Thursday, February 21, 2008

Hacktivists vs Scientology (Again)...

Hacktivists have targeted Scientology, and Amazon.com is caught in the crossfire.

In case you haven't been paying attention, here's what you've missed. About two weeks ago, a group of Reddit users collectively decided to write reviews of L. Ron Hubbard's book, "Dianetics" - the foundation for the Scientology movement - on its Amazon website. Most of the reviews or comments were decidedly negative and offered one-star ratings. Many of them did not even address the book, but rather criticized the Scientology movement in general.

As these negative comments filled the "Dianetics" web page, Amazon apparently decided to delete all of the new comments. There were approximately 98 such comments at the time, but the mass deletion inflamed Redditors and led to a fierce debate on its own website about the merits of Amazon's actions.

Naturally, the anger also led to exponentially more negative comments posted on the Amazon page.

Thus the destructive cycle of Amazon deleting comments and Redditors posting ever-more inflammatory ones continued over and over again. However, one Redditor going by the screen name, "Riven08", writes today that:

I've been watching this reviews page for the past week, and after reading the comments left by a certain dianetics/scientology supporter it became clear to me that it's not exactly amazon that is deleting these reviews. This particular dianetics 'fan' noted that he thought it was his duty to report these 1-star reviews to amazon because he was sure that they didn't read the book. I then realized that he was the one that was simply clicking the 'report this' link on every 1-star review.

So long story short any review that you report, by clicking the 'report this' link, seems to disappear after 12-24 hours. Yes, I tried this with several obviously fake 5-star reviews and they vanished the next day. I can only assume that amazon's system is automated, or just staffed by lazy humans that don't actually review any content before removing it.


What can we learn from this little edit war (which, by the way, is still ensuing)? First of all, an early public statement from Amazon might have potentially avoided the situation entirely. As any P.R. guru can tell you, it's usually better to diffuse a situational conflict early by describing what's going on, what's being done about it, and why. Keeping silent only emboldens the conspiracy-theorists and raises more suspicion. Just ask Richard Nixon.

Second, as has been noted time and time again, censoring or removing commentary in cyber spaces is usually counter-productive, bringing even more public attention to the material being taken down. Information protectionists need to grasp even a mild understanding of this basic principle if they want to have any chance at realistic and fair comment moderation.

Finally, hacktivists are becoming both more emboldened as well as more adept at bringing that public attention to their causes (or, more accurately, to their sources of outrage). They are mastering their techniques and using the internet, and Web 2.0 sites specifically, far more effectively than are political cyberactivists. Advocates of control ought to watch out.

If we were to try and see the Big Picture - the forest through the trees - it would look like this: Hacktivism is an embryonic movement with great potential. It can use its powers for good - such as generating lively and vibrant debates on important issues - or for advancing a juvenile agenda based on insults and the fostering of a mob-like mentality and methodology.

This case is only the latest example, and, rest assured, many more are yet to come. Let's see if they can live up to their positive potential as a counterbalance to traditional institutional powers, or if they only serve to justify the existence of the very things they set out to destroy.
  

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