Anti-vaccine book tops Amazon's COVID Search. Axed by Lawmakers

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Some leading Democratic lawmakers are accusing Amazon of profiting off the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.NPR

Amazon is under criticism from lawmakers because of its algorithms, which push the livestock dewormer ivermectin, COVID-19 remedies, and anti-vaccination material, which includes medical disinformation.

Rep. California-based Adam Schiff and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent CEO Andy Jassy letters this week urging Amazon for information on its misinformation policies and what it is doing to stop its systems from recommending books and other products linked to pandemic misconceptions and vaccines.

Schiff said, "Amazon is making money off of anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs, while these conspiracy theories lead to the deaths of hundreds of children every year."

Warren says that the e-commerce giant either won't or can't change its business methods to stop the spread of lies or the selling of improper goods.

It's becoming more and more difficult for Big Tech to evade scrutiny:

The major criticism that has been directed at platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter has mostly missed Amazon, although the company has had its own problems with false health information.

But it seems that things are about to change after investigations conducted by researchers and journalists in recent months.

Amazon's algorithms, according to the researchers, promote books that promote false anti-vaccination claims and COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and they found that it is easy for customers to get around rules against false cures, such as promoting the parasite treatment drug ivermectin in product reviews. (The FDA cautioned that taking ivermectin intended for animals was unsafe.)

The discovery of COVID-19 uncovered a range of conspiracy theories:

Warren's letter said that her team looked for the keywords “COVID-19” and “vaccine” on Amazon and discovered that the top result was a book by Florida physician Joseph Mercola, who has been known to promulgate anti-vaccine allegations.

Warren also found that Amazon's search results contained publications that promoted ivermectin and COVID-19 vaccinations, saying they "make people sick and kill them."

Amazon calls Mercola's book a "best seller," yet when NPR searched Amazon for "COVID-19" and "vaccine," the book came up as the top result.

Warren wrote to Amazon, "In just a few searches, this astounding sampling of disinformation was found."

How unscrupulous actors use Amazon listings to scam the system:

Renée DiResta, an expert on disinformation, says that Amazon's algorithms may be manipulated by unscrupulous actors since Amazon enables writers to classify their own books.

"A book on cancer can be categorized as a cancer book if it is about juice and cancer," she said.

The recommendation system on Amazon's website also leads consumers to questionable items, such as what Amazon suggests based on what other shoppers have purchased. DiResta stated, "The recommender system doesn't know what the content is." It is known that those who search for particular words tend to purchase certain items. Amazon's primary business is to sell merchandise.

How does Amazon define the boundary?

Schiff and Warren also want Amazon to provide more clarity on the specific limits they impose on misinformation and conspiracy theories, and the means they use to enforce them.

Schiff said that he was especially troubled by Amazon's lack of transparency when it comes to their vaccination misinformation practices.

He received a statement from Amazon in 2019, which said they "give our consumers with access to a diversity of views." Schiff said.

In this week's letter, he said, "This can't possibly excuse the selling of misleading information that directly endangers your consumers."

"We are continuously reviewing the books we sell to ensure they conform with our content standards," said Amazon spokeswoman Tina Pelkey. "To further assist consumers, we have included links to the CDC's COVID and protective measures on the top of relevant search results pages."

Tech companies are under pressure for more openness from activists as well:

Imran Ahmed, the chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said the world had waited too long to pay attention to Amazon.

In an interview with NPR, he said, "It's the same old tale." It would be easier to hold them accountable if we had more openness. They are not, in reality, free speech platforms, as the opacity of their algorithms, enforcement, regulations, and advertising economics demonstrates.

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