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Amazon restricts reviews of “American Dirt”

Amy Scott Jan 24, 2020
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Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images

Amazon restricts reviews of “American Dirt”

Amy Scott Jan 24, 2020
Daniel Roland/AFP via Getty Images
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COPY

If you go to Amazon right now and try to post a review of the new book “American Dirt,” this message will appear: “Amazon has noticed unusual reviewing activity on this product. Due to this activity, we have limited this product to verified purchase reviews.”

That is, purchases of the book made on Amazon. The novel at hand, “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, is a story of a Mexican family fleeing gang violence.

It’s won both widespread praise and widespread criticism, in part because its author is neither Mexican nor an immigrant. That’s raised questions of representation and cultural appropriation.

It’s also raised a business question about what kind of platform Amazon wants to be.

David Bowles, a Mexican American author, read an advance copy of “American Dirt” and had some critiques.

“I went ahead and purchased the Kindle version of it so that I could have a verified purchase and thereby have my review published, because I thought it was important to get it out there,” he said.

Amazon is not only a huge seller of books, but a place where a lot of people come to talk about them.

Writer and publisher Victoria Barrett said Amazon has cultivated that conversation by buying Goodreads, a reader review site.

“If they want to keep the discussion about race and appropriation out of their website, that’s certainly their right,” Barrett said. “But because they have invited this social function into their retail business, it feels a little like dirty pool to a lot of us in the industry, I think.”

Amazon wouldn’t answer questions about why it restricted “American Dirt” reviews, or how often this happens with books.

A spokesperson provided this statement: “Reviews are meant to help customers by providing real feedback on a product from other customers who have tried it. Our systems are designed to detect and prevent reviews that violate our guidelines.”

Its page for “A Very Stable Genius” — a new book critical of President Donald Trump — also only allows reviews by verified buyers.

Amazon’s not the only review site grappling with how to manage speech.

Rotten Tomatoes recently started verifying ticket purchases by reviewers to prevent “review bombing.”

Corynne McSherry with the Electronic Frontier Foundation said Amazon is in a different category because of its size and influence in the marketplace.   

“Amazon is actually the site of so much expression,” McSherry said. “So I would urge Amazon to be extremely cautious in going down this path, and it may regret it.”

Because, she said, people will gravitate to the platforms where they can be heard.

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