Monday, August 10, 2015

Goodreads: Paid Reviews and DPRK Spies

Me and my copy of Victor Fox's Kimjongilia.
People who know me know that I'm interested in studying North Korea. It tripped me out that any place in the modern world could be this unknown and mysterious, as is the Hermit Kingdom of the DPRK.

Truth is, we actually know quite a lot about North Korea. We have a dozen active Instagrammers in the capitol, Pyongyang (and at least two have run Periscope streams), plus more cinematographers and art students all the time. And with 25,000 defectors ranging from peasants to elite cadre offering testimonies, yeah, very little is not known about North Korea. Yet mainstream media still wets itself a little over a new VICE article or some jackoff vacationer who says he snuck a few redundant photos into global Wi-Fi service.

Now, I read a lot about North Korea. I have robust RSS news feeds, I follow defectors and professional analysts on Twitter and Facebook, and I have a small library of defector autobiographies. I am not an expert, I have no head for history or economics, but I have read a lot about this secretive nation. Anyone can: I've shared my RSS aggregation and I run a blog and a Facebook page on the topic. Mostly I just reshare information that anyone else could find.

Recently I ordered a book that had paid for advertising space on NKNews.org. This book is Kimjongilia by Victor Fox, and it stresses that it is a true story. In practice it is ghostwritten: Fox claims he was jogging through a park when he encountered an elderly Asian man who, after several meetings, passed him a manuscript. It contained an astounding amount of information, telling the story of a courtesan and her bodyguard who were spies on the founder of the DPRK, Kim Il-Sung, just before the Soviets established him as Prime Minister, while the Chinese Communists still had an opportunity to influence the direction of the new nation. This jogger Fox, who also happens to have written other "true story" tell-alls on other dangerous rogue nations, has written this astonishing work, containing secret meetings of Mao and Stalin, in the voice of a horny middle-school boy. Throbbing this and volcanic-rock-hard that... This ungainly-spun tale is heavily dosed with very awkward, improbable sexual exploits, for no apparent reason (except to suggest that casual sex is legal tender in Communist nations).

I panned the book in Goodreads, and the response to my review was surprising. A user calling himself J Woon insulted me personally, rather than calling the points I'd raised into question
I read your rant and really felt sorry for you. You come across like an angery [sic] man who needs serious help. I hope you seek it soon. When you post on public forum, you need to be decent and not spew filth . Foul language, sure showed me your class. Sign up for anger management class, it might help you.
I read all your reviews on Goodreads, and they all scream that you want attention. Fine, but you need to find a better way to chanel [sic] your failures and shortcomings. Writing idiotic reviews won't help you at all. Seek professional help, please. I have seen many men like you in my practice and it never ends well. So please get help! 
So J. claims to be a licensed psychiatric or psychologic therapist, or some other form of medical professional. His choice of words suggests that English isn't his first language, and I'm not going to hold that against hm because as an L2 speaker he's very good. In fact, in his comments attacking Loki (see below), J. reveals that he's from Korea and his father had lived in one of the North Korean camps (whether jip-kyul-so or kwan-li-so, he doesn't specify). He may simply want the word of North Korean citizens' plight to get out there, but he didn't choose the best book for that job.

I received an email alert about a second comment from someone called "Elizabeth Cacioppo", but that message was deleted before I could read it. Yet the account for this user points to someone else called "Loki (tubular)"—the clue is in the URL. Where did that leave me? I had to believe that J. Woon was some kind of shill for Kimjongilia and he and Loki were harassing me.

I would soon learn that this was not true, and a quick trip to my favorite Kowloon brothel confirmed my suspicions: after pleasuring three women for ten minutes each, I stepped out to have a smoke and sort out my thoughts.

