Amazon prominently touts work by anti-vaxxers and COVID conspiracy theorists, even after other platforms cut them off
- Anti-vaxx and COVID-19 conspiracist books loom large in Amazon search rankings.
- As social media companies increasingly shun anti-vaxxer material, Amazon has done little.
- Experts and campaigners told Insider this is having a real-world impact on people's health.
Books pushing COVID-19 and anti-vaxxer misinformation are displayed prominently on Amazon's US bookstore, making the site a haven for figures whom social-media platforms are increasingly banning.
A review by Insider of pandemic-related terms on the store showed how deeply misleading titles continue to occupy the retailer's lucrative first page of search results.
They continue to occupy prominent spots despite expert warnings that they lead to real-world harm.
Strikingly, a book by one of the country's most censured misinformation profiteers, Dr Joseph Mercola, appeared as the top result in the search for both "COVID" and "vaccines" conducted by Insider.
The searches were conducted with browsers in "incognito" mode and a deleted search history in order to limit the number of variables informing the results.
Non-conspiracist books also get high search rankings. But they share space with misleading titles, including "Anyone Who Tells You Vaccines Are Safe and Effective is Lying."
The results would seem to imply that questioning vaccine safety and the motives of those providing them is a mainstream position, when in fact it is almost entirely confined to fringe figures.
"The concern is that Amazon gets to decide for the public what is relevant when they're searching for, say, vaccines," Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) told Insider.
"And the first thing that pops up is misinformation."
The findings come after several social media companies tightened their clampdown on misinformation, with YouTube announcing last week a total ban on anti-vaccine content.
In early September, Sen. Elizabeth Warren led a Democratic charge against Amazon, writing to CEO Andy Jassy requesting an immediate review of the company's algorithms and accusing it of "peddling misinformation."
Rep. Adam Schiff also wrote to both Facebook and Amazon over the issue, saying "lives are on the line."
-Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) September 9, 2021
An Amazon spokesperson told Insider that the company recognizes "that there are heavily debated titles in our store and different views on where to draw the line protecting freedom of expression."
The company "removes products that do not adhere to our guidelines" and puts links to authoritative sources at the top of its COVID-19-related pages, the spokesperson said.
"When a concern is raised we promptly investigate it."
A triumph of misinformation
In April, CCDH named Dr Joseph Mercola among its so-called "disinformation dozen" - a small group it said was responsible for up to 65% of all anti-vaxxer misinformation consumed online.
Mercola was dubbed by The New York Times, "the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online."
He has a book for sale, called "The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing The Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal."
It was declared a "lucrative, conspiratorial fever dream" and "monumentally wrong" in a review from McGill University's Office for Science and Society.
At time of writing, it came up as Amazon's first recommendation for "COVID" and "vaccines."
It is also no. 13 on the site's bestseller list, and is rated five stars by buyers. Buyers who opt in to Amazon's Audible audio book app can have it for free - saving $14.99 on the hardcover price. (The number of results Amazon displays on a first page can vary by device and browser settings - these all appeared within the first 50 results.)
Mercola's title is not an outlier. Other titles given first-page search rankings - and often tempting deals - under the terms "COVID" and "vaccines" include:
- "COVID-19 and the Global Predators: We Are the Prey" (13th in a search for "COVID")
- "Is COVID-19 a Bioweapon?: A Scientific and Forensic investigation" (2nd in a search for "COVID")
- "Vaccine-nation: Poisoning the Population, One Shot at a Time" (7th in a search for "vaccines")
- "Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children" (10th in a search for "vaccines")
- "Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines" (24th in a search for "vaccines")
A title by Dr. Christiane Northrup - another member of the disinformation dozen - appears prominently, as does one by conspiracy theorist Dr Simone Gold.
The workings of Amazon's algorithm is not clear, and results can vary day-to-day as well as according to the searcher's history.
In 2018, digital marketing publication Search Engine Journal calculated from Amazon data that 70% of its customers don't click past the first page of results. 35% click on the first product shown, the outlet reported.
Censoring the marketplace?
Prof Timothy Caulfield is the research director of the University of Alberta's Health Law Institute in Canada, and the author of several books on the impact of health pseudoscience and misinformation.
He compared Amazon's situation to that of social media companies.
"I think that one of the reasons [Amazon is] escaping that intensity of scrutiny is because they don't feel as much as an information provider. 'We're just a store,'" he paraphrased.
He firmly rejected Amazon's suggestion that taking action over what the company called "heavily debated titles" might endanger freedom of expression.
"Companies make decisions about what you see all the time, they're private actors, and they can decide what they're going to see all the time," he said.
"So for Amazon to make a decision about how they're going to treat those kinds of titles, if they're going to treat those kinds of titles with more care, that's not censorship, right. That's just a corporate policy."
Ahmed, of the CCDH, told Insider that its status as a store even gives Amazon an advantage over social media companies in regulating harmful content.
Social media companies can't tell what people are going to say in advance, he said. But Amazon can easily check what the books say before selling them, if it wants to.
Caulfield told Insider that researchers have found you can draw a line between the pushing of misinformation and rates of vaccine hesitancy.
"I think there's no doubt that that connection is there," he said. "And that alone could be costing people's lives.
"You know, killing people."
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