AmazonFAIL: How Online Social Tools Can Wreak Havoc — and Repair It

Deanna Zandt

Over the holiday weekend, a firestorm let loose on the Internet: For no apparent reason, books on Amazon.com with feminist, LGBT and sexual-empowerment themes were removed from the sales rankings, numbers that show how well a product is performing on the website.

Over the holiday weekend, a firestorm let loose on the Internet: For
no apparent reason, books on Amazon.com with feminist, LGBT and
sexual-empowerment themes were removed from the sales rankings, numbers
that show how well a product is performing on the website.

Angry authors and readers responded by launching a full-on social media assault, using blogs, Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness and to collect signatures on a petition.

Rapid
response campaigns not affiliated with any one organization are
increasingly becoming the norm in the age of free communication tools. 
The Amazon incident (dubbed “AmazonFAIL,”
drawing on usage of “fail” as an indicator of strong disapproval in
online cultures) is a fascinating example in part because of the
cultural motivation behind and the mechanics of the removal and the
implications for sales of “banned” books.

For those just waking up to the scandal, here’s what happened:
Amazon has a policy of removing books labeled as “adult” from its sales
rankings (which by itself could discourage sales). This, in turn, has a
ripple effect of removing books from elsewhere on the site, such as in
search results and “related books” listings. The Amazon system is
proprietary, so it’s hard for outsiders to determine the full
implications of such a removal. Anecdotal evidence from authors
searching for their banned books returned wildly different results at
different points over the weekend, but it was clear that if allowed to
go unchecked, the “adult” label would have a severe impact on sales—if
the readers can’t find it, the readers can’t buy it.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

What
kinds of books received this “adult” label? Erotica with gay themes
(but not heterosexual themes), rape survivor advocacy and rape culture
criticism, and feminist missives were among those suddenly labeled
adult material. Soft-core hetero porn (such as Playboy centerfold
calendars), hetero-themed sex toys and anti-gay screeds were left
untouched. Let the maelstrom begin.

Blog posts sprang up, but the social media service Twitter soon became the hotbed of information gathering and disseminating. Authors tweeted about missing books, readers posted links to breaking news and why-would-Amazon-do-this theories, and a petition demanding that Amazon rescind its adult policy gathered 10,000 names in less than 24 hours. By Sunday evening, Amazon responded via an interview with Publisher’s Weekly that the entire situation was a “glitch.”

As
most in the social media sphere attacked Amazon directly for purposely
removing the books, technologists familiar with "distributed attacks"
(attacks that are carried out by people not belonging to any one
identifiable, formal group) started to speculate on the source of the
takedowns. They understood that it’s unlikely that Amazon itself
enacted a homophobic, misogynist campaign to selectively label certain
books as adult and thus damage the sales of these books.

Blogger Dely at livejournal.com explains:

Now,
let’s just put ourselves in Amazon’s shoes. Keep in mind that Amazon is
a smug, fairly liberal company headquartered in f****** Seattle of all
places and, last I checked, Jeff Bezos is not exactly a Christian
fundamentalist. Why on earth would they suddenly censor only a specific
group of content that deals with a marginalized and politically active
community? Why would this policy change not take the form of a specific
policy, but rather of very discriminately flagging only certain titles
as "adult" content? Why would this happen over a weekend?

It’s
obvious Amazon has some sort of automatic mechanism that marks a book
as "adult" after too many people have complained about it. It’s also
obvious that there aren’t too many people using this feature, as
indicated by the easy availability (and search ranking) of pornography
and sex toys and other seemingly "objectionable" materials, otherwise
almost all of those items would have been flagged by this point. So
somebody is going around and very deliberately flagging only
LGBT(QQI)/feminist/survivor content on Amazon until it is unranked and
becomes much more difficult to find.

It’s
far more likely that a group of tech “enthusiasts,” let’s call them,
organized some sort of campaign over a holiday weekend (when Amazon was
likely operating with a shoestring staff) to delist books they found
objectionable. When I say enthusiasts, I’m referring to loosely
associated hacker-types who enjoy wreaking havoc purely for the sake of
the havoc. Rarely do they have a formal political agenda. Often women,
particularly feminists, and queer folk are the targets (though
recently, one notorious group called 4chan targeted and found a teenager who had posted a video of himself torturing a cat).