There were several strange things about Kimjongilia to start with. For one, Victor Fox's bio on Amazon claims he is working on insider tell-alls about Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vatican City (one assumes Rome). This is the guy that just happened to find a North Korean defector who was looking to pass of highly classified intel from the interior offices of Soviet Russia and Communist China? I guess once you get a taste for that kind of intrigue, spy novels about wireless connections tend to pall.

An actual Kimjongilia cultivar.
Another strange thing is the title. Kimjongilia is a special hybrid flower commemorating Kim Jong-Il: it is never mentioned in this book. It is also a famous documentary by N.C. Heikin, but it focuses on the defectors from North Korea, and Fox's book takes place before the DPRK is fully formed. Additionally, though Kim Jong-Il does appear in this book, it is only from his birth to attaining six years of age, long before he has any official capacity.

It sounds like Fox is trying to leech off some of the documentary's cred for his spurious novel. Indeed, the author note in the front reads: After North Korea allegedly hacked Sony Pictures, many publishers were afraid to publish this explosive book. To them, it was just too risky. Regardless of the warnings and threats, I have decided to go ahead and make this book available to you without censoring any information.

Wow. Someone thinks an awful lot of themselves. Where did these ostensible threats come from?

To clear up my misgivings I went to his professional website, and that's when it got weirder. His blog is nothing more than random links to articles on design and an Icelandic island, and lorem ipsum filler text in each entry (except for the most recent post, which is the "welcome to your new blog" entry that most people delete). Or it was like that a few days ago, when I wrote the Goodreads entry—since complaining about that weird aspect, all entries have been deleted.

It is my personal suspicion that there is no Victor Fox, per se, that this novel is not only ghostwritten from the elderly Asian man who ostensibly handed off the original manuscript, but I further hold that "Victor Fox" is merely a nom de plume for one or more people.

I went back to study the poorly written slander in response to my entry on Goodreads, and I found that J Woon had deleted it and replaced it with a much more amenable plug:
I loved the book. I have heard this book is a part of trilogy. Not 100% sure. Finger crossed.
There is no info on Victor Fox's blog: how the hell would anyone know whether he was planning to make this highly suspicious nonfiction exposé into a trilogy? Well, an insider might know: is the person pretending to be Victor Fox also pretending to be J. Woon on Goodreads? The written English in the book was marginally better than J's posts, but J. also gave the book five stars.

I have to let you know that up to this point, I wondered whether I was being targeted by DPRK sympathists, because of some other coincidental activity on Facebook. I had confronted a day-tripper from Singapore who insisted that all of North Korea was as wonderful as her skylarking trip to Pyongyang. She dismissed the idea that all she saw were actors (whose families were held under duress) and that she did not in fact tour freely throughout the capitol but was only ever given leave to explore state-approved regions. I called her out on this, citing as I do DPRK's extensive human rights violations.

She responded, snarkily demanding to know whose propaganda I was swallowing, and then she deleted that comment. Two shadow accounts were suddenly created, and these two people also berated me. But I'm very experienced with the Internet and will not engage with an anonymous user. One troll whined that the opinion they wouldn't attach their identity to was still valid, and the other one deleted all their comments. I really wish I'd gotten a screenshot, but I was working hard on blowing it off and not acknowledging it. My bad.

So I wondered if these people had followed me to Goodreads, as people do, but this was not the case. In fact, I was wrong about Loki (tubular): their comment on the book was not only that it was poorly written, but that anyone who dares to post a negative review could expect to be harassed by a couple other users. So Loki wasn't attacking me: they were probably warning me, or at least trying to agree. I don't know why they removed their comment.

That formed my next question: who had given Kimjongilia five stars?

Reviewers, I found, fell into three camps: legitimate readers, abusive users (half of whom started accounts this August), and Bangladeshi users. The legitimate readers were on the fence about this book: Elizabeth was praiseful but could cite nothing specific about the entire story; similarly, Garrett's review reads like the book report of a precocious high school student who also hasn't read the assigned material. Their Goodreads reviews are included on Victor Fox's professional website. But beyond these...

