- Books on the anti-vaxx and COVID-19 conspiracy feature prominently in Amazon search rankings.
- As social media companies increasingly shy away from anti-vaxxer material, Amazon has done little.
- Experts and activists told Insider this is having a real impact on people’s health.
- See more stories on the Insider business page.
Books promoting COVID-19 and anti-vaxxer misinformation are prominently displayed on Amazon’s U.S. Bookstore, making the site a haven for the personalities that social media platforms are increasingly banning.
An Insider review of pandemic-related terms on the store showed how misleading headlines continue to occupy the lucrative first page of the retailer’s search results.
They continue to occupy prominent places despite warnings from experts that they are causing damage in the real world.
Surprisingly, a book by one of the nation’s most censored disinformation profiteers, Dr. Joseph Mercola, emerged as the first result of both “COVID” and “vaccines” research conducted by Insider.
The searches were carried out with browsers in “incognito” mode and a search history deleted in order to limit the number of variables informing the results.
Non-conspiracy books also get high search rankings. But they do share the space with misleading headlines, including “Anyone Who Tells You Vaccines Are Safe and Effective Lies.”
The results seem to imply that questioning the safety of vaccines and the motivations of those who provide them is dominant, when in fact it is almost entirely confined to marginal numbers.
“The concern is that Amazon decides for the public what is relevant when they research, for example, 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 crackdown on disinformation, with YouTube last week announcing a total ban on anti-vaccine content.
In early September, Senator Elizabeth Warren led a Democratic charge against Amazon, writing to CEO Andy Jassy asking for an immediate review of the company’s algorithms and accusing him of “peddling disinformation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff also wrote to Facebook and Amazon about it, saying “lives are at stake.”
—Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) September 9, 2021
An Amazon spokesperson told Insider that the company recognizes “that there are hotly debated headlines in our store and different views on where to draw the line protecting free speech.”
The company “removes products that do not meet 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 investigate it promptly. “
A triumph of disinformation
In April, the CCDH named Dr Joseph Mercola among its so-called “dozen disinformation” – a small group, he said, was responsible for up to 65% of all anti-vaxxer misinformation consumed online.
Mercola was nicknamed by The New York Times, “the most influential broadcaster of coronavirus disinformation 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 has been declared a “lucrative conspiratorial fever dream” and “monumentally false” in a journal from McGill University’s Office of Science and Society.
At the time of writing, this was 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 for Amazon’s Audible audiobook app can have it for free – saving $ 14.99 off the price of the hardcover. (The number of results Amazon shows on a first page may vary depending on device and browser settings – these all appeared in the top 50 results.)
Mercola’s title is not an outlier. Other headlines listed in front page searches – and often tempting offers – under the terms “COVID” and “vaccines” include:
- “COVID-19 and global predators: we are the prey” (13th in a search for “COVID”)
- “Is COVID-19 a biological weapon? : 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 headline from Dr Christiane Northrup – another member of the disinformation dozen – pops up prominently, as does that of conspiracy theorist Dr Simone Gold.
It is not clear how Amazon’s algorithm works and results may vary from day to day as well as depending on the researcher’s history.
In 2018, digital marketing publication Calculated search engine log from Amazon data that 70% of its customers don’t click past the first page of results. 35% clicks on the first product displayed, the point of sale reported.
Censorship the market?
Professor Timothy Caulfield is the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta in Canada and the author of several books on the impact of pseudoscience and disinformation on health.
He compared Amazon’s situation to that of social media companies.
“I think one of the reasons [Amazon is] escaping this intense scrutiny is because they don’t feel as much as an information provider. ‘We’re just a store,’ “he paraphrased.
He strongly rejected Amazon’s suggestion that taking action against what the company called “hotly debated headlines” could endanger free speech.
“Businesses make decisions about what you see all the time, they are private players and they can decide what they are going to see all the time,” he said.
“So for Amazon to make a decision on how they’re going to treat these kinds of headlines, if they’re going to treat these kinds of headlines more carefully, that’s not censorship, is it. no. It’s just a company policy. “
Ahmed of the CCDH told Insider that its status as a store even gives Amazon an edge over social media companies in regulating harmful content.
Social media companies can’t say in advance what people are going to say, 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 surge in misinformation and vaccine hesitancy rates.
“I think there is no doubt that this link exists,” he said. “And that alone could cost people their lives.
“You know, killing people.”