Is #Amazonfail a massive troll?

Note: Amazon has issued a statement about the situation since this post was published. You can read the statement and my take on it here.

In case you somehow missed it, yesterday while some of us were hanging out on our grandparents’ couches watching baseball and swapping Mario Kart tips, tons and tons of LGBTQI-friendly books listed on Amazon were stripped of their sales rankings, rendering them essentially invisible in many searches. The first replies from Amazon customer service said that this was due to a company policy intended to keep adult material off the front pages of the site. However, interwebbers noticed that sex toys still had their sales rankings, as did a Playboy anthology. A pattern quickly emerged: Heather Has Two Mommies? Adult. A Parent’s Guide to Preventing Homosexuality? Fine. Ellen DeGeneres’s biography? Adult. Ron Jeremy’s biography? Fine. Full Frontal Feminism? Adult. The Professional Bachelor Dating Guide: How to Exploit Her Inner Psycho? Fine.

And then, Twitter exploded. The hashtag created to describe the mess, #Amazonfail, became the #1 trending item in the Twitterverse. The LGBTQI, rape survivor, and feminist communities and their allies are, understandably, outraged, and started a petition protesting the changes.

But before you run off to sign the petition, I urge you to strongly, strongly consider the possibility that we are being trolled.

Via Pandagon comes this possible explanation: LJ user (and admitted troll) tehdely posits that this could be a massive implementation of a tactic called Bantown:

Bantown is a tactic for inciting meta-lulz on multiple levels through the alignment of third-parties against each other. Bantown is like the plot of most James Bond movies, wherein some nefarious evildoer brings the US and the Soviets close to war. Bantown is a trolling technique of the highest order, which usually pits communities against each other, or communities against companies, or organizations against companies, or companies against organizations…

[…]

[T]his troll pits a marginalized and activist community against a big company, with the Internet and all its various discussion media (in this case, blogs and Twitter) as the facilitator.

The post makes excellent sense, so read the whole thing, and this theory also explains the many elements in this story that seem to run directly counter to logic.

First, why would this policy change be implemented on a weekend, and a holiday at that? Even internet companies run their offices on business hours. Trolls, however, would be happy to take advantage of the fact that, as tehdely points out, “Amazon’s customer service would be operating on a skeleton crew and most of those who would be able to fix the problem would be at home and possibly unavailable or on vacation.”

Why is what’s flagged as adult so sloppy and random? An algorithm aimed at flagging LGBTQI-friendly books would both be more thorough in catching those books and would also accidentally catch more of the homobigot books, so it definitely seems like humans running searches on keywords and flagging the top results. Only humans outside the Amazon organization would do this, as employees would have better tools available to them. There’s no evidence of a wingnut or fundie group urging its members to do this (and presumably they’d be busy on Easter Sunday), and it seems strange that such a group wouldn’t also flag sex toys or gay porn. Trolls, however, would focus on the stuff that would cause outrage to the targeted group, and since sex toys and porn are adult material, it’s unlikely that people would get up in arms about it being flagged as such.

And, most obviously, why would Amazon do this? There doesn’t seem to have been any outside pressure for them to hide these books, and even if there were, we’d have to believe that a national corporation with no known right-wing/fundie tendencies agreed to essentially cease to profit off hundreds of books—including some with very broad-based appeal, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover—in order to appease a group that we have to assume would be larger and more vocal than the LGBTQI community and its allies, but not so large or vocal that any of us have heard of it. Trolls, obviously, plan these things in secret.

A megatroll also explains the conflicting explanations for the clusterfucktastrophe that have come out of Amazon itself: first, that it’s policy, and later, that it’s a glitch. Imagine, for a moment, you work in Amazon customer service and you get an email from an author asking why his book has been stripped of its sales ranking. You investigate, see it’s been flagged by users as adult the requisite number of times, which happens to very few titles, and, having no reason to think anything but that all is on the up-and-up, shoot back a form email explaining that that’s what happens to adult titles. Case closed.

When this happens a few more times, over the course of a couple weeks, perhaps you notice a pattern, or perhaps you do not, because it’s not happening often enough for any one customer service rep to get many of these queries. When, all at once, you start getting hundreds of emails asking why certain books have been stripped of their sales rankings, you realize that something is up, but your supervisor has the day off, so you do the only thing you can: keep sending those form letters while leaving frantic messages on your bosses’ voicemails.