The Abusers

The enigmatic Professor Mira posted a vague, hyperbolic review but hasn't undertaken to attack other reviewers. He started his account in May and posted his review May 31. J Yoon started his account in August and posted his review August 8.

Book Readers (started May, reviewed May 31): they insulted a negative reviewer by claiming they somehow thought a book on North Korea would be about the Kardashians. They laughed at their own joke. They insulted another reviewer, in broken English, claiming they hadn't read the book at all:
BTW, your review is full of misinformation and lies.

You wrote " The story is set primarily during the war where Kim Sung is being trained as the presumptive head of a new North Korean communist state and where Kim Jong-Suk and Peter Chang serve as his wife and his manservant, respectively, but also as spies for China and Russia"

None of the two were Russian spy. I read the book twice. You never read the book.

You wrote "ultimately Kim Sung and Kim Jong-Suk (we presume) father Kim Jong Il, who is, quite possibly, the worst child in the world."

That was really funny. You didn't read this book. I can't imagine someone cooking up a review for nothing. You should apologize to readers for misleading them.
This comment was backed up by another user, James Stock, who claimed to have reported this reviewer for other cases of fraudulent reviews. He rated Kimjongilia five stars without comment on May 31, but liked other five-star reviews.

There was the aforementioned J. Woon, who called it "top notch" and had insulted me directly for my review. There's also Hillary Choi (created August, reviewed August 9), who preemptively insulted anyone who disagreed with her opinions. Additionally, shadow users Selma Craig (created May, reviewed May 31) and Jessica (reviewed the same day as the Bangladeshi reviewers, below) liked the book or liked the five-star reviews.

(UPDATE: J. Woon has since deleted their August 8 review and written a new, more hyperbolic one on August 12. It promptly received two 'likes' from, unsurprisingly, Book Reader and Hillary Choi.)

In a later attack, Book Readers accused Loki of mental illness, just as J Woon did me. At this point I wondered if there's only one person behind these accounts, but the three accounts that sound most alike are Professor Mira, Book Readers and J Woon.

These users have read other books together: Memoirs of a Geisha (James, J.), another Fox book Dolce (J., Selma, Book Readers, Jessica), and Ann Coulter's far-right immigration screed (Book Readers, Hillary Choi). That's not damning in itself, I suppose. It is noteworthy that they each reviewed the book in the same month they created their accounts, and those reviews fall on either May 31 or August 9, in two batches of fake-reviewin' activity. (That is, J Woon's was August 8 and Rasel's, August 10, but that's close enough.)

The Bangladeshi Users

Denise: "He he Lover, Real lover of book"
What do Rasel, Tabarek, Christopher, a woman named Jamison and a man named Denise have in common? They're all Bangladeshi (Jamison and Christopher claim to be 81 years old), they all started accounts in April and May of 2015, on July 9 they all gave Kimjongilia five stars with very short one-liner reviews (Rasel posted his July 10), and they've also all rated the following books five stars:
  • Dolce
  • Sex, Lies, and Cruising
  • ¡Buen Camino!
  • Blood and Fire
  • How Snowpo the Food Loving Bear Got Adopted in London
  • Upward Entrepreneur
  • Tears of Abandon
  • Autistic Blessings and Bipolar Me
...and several others. That's why I wanted to see whether the Abusers group also had titles in common.

What this tells me is that the Bangladeshi accounts are fake users who are paid to positively review independent publications, and that's all they do.

As for the Abusers... I'm not sure what to make of them. They could also be paid reviewers, but in a different network than the Bangladeshi readers, since they are interactive and hostile. But they could also just be multiple shadow accounts run by Victor Fox, or whomever's pretending to be Victor Fox. Not that he couldn't hire reviewers: obviously he can pay for advertising on NKNews.org's website, and he paid someone, maybe, to build a website for him. Maybe. But he can certainly pay for the print publication of his own novels, with a personal library of four titles and three more in the works.

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