It
would be easy to dismiss this, and other cases, as Internet-gone-wild
making the world unsafe for women and LGBT folk. Somewhat harder to
discern, and admit to ourselves, is that the anonymity and freedom that
the Internet provides pulls back the curtain on our culture: at work
are the illusive mores of misogyny and homophobia that continue to
shape our culture and lives.

This piece was published by the Women’s Media Center.

 

Analysis Human Rights

Unanswered Questions Abound in Gynnya McMillen’s In-Custody Death

Kanya D’Almeida

One of the most pressing questions among advocates and attorneys is whether or not there is a link between a scuffle that took place during her intake in the facility and her death several hours later.

It began with a 9-1-1 call and ended with the death of a 16-year-old Black girl in a youth facility in Kentucky.

Little has been written about the girl’s case, but advocates and organizers say it is illustrative of failures at multiple points in the state’s juvenile justice system.

Gynnya McMillen was found unresponsive in her room at the Lincoln Village Regional Juvenile Detention Facility in Hardin County, Kentucky, on January 11, where she had been taken the previous morning following a domestic altercation with her mother.

In the three months since, there’s been a state investigation into her death, lawmakers have proposed legislation to investigate in-custody fatalities, and several staff members at the facility have quietly left their posts.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

And yet the teenager’s untimely death continues to be shrouded in mystery.

One of the most pressing questions among advocates, attorneys, and McMillen’s family is whether there is a link between a scuffle that took place during her intake at the facility and her death several hours later.

By Kentucky officials’ own admission, multiple adult staff members physically restrained McMillen using an “aikido” hold—a modified martial arts move—after the teen allegedly refused to remove her sweatshirt as part of a routine check-in procedure. As Graham Kates has reported for CBS News, surveillance camera footage shows staff bringing McMillen to the ground and holding her there for four minutes and 15 seconds. However, the footage fails to capture the full extent of the incident since the girl was brought down behind a counter and remains hidden from view for much of the incident, according to Kates.

In a February email to Rewire, a spokesperson for Kentucky’s Justice Cabinet (which oversees the state police, the Department of Corrections, and the Department of Juvenile Justice, among others), described the martial arts hold as a “nationally-approved system called Aikido Control Training, which is utilized by various juvenile justice agencies and mental health facilities throughout the country [and] designed to prevent injury to the child and staff.”

“Since strength of the employee is not a factor, only balance, injury to the child and staff is almost nonexistent,” Lisa Lamb, a spokesperson for the state Justice Cabinet, explained. “This control method does not use any type of strike, punch, choke, wrist lock or throw.”

But experts with decades of experience working on inmates’ rights and conditions of confinement tell a different story.

One of them is Paul DeMuro, a senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the current federal court monitor for a juvenile justice settlement in Mississippi. He told Rewire in a phone interview that in all his 44 years of experience he has never once heard mention of this “aikido” hold or known of any facility that has employed it as a form of restraint.

“From what I know of the case, there was no reason to use this particular restraint on this young woman,” he said. “To use that kind of force to resolve an issue as simple as a teenager saying she didn’t want to take her sweatshirt off goes against both the letter and spirit of most policies regarding physical restraints,” he added.

According to DeMuro, employees at Lincoln Village appear to have dealt with a frightened young girl as though she were a violent offender, escalating her anxiety instead of talking her through it. “Add the race and class elements,” he said, “and you have a situation in which several adult staffers are taking down a 16-year-old kid. This never should have happened—she was essentially going through a simple booking process and she wound up dead.”

Kentucky officials have vehemently denied the allegation that the girl suffered some deadly trauma or injury as a result of being tackled to the ground by multiple adult males. On March 16, the state medical examiner announced at a press conference that McMillen had died of a rare genetic disorder, called inherited long QT syndrome, which can cause “life-threatening arrhythmias [irregular heartbeats] and sudden cardiac arrest,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But McMillen’s family rejects those findings. Shortly after Gynnya’s death, her sister created a Facebook page to gather and share information about the case. A series of posts, presumably written by a family member who manages the page, suggested that the “aikido” hold caused or contributed to her death.  The family has also consistently drawn attention to the fact that staff members at the facility failed to conduct mandatory 15-minute bed checks throughout the night, and were slow to perform CPR on the girl when at last she was found to be unconscious in her room.

State officials cannot refute this allegation. Investigators said at the press conference earlier this month that Lincoln Village employees acted unprofessionally by neglecting to provide adequate supervision and falsifying documents such as observation reports. After reviewing 60 hours of footage from the facility, Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary John Tilley said, “Some of the misconduct smacks of outright indifference,” pointing to one incident caught on video in which a staff member offers McMillen a sandwich and, receiving no reply, later eats the meal himself.

