Amazon is under pressure from Democrats in Congress over how its algorithms promote hoax COVID-19 cures, including the livestock de-wormer ivermectin, as well as anti-vaccination claims and other medical misinformation.
Rep. Adam Schiff of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts sent letters this week to CEO Andy Jassy pressing for information on Amazon’s misinformation policies and what the company is doing to stop its systems from recommending books and other products linked to falsehoods about the pandemic and vaccines.
“Amazon is directly profiting from the sensationalism of anti-vaccine misinformation, while these conspiracy theories continue to directly contribute to COVID-19 deaths,” Schiff wrote.
Warren accused the ecommerce giant of being “either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products.”
But that appears to be changing, following a series of investigations in recent months from academics and journalists. They have show Amazon’s algorithms promote books with false anti-vaccination claims and COVID conspiracy theories, and have found people are easily able to evade rules against promoting false cures in product reviews, such as for the anti-parasite drug ivermectin. (The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has warned against taking formulations of ivermectin meant for animals.)
Warren’s letter said when her staff conducted its own searches on Amazon for terms including “COVID-19” and “vaccine,” they found the top result was a book by Joseph Mercola, a Florida physician who has long promoted debunked claims about vaccines.
Other results for “COVID-19” or “COVID 19 vaccine” on Amazon included books touting ivermectin and claiming COVID vaccines were “making people sick and killing them,” Warren wrote.
Mercola’s book, which Amazon labels as a “best seller,” appeared on Thursday as the top result when NPR searched Amazon for “COVID-19” and as the third result for “vaccine.”
“Collectively, this is an astonishing sample of misinformation that appeared in only a few potential searches relating to COVID-19,” Warren wrote to Amazon.
Both lawmakers want Amazon to give more detail about where it draws the line on misinformation and conspiracy theories and how it enforces those rules.
Schiff said he was particularly concerned that Amazon’s content guidelines do not spell out its policies on vaccine misinformation.
In response to a letter he sent in 2019 asking about Amazon’s policies on anti-vaccination claims, the company told him it “provide[s] our customers with access to a variety of viewpoints,” Schiff wrote.
“This cannot possibly justify the sale of false information that directly endangers your customers,” he wrote in this week’s letter.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Tina Pelkey 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.”
The focus on Amazon is overdue, said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a group that tracks COVID-19 misinformation online.
“It’s the same story we’ve seen across Big Tech,” he told NPR. “If we had more transparency, we’d be able to hold them to account. Because right now they hide behind the opacity of just saying that they are free speech platforms, when in fact we know their algorithms, their enforcement, the rules and their advertising economics show that they’re not free speech platforms.”
Editor’s note: Amazon is among NPR’s financial supporters.