The case of the vanished reviewer

Amazon reinstates Reno author who critiques 'anti-LGBT' tomes

SCREENSHOT: Kathy Baldock shows a stack of what she said are "anti-LGBT books" that she purchased and later reviewed on Amazon.

Kathy Baldock of Reno got a big surprise on Christmas morning – but it wasn’t a nice one.

Baldock, an author, lecturer and ordained Christian minister, is passionate about defending LGBT issues. On Amazon, she refutes other authors who write books insisting that gay and trans people are sinners who can’t really be Christians unless they ignore their orientations or remain celibate. She has written 61 reviews of books on the subject and another 100 or so reviews of other LGBT books, unrelated books and products she purchased through Amazon.

On Christmas morning, she saw that her reviews, written over a period of nine years, had vanished without a trace. She discovered that the site would no longer accept her comments in its reviews sections of any book or product. She was erased.

“At first when I saw the email I thought, ‘I can’t believe this has happened again,” Baldock said. “Then when I realized all my work was gone, that something that is beneficial to people was no longer accessible, it seemed so threatening.”

Critics were suspects

Because she had some backlash against her LGBT-related reviews in the past, she suspected that her critics were behind the mass removals. She assumed they had pressured Amazon into silencing her.

In 2016, she noted that when she reviewed a religious-based book, her review took days to be approved and appear on the Amazon site. Previously, she said, that process had taken about 15 or 30 minutes. A journalist friend who called Amazon on her behalf was told the company had received “29 letters from authors and their publishers” complaining that her reviews were unfair. Her account had been flagged, the friend told her. “So (in 2016) it was a concerted movement from those people that caused the delay (in approvals),” she said.

A previous disappearance

Then in November 2019, she said, she a review she wrote of an LGBT-related book “written by a prominent anti-gay Christian speaker,” that took about four days to appear on Amazon. She linked to the review on her social media accounts, but soon received calls and emails telling her the link to the review led nowhere.

IMAGE/AMAZON WEBSITE

 “I thought I made a mistake in the (link address), but when I got on Amazon the review was gone,” she said. Her journalist friend again called the company and was told the author and his publisher had pressured an employee of the retailer to remove the review, she said. Amazon management reversed that lower-level decision, Baldock said.

She wrote more reviews and they were approved and available on Amazon in about an hour. Then came Christmas 2020.

Somebody ‘flipped a switch’

“I hadn’t written an (LGBT-related) review since May, and then all of a sudden on Christmas morning I got an email from Amazon that I had ‘violated community guidelines.’ There were no specifics, so I got on Amazon and everything had vanished, not just book reviews, but all my reviews – an arm brace, a BBQ, a flotation device, dog food — they were all gone. Somebody flipped a switch and they vanished.”

She then browsed among products on the site and clicked on their “review” buttons. Nothing happened. “(The button) was dead,” she said. “My right to review anything had been taken away, too.”

After the holidays, she reached out to Amazon via emails and phone calls, but said she received no replies. She then posted an announcement explain what happened on social media and on her personal website. That resulted in hundreds of emails of protest to Amazon, many that also were copied to Baldock’s email address.

Readers come to her defense

“You seem to be, in effect, enabling the authors of these books to perpetuate their dangerous teachings by only showing positive reviews of the work. Families have split and people have ended their own lives as a direct result of these books. It does worry me that you seem to be participating in religious censorship in your store. One of the best reviewers of these books has been Kathy Baldock… a Christian, academic and researcher (who) brings her wealth of knowledge, expertise and experience to the thorough reviews… I have found her reviews to be balanced and fair and backed up by a very solid understanding of the content and issues. Her reviews have brought a necessary balance to the other reviews for these books”

– Ronald H., who wrote to Amazon requesting that Baldock’s reviews be reposted.

Baldock’s reviews of LGBT-related books also can be found on Canyonwalker Connections, her site about her books and lectures, but she said they also need to be available on Amazon, where such books are purchased. That’s where they are the most useful, she said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m being censored,” she said on Jan. 25. The suspects? “Somebody, some group, got to Amazon,” she speculated. The Reno News & Review sent emails to Amazon that day and a spokesman soon replied.

It looked like a story about religious censorship, but it wasn’t.  

The ‘wrong call’

On Jan. 28, Baldock’s reviews all unexpectedly reappeared and she got a brief computer-generated notice from Amazon alerting her that her comments had been reinstated. She and the RN&R got a more detailed email from Amazon the next day that included an admission of error.

