The Fraudulent Society: A world of bogus book reviews, statistics & cyclists

We live in a fraudulent world. Everything around us every day is fake. The economy is in the dumps because of financial sector fraud on a scale so large that it can hardly seem possible. This November, we’ll be asked to select which major political party’s dishonest, pandering, self serving pack of lies gets to run the country for the next four years. Hell, even Lance Armstrong has stopped defending himself from doping charges. I know, it doesn’t make him guilty. But it doesn’t make him innocent, either. Given the track record for honesty and integrity I’ve seen around me in my lifetime, you’ll excuse me if I’m a wee bit cynical of the guy who used steroids to return from a virtual cancer death sentence, then goes on to pull off probably the most far fetched athletic feat in my lifetime, going from an also-ran to winning seven Tour de France titles in a row. Sure it’s possible his brush with death motivated him to develop the drive to push himself to never before seen athletic accomplishments. It’s just as likely he discovered the wonders of drugs, or most likely, some combination therein. Either way, the guy who should be the most inspiring athlete in the world doesn’t exactly scream legitimacy. But then, what does anymore?

Certainly not the validity of the customer review system that much of the retail web works under. Read this piece from the New York Times and try not to throw up in your mouth. Now I’m reasonably sure most of us know some kind of questionable practices have been going on in terms of reviews. But the scale this suggests is frightening. This is one guy, subcontracting out “reviewers.” If he made $28,000 a day, as he claimed, that’s a ton of bogus reviews scattered out there. In fact, at that rate, this guy would’ve disseminated a half a million fake, rose-colored reviews in a year’s time. One guy. How many more review services are there out there? How many private groups trading quid pro quo positive reviews amongst their memberships? And what’s the percentage of “sockpuppets” that sellers are using to contribute glowing reviews of their own stuff clandestinely?

The short answer: a royal shitload! Certainly enough that it calls into question the validity of any customer review system. How exactly are reviews weighted in Amazon’s discoverability algorithm? If they’re counted at all, doesn’t this disclosure seem to indicate their removal may be called for? I mean, the information is tainted. Worse yet, so long as reviews directly count toward helping products be seen and possibly drive sales, there’s virtually no reasonable means of stopping it from becoming that way.

So who availed themselves of this “service”? Well, John Locke, for one, reportedly bought 300 reviews from this guy. Somewhat less to Locke’s discredit, he didn’t seem to actually care if the reviews were good, bad or indifferent, just that they existed. Maybe he legitimately thought he was getting people who were going to actually read his book and give an honest critique. Of course, that would mean a man that’s been held up for his business acumen for rising from unknown to self publishing icon would be dangerously naive. What was I saying about cynicism earlier?

But at least Locke didn’t stoop to the level of UK best seller Stephen Leather. Leather, rather incredibly, openly admitted to having a network of fake online identities he used to promote his books, or sockpuppets, as it were. Further, he implied that he also has a group of friends and associates all engaging in the same sham marketing. Here’s a breakdown of his situation.

As appalling as these instances are, really they’re just ham handed attempts to replicate conduct the corporate world has already perfected. Does anyone really think the Big Six don’t have someone posting glowing five star reviews on their books everywhere they’re available? Realistically, they’ve been paying for reviews for a long time, either directly or through back scratching deals with review publishers along the lines of buying ads in said publication with the expectation that your offerings get reviews. At least this new payola actually goes to the people writing the fake reviews and not just the newspaper or magazine printing them. Making the world of review fraud more democratic! That’s something, I suppose. Nauseating, but something.

Then there’s the simple case of the Digital Book World ebook bestseller list. Purported to be an accurate depiction of ebook sales, closer inspection reveals something that smells worse than a suddenly-abandoned fish market three days after the ice has melted. Is it a fraud? I don’t know for sure but my internal bullshit detector goes haywire whenever something produces generally surprising results that would be exactly what you’d expect if the fix was in. First, the somewhat contemptuous tone toward the lower price points in the promotional material for the new list seemed prejudicial to indies and immediately set me to awares. Then, the initial list had publishers prominently displayed but no authors. Hmmm…who would put a greater priority on the publishers being referenced rather than the actual authors? I wonder…Third, the results came out not only unpredictably but almost irrationally anti-indie and pro Big Six. One of the big tells in statistical fraud is when they overreach and results come out far stronger on one side than is actually reasonable. Last, the guy who developed the secret algorithm we know nothing about turned out to be employed as a VP at a Big Six publisher. Not only that, it was kept hidden from all materials until he was outed by a blogger and had to fess up. Hiding possibly pertinent information is usually a big tell in fraud, too. So is it a fraud? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, well, sometimes it turns out to be a goose, but mostly, it’ll be a duck. And I’m sure you’ll excuse me if I’m fresh outta benefit of the doubt these days.

So, with all this obvious review fraud going on everywhere, will Amazon or someone else yank review data from any meaningful purpose? Nope. One other thing about our fraudulent society is that, far more often than not, the perpetrators of the fraud suffer no consequences from it. No bankers have been called to task, lying politicians are such a cliche now that we don’t even bother to call them on their bullshit anymore, lest we get buried by an even bigger pile of bullshit defending the first load. This review-pimping guy will be back to slinging bogus five-stars before you know it, and in the meantime, the ones who haven’t been outed yet will keep plying along unfazed. John Locke and Stephen Leather will be momentary blips, and very likely won’t suffer a bit from their questionable ethics (or naivete, if you’re feeling the Locke apologist vibe).

Lance Armstrong is getting his Tour de France titles stripped, though. That’s something, right? It would be if it weren’t being done by an agency that 1) has pretty questionable authority to strip them in the first place and 2) has no real evidence of doping at all and the somewhat inconvenient fact that Lance never once failed a drug test. See, when someone does get even the slightest comuppance, it, too, ends up done fraudulently.

But, oh well. I hear Roger Clemens is making a comeback.

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