Senator and congressman condemn Amazon for promoting anti-vaxxer books

Elizabeth Warren and Adam Schiff have written to complain about search algorithms that appear to spread misinformation

American senator Elizabeth Warren has accused Amazon of “peddling misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines and treatments” through its search and bestseller algorithms, after the online retail giant pushed a book by an author the New York Times called “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online”.

Searching for Covid-19 on the site gives the top result as Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins’s The Truth About Covid-19, a title that claims to reveal how the “effectiveness of the vaccines has been wildly exaggerated”, how the virus was lab-engineered in Wuhan, and how “safe, simple, and inexpensive treatment and prevention for Covid-19 have been censored and suppressed to create a clear path for vaccine acceptance”.

Warren has written to Amazon’s chief executive Andy Jassy over her concerns that the online retailer’s search algorithms “appear to contribute to the spread of Covid-19 misinformation”. The Massachusetts senator pointed to research from her staff, which found that searches on pandemic-related topics “consistently included highly ranked and favourably tagged books based on falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines and cures”.

Other titles appearing high in Amazon.com’s search results include Reversing the Side Effects of the Covid-19 Vaccine, and Heal Covid-19 on Your Own, said Warren. “Collectively, this is an astonishing sample of misinformation,” said the senator, describing it as “deeply troubling” that Amazon is “potentially leading countless Americans to risk their health and the health of their neighbours based on misleading and inaccurate information that they discover on Amazon’s website”.

She called on the retailer to perform an immediate review of its algorithms, to report publicly on the extent to which it is directing consumers to books containing misinformation, and to lay out a plan to modify its algorithms so that they no longer do so.

Warren was joined in her attack by Adam Schiff, a California congressman, who wrote to Jassy about his concerns that as long as anti-vaccine products remain on the site, “Amazon is directly profiting from the sensationalism of anti-vaccine misinformation, while these conspiracy theories continue to directly contribute to Covid-19 deaths”.

Schiff called on Amazon to lay out the steps it is taking to ensure its recommendations are not used to promote misleading health information.

In a statement, Amazon told NPR that “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.”

Earlier this year, Amazon stopped selling books that frame gay, lesbian, transgender and other sexual and gender identities as mental illness, while saying that “we provide our customers with access to a variety of viewpoints, including books that some customers may find objectionable.”

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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