Tilley dismissed two employees in connection with McMillen’s death—Victor Holt and Reginald Windham, both of whom have previously been reprimanded for using excessive force on youth.

“Why Was She Arrested in the First Place?”

While much of the limited reporting around McMillen’s case has focused on events that transpired inside the detention center, juvenile justice advocates are equally concerned about why the girl was arrested in the first place.

“There is a much larger story here, about each of the points in the process where the system failed this child,” Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Youth First Initiative, told Rewire. “For instance, why was she detained and arrested in the first place?”

Ryan believes McMillen’s case is indicative of the impacts of mandatory arrest laws, and later pro-arrest laws, that were introduced under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in a bid to curb intimate partner violence, by instructing or encouraging police officers responding to domestic violence calls to remove a possible abuser from the household.

Though designed to protect women from spousal or partner abuse, the laws have had the perhaps unintended consequence of driving vast numbers of girls into the criminal justice system for altercations with their families.

According to Francine Sherman, clinical professor and director of the Juvenile Rights Advocacy Project at the Boston College Law School, girls comprise 40 percent of youth arrested for domestic assault, even though they account for just 29 percent of overall arrests nationally.

“Girls are disproportionately arrested for domestic assault, largely for altercations with their mothers,” Sherman told Rewire in a phone interview. “So the events that led up to McMillen’s arrest are not at all unusual nationally.”

Sherman, who co-authored a recent study on girls’ increasing share of the burden of youth incarceration, said that although Kentucky does not have mandatory arrest laws on the books, the state follows what are known as officer discretion laws, which have been susceptible to reliance on arrests as a means of resolving domestic disputes.

It is one of just many “pathways” that are still funneling girls into the juvenile justice system, despite an overall decrease in the national youth incarceration rate. Sherman’s research shows, for instance, that while the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act bars judges from jailing girls for simple status offenses (offenses that apply only to minors, such as violating a curfew), girls who fail to comply with a valid court order (VCO) regarding these offenses can still be detained. In 2014, Kentucky used the “VCO exception” 1,048 times—more than any other state.

And as multiple researchers have pointed out, Black girls are disproportionately represented in every stage of the justice system. By Sherman’s estimates, using justice department data, girls of color comprise 61 percent of incarcerated girls. “In 26 states and the District of Columbia, the placement rate for Black girls surpassed the rate for all other race and ethnic groups,” Sherman told Rewire.

Set against this backdrop, McMillen’s arrest and detention are hardly unusual; in fact, the circumstances surrounding her death are indicative of a long history of policing and punishing Black girls that advocates say has been largely sidelined.

“For decades society has placed huge pressure on Black girls: either by sexualizing their bodies, or portraying them as having ‘superhuman’ strength,” explained Chanelle Helm, a Kentucky-based organizer and researcher who has been mobilizing community support for Gynnya McMillen’s case.

“We’ve repeatedly seen Black girls being detained in violent and highly sexualized—we saw it with the officer in Texas using his entire body to restrain a Black teenager in a bathing suit; we saw the same thing with an officer assaulting a Black girl at the Spring Valley high school in South Carolina,” she added.

“If you listen to the 9-1-1 call that McMillen’s mother made right before her arrest, you see this same pattern—of the girl being called degenerate, sexualized names,” said Helm, who is a former board member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression and a member of Stand Up Sundays, part of Black Lives Matter-Louisville. “And then you see her being bodily detained by employees at the detention center.”

Helm added that Black girls going through the child welfare system often have health conditions that go undetected “due to an overall culture of negligence when it comes to [their] health.”

“Heart arrhythmias are hard to detect, especially for people who can’t afford that kind of medical care,” Helm said. “And if you’ve gone through as much as Gynnya was going through—being in the child welfare system, getting into a fight with her mother, sitting alone in that detention center—how are you going to know it’s something more than anxiety?”

Advocates Seek Far-Reaching Reforms

The question of who bears ultimate responsibility for McMillen’s death has not yet been answered. Once the Kentucky State Police wrap up their investigation, a prosecutor is expected to present the case to a grand jury to determine whether to bring criminal charges against possible defendants.

Advocates, taking their lead from McMillen’s family, say they want accountability. A Color of Change petition addressed to Gov. Matt Bevin (R) calls for the termination of superintendent Michelle Grady, who was responsible for the Lincoln Village facility, as well as any staff who were involved in the incident.

