Frontlist | Amazon Is Pushing Readers Down A “Rabbit Hole” Of Conspiracy Theories About The Coronavirus
Conspiracy theorist David Icke’s lies about COVID-19 caused Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Spotify to ban him. But on Amazon, Icke, who believes in the existence of lizard people, is recommended reading.
Despite being filled with misinformation about the pandemic, Icke’s book The Answer at one point ranked 30th on Amazon.com’s bestseller list for Communication & Media Studies. Its popularity is partly thanks to the e-commerce giant’s powerful recommendation algorithms that suggest The Answer and other COVID conspiracy theory books to people searching for basic information about the coronavirus, according to new research shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News.
“Amazon is doing the least, by a substantial measure, of any of the major platforms to deal with the misinformation and conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 virus.”
“Amazon is doing the least, by a substantial measure, of any of the major platforms to deal with the misinformation and conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 virus,” Marc Tuters, an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, told BuzzFeed News.
“For creators and consumers of conspiracies, Amazon.com is a one-stop shop,” said Tuters, who co-led the team that included researchers and students at King’s College London, the University of Amsterdam, and the Digital Methods Initiative Winter School, in association with the infodemic.eu project.
The problem highlights how Amazon’s search and book promotion mechanisms often direct customers to COVID-19 conspiracy titles. Tuters does not advocate for banning the books but says Amazon needs to follow the lead of other platforms and elevate reliable information about COVID-19.
For roughly a year, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, and Twitter have placed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines at the top of results pages when people search for information about the pandemic, and removed coronavirus misinformation from their platforms and their recommendation systems. This stands in stark contrast to Amazon, where researchers found that COVID conspiracy books have appeared on the first page of search results for basic terms like “covid,” “covid-19,” and “vaccine.” Amazon also recommended conspiracy books when the researchers browsed non-conspiratorial books about the virus and related topics.
An Amazon spokesperson said that beginning in February 2020, the company placed a banner with a link to resources about COVID-19 when people search for terms related to the pandemic. It began doing the same for vaccines this January.
“We’ve added links to these sites (ex. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization) at the top of the search result pages if a customer searches for books related to vaccines or the coronavirus,” they said.
But this feature is not consistent across Amazon’s international stores. Of its English-language stores, Amazon Canada and Singapore did not display government resources when searching for “covid” or “vaccine.” The company’s store in the United Arab Emirates showed them when searching for “covid” but not for “vaccine.”
Unlike other platforms, Amazon has not taken steps to remove COVID-19 misinformation entirely, or at least from its recommendation systems.
Amazon’s approach means it’s profiting from sales of the conspiracy theory books, said evelyn douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies global regulation of online speech.
“There’s a strong argument that if you’re making money off it, you should take more responsibility,” said douek.
Amazon’s content guidelines for books reserve the right to remove any “material we deem inappropriate or offensive.” Although it has taken action against some books, the company is rarely transparent about why. In January, it removed books and other merchandise promoting the QAnon mass delusion, and removed the white supremacist novel The Turner Diaries. Last Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the retailer sent a letter to US senators explaining that it recently decided to stop selling books that link LGBTQ identities to mental illness. It did not say how or why it came to that decision.
The Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the company’s reasons for removing books. “We invest significant time and resources to enforce these guidelines, using a combination of machine learning, automation, and dedicated teams of human reviewers,” they said.
The prevalence of COVID conspiracy books suggests it’s far behind other platforms, according to Claire Wardle, cofounder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit organization that researches misinformation.
“Whether it’s people like David Icke or others, Amazon should have similar types of policies around misinformation” as other platforms, Wardle told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t necessarily want them to be banned, but they should be taken out of the recommendation algorithms.”
Amazon’s approach appears to be haphazard and driven by public pressure, which douek said can do more harm than good.
“That’s a really spectacularly bad way of dealing with that,” she said. “Like, we don’t want it to be truly on the base of what they think is controversial or attracts attention. We want there to be clearer standards, that are upfront and that Amazon’s tying itself to, not just responding to public pressure.”