviews “unhelpful”, thereby dragging the book’s average rating down. According to author Daniel Halperin, “the sales ranking of the book on Amazon plummeted” after the attacks began earlier this year.

What can PR professionals learn from this story? Given the importance of user reviews for products like books, it should serve as a cautionary tale to authors and literary publicists—but it could apply to any product that relies on such reviews for PR purposes. It reveals the significant power of coordinated online smear campaigns to damage reputations and depress sales numbers.

Amazon can’t intervene due to its hands-off review policy. So what can authors and publicists do to counteract or prevent stunts like this one?

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