• June 20, 2021

Exclusive: How Amazon Became an Engine For Anti-Vaccine Misinformation

 Exclusive: How Amazon Became an Engine For Anti-Vaccine Misinformation

Type “vaccines” into Amazon’s search bar, and its auto-complete suggests “are dangerous” for your search. But that’s just part of a larger problem, points out Fast Company (in an article shared by Slashdot reader tedlistens).

For example, Amazon’s search results are touting as “best sellers!” many books with some very bad science:

Offered by small publishers or self-published through Amazon’s platform, the books rehearse the falsehoods and conspiracy theories that fuel vaccine opposition, steepening the impact of the pandemic and slowing a global recovery. They also illustrate how the world’s biggest store has become a megaphone for anti-vaccine activists, medical misinformers, and conspiracy theorists, pushing dangerous falsehoods in a medium that carries more apparent legitimacy than just a tweet.

“Without question, Amazon is one of the greatest single promoters of anti-vaccine disinformation, and the world leader in pushing fake anti-vaccine and COVID-19 conspiracy books,” says Peter Hotez, a pediatrician and vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine. For years, journalists and researchers have warned of the ways fraudsters, extremists, and conspiracy theorists use Amazon to earn cash and attention. To Hotez, who has devoted much of his career to educating the public about vaccines, the real-world consequences aren’t academic. In the U.S. and elsewhere, he says, vaccination efforts are now up against a growing ecosystem of activist groups, foreign manipulators, and digital influencers who “peddle fake books on Amazon….”

Gradually, Amazon has taken a tougher approach to content moderation, and to a seemingly ceaseless onslaught of counterfeits, fraud, defective products, and toxic speech… Despite its sweeps, however, Amazon is still flooded with misinformation, and helping amplify it too: A series of recent studies and a review by Fast Company show the bookstore is boosting misinformation around health-related terms like “autism” or “covid,” and nudging customers toward a universe of other conspiracy theory books.

In one audit first published in January, researchers at the University of Washington surveyed Amazon’s search results for four dozen terms related to vaccines. Among 38,000 search results and over 16,000 recommendations, they counted nearly 5,000 unique products containing misinformation, or 10.47% of the total. For books, they found that titles deemed misinformative appeared higher in search results than books that debunked their theories. “Overall, our audits suggest that Amazon has a severe vaccine/health misinformation problem exacerbated by its search and recommendation algorithms,” write Prerna Juneja and Tanushee Mitra in their paper, presented last month at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. “Just a single click on an anti-vaccine book could fill your homepage with several other similar anti-vaccine books…” Like any products on Amazon, or any content across social media platforms, anti-vaccine titles also benefit from an algorithmically-powered ranking system. And despite the company’s aggressive efforts to battle fraud, it’s a system that’s still easily manipulated through false reviews

Much of the uproar about misinformation has focused on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, but Amazon’s role deserves more attention, says Marc Tuters, an assistant professor of new media at the University of Amsterdam, who helped lead the Infodemic.eu study. The retailer sells half of all the books in the U.S. and its brand is highly trusted by consumers.

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