To Catch a Sock Puppet
Dzieza, Josh, Newsweek
Byline: Josh Dzieza
Detecting phony online reviews.
It was the crime writer, on Amazon, under an assumed name, stabbing his fellow novelists in the back. The plot was uncovered earlier this month by thriller writer Jeremy Duns, who revealed the poison penmanship in a series of tweets. "This is RJ Ellory writing about his own book. And he has done this for them all, and yes, I'm proving it in the next few minutes," Duns tweeted, before exposing Ellory's pseudonyms. Ellory confessed, and the ensuing scandal prompted hundreds of writers, from Laura Lippman to Jo NesbA[cedilla], to sign a pledge condemning sock puppetry, as the practice is called.
"The sleuthing is not that difficult," says Duns, who has spent the last year interviewing CIA agents about a Cold War espionage operation. "It's that they're particularly inept." Duns has caught phony reviewers when they accidentally sign in under the wrong account, or link to an Amazon wish list under a real name. Often the first clue is in the reviews, which read more like a bitter writer than an avid reader: Ellory called his own work a "modern masterpiece" while griping about all the advertising his rivals receive.
But human eyes can go only so far. Fake reviews are ubiquitous on any site that lets users create anonymous accounts, such as Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Yelp; the tech research company Gartner projects that by 2014, between 10 percent and 15 percent of social-media reviews will be fake. Since Duns unmasked Ellory, he has been bombarded with requests to investigate other suspicious accounts; he began looking into one of them, a famous author, and gave up. …