Finally, after several hours of this shitstorm, somebody with authority makes it back to the office. This person assesses the situation, knows that there’s no “new” policy, can’t find any reason the de-listings should be happening at all, and comes to the conclusion that something must be wrong with the software. The boss immediately issues a press release saying it’s a glitch in an effort to lessen the PR nightmare and buy some time to pinpoint the problem.

Nothing makes sense if you believe Amazon is doing this on purpose; everything makes sense if you believe the company has no idea what’s going on. I’m going to hold off on cancelling my Amazon Prime membership for a couple days and see what surfaces.

Update: Someone has claimed responsibility for this as a troll, though I have no way of judging whether it’s true or even plausible that this person did what they said they did. (Hat tip to Scott Madin, via the Shakesville comments section.)

Update 2: Someone else claims to have run the code in the post linked in the update above and found it doesn’t work, declaring that claim of responsibility a metatroll. Again, I have no way of judging whether this person’s analysis is accurate or not, although I freely admit that metatrolling is a real possibility.

Also of note: Amazon removed the “Flag as inappropriate” feature from its website sometime last night or this morning. This would seem to support the trolling theory, since it would be the quickest way to halt the process of stripping LGBTQI books of their sales rankings if, in fact, some group outside Amazon were acheiving that end by flagging such books without the company’s approval.

Update 3: Jessica Valenti’s editor apparently heard from an Amazon PR rep that this is the result of an attempt by the company to prevent people searching for Harry Potter from accidentally catching sight of anything that “might be offensive,” which is apparently limited almost exclusively to books for or about the scary gays. If this is true, it’s obviously fucking reprehensible. However, that same post says that Deanna Zandt remains unconvinced, and I tend to agree with her. This version of events doesn’t really explain the suddenness with which so many books were de-listed, why it happened over the weekend, or why it didn’t also cover porn, sex toys, or books that discussed but weren’t friendly to homosexuality. It sounds to me more like a case of the right hand not knowing what the left is doing, although I give a lot more weight to this report than to the form letters previously received by authors.

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6 Responses

  1. This is about where I’m at on it, too. “Famously liberal Amazon has suddenly decided to hide LGBTQI books, pissing off a lot of their customers while gaining no benefit from it, for no apparent reason,” never seemed like a very plausible scenario.

  2. Flag as inappropriate only applied to individual reviews, not the books themselves, correct? Or am I mistaken in that?

  3. Problem: Amazon itself acknowledged a policy, at least twice that we know of. Now they’re saying there IS no adult policy, which would make the de-listings nonsensical; if there’s no policy, why would the items be de-listed at all?

    No, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Amazon tried this tactic before with the POD market, starting out small, with very small presses who couldn’t push back. Then they moved it out to the bigger presses and a shitstorm erupted. If you look at the pattern here, it’s exactly the same.

    • As I said, it appears that the emails about it being policy were form letters, probably sent by low-level employees with little knowledge of such decisions, or possibly even automatically generated in response to keywords.

      Also, Amazon’s efforts to rid the site of POD books, while ruthless and sleazy, were fundamentally different from this situation. They announced that policy change up front to the people concerned, completely unlike this supposed policy change, which authors had to discover on their own when their books were de-listed. And even more importantly, that change makes a lick of sense. They were pushing out POD books because they wanted people to publish through their own, newly launched POD press. This is not an action I support, but it makes perfect sense that a business would attempt to increase their profit by more or less forcing more people to use their services. In this case, Amazon has no impetus that I can determine to suddenly change its policy, and it is costing itself who knows how much revenue by alienating the large and vocal LGBTQI community and its allies, all in exchange for no known benefit. It makes zero sense.

  4. WRT those howling that Amazon supposedly admitted to their policy and then back-peddled, citing the customer service emails: the policy the CSRs were referring to is clearly the policy that adult-flagged material gets hidden in these various ways.

    Nobody has come up with an Amazon customer service email stating a policy equating gay subject matter with adult material.

    The sad thing is, it’s very interesting for taxonomists how such things like this can happen, both via malicious tagging AND due to well-intentioned confusion over legitimate overlap of keywords that have multiple meanings in different contexts. And that discussion is not being allowed to take place.

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