“Customer reviews are one of the most valuable tools we offer customers. Reviews provide authentic customer insights that inform purchase decisions, regardless of whether the customer chooses to buy or not. To ensure customers see authentic and relevant reviews, we use powerful machine learning tools and skilled investigators to analyze over 10 million review submissions weekly. In this particular case of Ms. Baldock’s review(s), we made the wrong call. Since this was brought to our attention, we have reversed the decision to remove her reviews and have reinstated her reviewing privileges.”

– statement from Amazon to Kathy Baldock.

An Amazon spokesman later called her to fill her in on the details of the mystery.

A ‘perfect storm’

“(The spokesman) seemed like a very honest and sincere person,” Baldock said. “I accept the explanation. It wasn’t censorship; it was a combination of algorithms, artificial intelligence and people making a decision without all the facts.”

Amazon publishes books on many controversial subjects, the spokesman told her, and relies on reviewers to read and critique works on hot-button issues, including politics and culture-wars topics. Sometimes people who don’t like a review hit the “report abuse” button on the page to show their objection to a writer’s opinion, rather than to actually report a violation of Amazon’s guidelines. “I apparently get a lot of those ‘report abuse’ clicks because of the kinds of books I review,” she said.

PHOTO/KATHY BALDOCK: Kathy Baldock presenting a lecture.

Baldock also reviewed Mary Trump’s book “Too Much is Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man,” which takes a harsh view of the author’s uncle, the former president. In that review she used the term “conman” in reference to Donald Trump, but without quotation marks around the word. “There were 97 other reviews of that book at the time,” she said. “… But when that review was flagged, I already had a lot of flags on my account.

“It was apparently the tipping point,” Baldock said she was told. “With all the other ‘report abuse’ flags already attached to my name, it was a perfect storm.”

A Christian point of view

Baldock’s first book, “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon: Repairing the Breach between the Church and the LGBT Community,” was published in 2014, has 189 ratings on Amazon, with 94% of the reviewers giving it five stars.

“In 2001, Kathy Baldock, a straight conservative evangelical Christian, met Netto Montoya, a lesbian Native American, on the local hiking trails near her home in the Sierra Nevada. Their friendship challenged Baldock’s cultural and religious beliefs about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people… (She) uncovers the historical, cultural, medical, and political filters of discrimination through which the LGBTQ community is seen” – publisher’s summary of “Walking the Bridgeless Canyon” on Amazon.

Researching that book got her interested in reviewing other tomes on the subject of religion and the LGBT community, especially books that she said normalize discrimination against LGBT people. In her reviews of those works, she cites her research to refute what she said is usually “sloppy theology,” often written by authors who “lack relationships with Christian gay people” and ignore “the last 2,000 years” of scientific and ethical developments since the firstt century.

They ‘hang themselves’

“I don’t rant (in reviews); I’m never rude or mean,” Baldock said. “I never attack the authors or get smarmy… I use lots of direct quotes from the books. Let them hang themselves; I don’t have to do it.”

She will continue writing reviews of LGBT-themed books related to religion, she said. “The target audiences for a lot of those books are parents who are worried that a child may be gay. And secondly, those authors are being read by LGBT people who may have been advised to read the books by relatives or others who want (LGBT people) to learn what’s wrong with them.”

Many of the books treat homosexuality as though it is a personal choice that can be changed, or at least a “preference” that can be ignored. Many advise gay readers to live a life of abstinence if they want to be Christians. Such positions need to be refuted, she said.

Another book on the way

Baldock’s next book, tentatively titled, “Forging a Sacred Weapon: How the Bible Became Anti-Gay,” will soon be published, she said. That book examines, among other topics, how the word “homosexual” suddenly appeared in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible in 1952. She unearthed documents in the Yale Library that she said proves a scholar who translated Saint Paul’s letters from the Greek later admitted a translation error.

Editions of the Standard Revised Version haven’t contained the word “homosexual” since a revision in 1969, but several other editions of the Bible are based on the 1959 version of the SRV, she said. Many authors use the quotation from 1 Corinthians to justify discrimination against LGBT people.

Public support

“So that’s another reason I thought I was being censored,” Baldock said. “The translation angle is a pretty big deal (in theology).” She initially thought her next book had something to do with the removal of her reviews. She is relived that censorship or pressure from conservative Christians wasn’t an issue in the matter, she said.

“I think (the reinstatement of her reviews) shows how the involvement of a very vocal community and the media really matters,” Baldock said. “I don’t think I would ever have gotten my account back without public support. It was a perfect storm that caused it, but it was a perfect storm that got it lifted, too.”

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