Several lawmakers are pushing back against Amazon after finding its top products related to Covid-19 and vaccination promote misinformation—an issue that has also plagued other prominent technology companies and websites in recent months.
Amazon algorithms promote products with Covid-19 misinformation
According to NPR, investigations from academic researchers and journalists in recent months have found that Amazon's algorithms promote books with Covid-19 misinformation, including false anti-vaccination claims and conspiracy theories.
For example, the top result for "Covid-19" and the third result for "vaccine" on Amazon is currently a book by Joseph Mercola, a Florida physician who has promoted several disproven claims about the Covid-19 vaccines, NPR reports.
The investigations also found that many people have managed to bypass rules against promoting false cures in product reviews, such as for ivermectin (an anti-parasite drug for animals) that FDA has expressly warned people not to take.
According to Renée DiResta, who studies misinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory, "bad actors" can manipulate Amazon's systems to promote misinformation because they can categorize their own books.
"If you write a book about cancer and argue juice cures cancer, you can categorize your book as a cancer book, and it can end up No. 1 in Amazon's oncology section," she said.
In addition, DiResta said that Amazon recommending products to shoppers based on what others have purchased is another area of concern. "The recommender system doesn't have an awareness of what the content is," she said. "It just understands that people searching for certain terms buy certain products. Amazon's business is to sell products."
Lawmakers push back against Amazon
Lawmakers including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have pushed back against Amazon's practices. Both have sent letters to Amazon's CEO Andy Jassy asking about the company's misinformation policies and its efforts to prevent its algorithms from recommending products associated with Covid-19 misinformation.
In his letter, Schiff wrote, "Amazon is directly profiting from the sensationalism of anti-vaccine misinformation, while these conspiracy theories continue to directly contribute to Covid-19 deaths."
In particular, Schiff said he was concerned that Amazon's content guidelines do not include policies on vaccine misinformation.
While Amazon had previously told Schiff that it "provide[s] our customers with access to a variety of viewpoints," he said this stance "cannot possibly justify the sale of false information that directly endangers your customers."
In her own letter, Warren said Amazon was "either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products."
When Warren's staff searched for products related to Covid-19 or vaccines on Amazon, she said they found several books promoting ivermectin or claiming that vaccines were "making people sick and killing them."
"Collectively, this is an astonishing sample of misinformation that appeared in only a few potential searches relating to COVID-19," Warren said.
In response, Tina Pelkey, a spokesperson for Amazon, said, "We are constantly evaluating the books we list to ensure they comply with our content guidelines, and as an additional service to customers, at the top of relevant search results pages we link to the CDC advice on Covid and protection measures."
A broader 'erosion of truth' online
Several other prominent technology companies, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, have also been criticized for how they have handled health misinformation during the pandemic—which has since become a broad problem online.
According to NewsGuard, a firm that rates the credibility of popular news and information websites in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy, more than 500 websites have promoted misinformation about the coronavirus.
Of the more than 6,700 websites analyzed, 519 have published false information about Covid-19, and several were "created to specifically spread misinformation," according to the company. Some of the top 50 Covid-19 vaccine myths identified by NewsGuard include claims that they change people's DNA, lead to infertility, or would create new variants of the coronavirus.
"It's become virtually impossible for people to tell the difference between a generally reliable site and an untrustworthy site," Gordon Crovitz, co-founder of NewsGuard, said. "And that is why there is such a big business in publishing this information."
In addition, NewsGuard found that 339 of the 519 sites promoting misinformation have primarily American audiences—and some have become more popular than trustworthy sources of Covid-19 information.
For example, NewsGuard found that Children's Health Defense, an anti-vaccine advocacy group, received more engagement in the past 90 days than CDC and NIH.
"We've rated all the news and information sources that account for 97% of engagement in the U.S. Of those, 7% are publishing Covid misinformation," Crovitz said. "That's as if 7% of all cereal boxes contained strychnine and the cereal companies said, 'Well, it's only 7%.'"
"What we've seen in the last 20 months is an erosion of trust, an erosion of science, and an erosion of the truth," said Andy Pattison, team lead for digital channels at the World Health Organization's Digital Health and Innovation Department. "And I think that's really scary." (Bond, NPR, 9/9; Funke, USA Today, 9/8)