Local organizers, meanwhile, want further-reaching reforms.

“Our main goal is a complete overhaul of Kentucky’s juvenile justice system,” M.L. Butler, a member of a group called The Voices Unheard, which has been organizing around McMillen’s case, told Rewire. “We want to see the closure of the Lincoln Village facility and the decriminalization of Black youth.”

According to the state Juvenile Justice Department’s 2012 annual report, the 48-bed facility was slated for closure in 2013 in a bid to slash the department’s expenses by $2 million. It is unclear why these plans did not go through, and the state will likely have to answer this question under pressure from activists.

Butler told Rewire in a phone interview that grassroots groups are mobilizing for a protest outside the Hardin County Justice Center on April 8 to demand justice for McMillen. Many of these groups, including Helm’s Stand Up Sundays, were among the first to call attention to McMillen’s death, staging vigils outside the detention center from as far back as January and drawing a smattering of media to an otherwise completely overlooked case.

“We had 50 people at our first vigil and we’re hoping for as many, if not more, supporters on April 8,” said Butler, whose group works with the Oakland-based direct action training collection BlackOUT.

Those familiar with Kentucky’s Department of Corrections say activists are going up against a system that has shown little regard for inmates’ lives.

One of them is Greg Belzley, a Kentucky-based lawyer who has been inmates’ rights lawyer for more than two decades and sued state prisons and county jails “repeatedly” over detainee deaths and conditions of confinement, is not optimistic.

One of them is Greg Belzley, a Kentucky-based lawyer who has sued state prisons and county jails “repeatedly” over detainee deaths and conditions of confinement. He is not optimistic.

“Time and time again there is an inexcusable, horrifying, or grotesque inmate death in Kentucky. And time and time again no one is prosecuted and nothing happens,” he told Rewire in a phone interview, adding that in the two-year period from the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2013, there were more than 100 deaths in Kentucky jails and prisons.

He is particularly skeptical about a piece of legislation introduced in the house a month after McMillen’s death, which would create an independent panel of experts to review in-custody deaths across the state. Belzley’s biggest concern is that the panel would include 13 nonvoting members—almost double the number of voting members—who “represent organizations that have never shown the slightest interest in spending the time or money required to properly attend to inmates’ medical needs or seriously investigate or prosecute instances of inexcusable detainee deaths,” he said.

These include the Kentucky County Judge/Executive Association, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Association, and the state’s Jailers Association.

“Legislative efforts have made no difference—it’s been business as usual in this office,” Belzley told Rewire, adding that the root of the problem is the ingrained mindset among those directly responsible for detainees, whether jailers or medical personnel, that they do not warrant humane treatment.

“I’m working on cases right now that would turn your stomach,” he told Rewire, adding that he’s represented inmates who died of alcohol and drug withdrawal, covered in their own feces and urine, even though there was a hospital a few miles away.

“I’ve seen it happen so many times—a jailer will look in on an inmate who appears to be sleeping and unless there’s blood all over the floor or the inmate is hanging from a cord they will generally just make a note on their observation log that everything is okay,” he said.

While Belzley’s work has largely focused on adult jails and conditions of confinement, his analysis bears a striking resemblance to the kind of negligence that occurred in McMillen’s case.

“People need to start taking inmates’ lives seriously,” Belzley said. “Any responsible person who heard that a 16-year-old girl was put in a martial arts hold for over four minutes because she wouldn’t remove her sweatshirt and was found unresponsive the next morning, would say there was cause for a serious criminal investigation—and if there is probable cause to believe there was a violation of criminal laws in the treatment of this young woman, somebody needs to be prosecuted and if found guilty they need to go to jail.”

Culture & Conversation Media

How Romance Novels ‘Imagine a World in Which Women Can Win’

Eleanor J. Bader

In these books, one writer argues in a documentary about the genre, women "get rewarded for going after what you want. You can have sex without dying."

In the industry, the romance novels read by approximately 75 million people a year are referred to as HEAs, or “Happily Ever Afters.” Romance Writers of America reports that these books represent big business: over $1 billion in sales in 2013 alone.

The 37-year-old trade association further notes that 82 percent of romance readers are female. The books span a multiplicity of romantic genres, from suspense to steampunk, from Christian themes to the paranormal. All, however, predictably end on a high note: the HEA.

“Women have adopted the Happily Ever After ending for a reason,” Deborah Chappel Traylor, associate professor of English at Arkansas State University, says in Love Between the Covers, an upbeat documentary about the women who write and read romantic fiction. The reason, she says, is simple: Such endings help women “imagine a world in which women can win and in which their views are front and center.”

The film is persuasive, and likely to make viewers who’ve never paid attention to the genre take a second look, and perhaps buy a romance novel. Love Between the Covers, by featuring the work of writers who introduce characters of color, LGBTQ characters, and strong, stable female characters, made me reconsider my knee-jerk assumptions about these books and the people who read them.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The 84-minute documentary zeroes in on five published and one as-yet-unpublished novelist, several publishing company executives, and readers. All sing the praises of romance writing and theorize about why the field has been treated with disdain by both scholars and the literary establishment. The film calls out the sexism that has labeled romance writing frivolous, and lambasts the idea that romance writing is unworthy of sustained attention. The film argues that the genre gives readers female characters to root for, admire, and emulate—and that’s valuable. 

Take it from bestselling writer Jennifer Crusie, the pseudonym of author Jennifer Smith, who nails the anti-woman bias of critics, noting that because most romance novels present women as assertive and determined, they deviate from the so-called traditional literary canon. In The Scarlet Letter, for instance, the narrative offers an unmistakable message: Something awful lies in wait for unmarried, sexually active women. Romance novels suggest the opposite, Crusie argues. “In romance fiction you get rewarded for going after what you want. You can have sex without dying,” she says.

Popular notions of love and commitment are also upended in virtually every type of romance, popular writer Nora Roberts adds. “Romeo and Juliet is not a romance,” she says. “It’s about two stupid teenagers who commit suicide.”

So what, then, is a romance?

Abby Zidle, senior editor at Pocket Books, tells director Laurie Kahn that “the story we’re looking for is one that says, ‘You deserve to have your desires—whether they’re for career, love, or sex—validated.’”

As the film presents it, secular romance novels emphasize female entitlement, not only to feelings but to a sense of self. (The film does not discuss Christian romance novels, which avoid any reference to out-of-wedlock or premarital sex—a gap in an otherwise comprehensive overview of the genre.)

Writer Beverly Jenkins reports that when she first began writing historical fiction featuring Black characters more than 20 years ago, having a woman of color as victor was unheard of, so she created one. “I am not looking to create a stupid heroine,” she says. “I’m looking for a woman who has her shit together already. The man is the cherry on top.”   

And Lenora ‘Len’ Barot, who writes under the name Radclyffe, introduces savvy, creative lesbians to her readers. Barot got her literary start while she was a medical student in Philadelphia, and published her first full-length manuscript during her residency. Now, along with her partner Lee Ligon, Barot runs Bold Strokes Books; the company has published the work of more than 120 LGBTQ authors.

“For those of us who once lived in the shadows, it’s so great to have these books,” she says in the film. As a teenager, Barot says that she read The Well of Loneliness, a 1928 novel in which the lesbian protagonist commits suicide. Other lesbian pulp fiction, she continues, was similarly depressing, making it seem as if lesbians and gay men were doomed to miserable, solitary lives. In college she discovered Naiad Press, one of the first publishers offering positive lesbian literature. Finding characters she could relate to was life-changing for Barot.

Indeed, both she and Jenkins assert that literary representation is important in affirming individual identities and helping people imagine varied possibilities and options. That’s why they write about relationships and tell romantic stories.

One of the most interesting things about Love Between the Covers is its examination of the romance literature communities that have developed on- and offline. Readers give one another support, and writers—including Roberts, Mary Bly (who writes as Eloisa James), and Jayne Ann Krentz—use chatrooms to give aspiring writers feedback, advice, and encouragement. Bly’s personal assistant, Kim Costello, says in the film that she creates blogs for six separate authors but emphasizes that they are colleagues, not competitors. “We talk about husbands, recipes, our kids, as well as books,” she says. It’s a heartwarming sisterhood of the highest order.

As for the books themselves, Costello in the film credits romance novels with teaching her about dating and suggesting alternative paths. Among the lessons, the married mother explains, is that she did not “need to meet men in bars” or “date her boss” if those options didn’t interest her, but could instead hold out for Mr. Right.

Romance fiction, regardless of category, is undeniably formulaickeep in mind the requisite HEA ending—and the most popular writers churn out an astonishing two or three new works a year. But those who consider romantic fiction silly or inane are simply wrong, Costello says with a shrug.

Indeed, aren’t we all just hoping for our own Happily Ever After?