The lies of conspiracy theorist David Icke about COVID-19 has pushed Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Spotify to ban it. But on Amazon, Icke, who believes in the existence of the Lizard People, is recommended reading.
Although filled with disinformation about the pandemic, Icke’s book The answer at one point, ranked 30th on Amazon.com’s bestseller list for communication and media studies. Its popularity is in part due to the e-commerce giant’s powerful recommendation algorithms which suggest The answer and other COVID conspiracy theory books for people looking for basic information about the coronavirus, according to new research shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News.
“Amazon is doing the least, to a substantial extent, of all major platforms to address disinformation and conspiracy theories around the COVID-19 virus,” Marc Tuters, assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, told BuzzFeed News.
“For conspiracy creators and consumers, Amazon.com is a one-stop-shop,” said Tuters, who co-led the team which included researchers and students from King’s College London, the University of Amsterdam and of the Digital Methods Initiative Winter School. , in association with the infodemic.eu project.
The issue highlights how Amazon’s book search and promotion mechanisms often direct customers to the COVID-19 plot titles. Tuters isn’t advocating a book ban, but says Amazon needs to follow the lead of other platforms and raise reliable information about COVID-19.
For about 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 pandemic information, and have removed coronavirus misinformation from their platforms and referral systems. This contrasts sharply with Amazon, where researchers found that books on the COVID conspiracy appeared on the first page of search results for basic terms such as “covid”, “covid-19” and “vaccine.” Amazon also recommended conspiracy books when researchers scoured non-conspiracy books on the virus and related topics.
An Amazon spokesperson said that starting in February 2020, the company placed a banner with a link to resources on COVID-19 when people search for terms related to the pandemic. He started doing the same for vaccines in January.
“We have added links to these sites (eg the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization) at the top of search results pages if a customer is looking for books related to vaccines or the coronavirus,” they declared.
But this feature is not consistent across Amazon’s international stores. Among its English-speaking 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 “vaccine.”
Unlike other platforms, Amazon has not taken steps to completely remove COVID-19 disinformation, or at least from its referral systems.
Amazon’s approach means it profits from sales of the conspiracy theory books, said Evelyn Douek, a Harvard Law School professor who studies the global regulation of online speech.
“There is a strong argument that if you make money 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 the reasons. In January, he deleted books and other merchandise promoting the QAnon mass illusion, and deleted the white supremacist novel. Turner’s Diaries. The Wall Street Journal reported last Friday that the retailer sent a letter to U.S. Senators explaining that it recently decided to stop selling books that link LGBTQ identities to mental illness. He did not say how or why he made this decision.
The Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the reasons the company removed books. “We are investing a lot of time and resources to apply 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 lags far behind other platforms, according to Claire Wardle, co-founder and director of First Draft, a nonprofit that researches disinformation.
“Whether it’s people like David Icke or others, Amazon should have similar types of policies on disinformation” than other platforms, Wardle told BuzzFeed News. “I don’t necessarily want them to be banned, but they should be taken out of recommendation algorithms.”
Amazon’s approach appears to be haphazard and driven by public pressure, which Douek says can do more harm than good.
“It’s a really spectacular way to deal with it,” she said. “Like, we don’t want it to be really based on what they think is controversial or attracts attention. We want there to be clearer standards that are straightforward and that Amazon sticks to, and not just to respond to public pressure. “
The Tuters team identified 20 COVID conspiracy titles, excluding the “COVID skeptical” books that expressed doubts about the origins or nature of the virus, which they tracked through Amazon’s 19 international stores. They found that Amazon’s algorithms and user reviews were helping these fringe books thrive. Tuters said Amazon “directs browsers and buyers, quickly and smoothly, to the conspiratorial rabbit hole.”
With Icke’s The answer, these books include Numbers games: from September 11 to the coronavirus, who argues the pandemic is part of a plot revealed by a digital code; a book that says COVID-19 “was born out of the minds of evil men who seek to depopulate our planet Earth and pursue unlimited control”; and Corona 911: The US Congressional Black Arms Return Channel to Pakistan and China, who claims the coronavirus is a biological weapon with links to U.S. intelligence programs.
They found out that the most recommended book was Operation COVID: what happened, why it happened and what’s next. Co-written by Pamela Popper, a naturopath, it claims that COVID-19 is a “hoax” carried out “by a large network of enemies of people who have managed to disguise themselves as officials, medical professionals and founders and heads of non-profits. “
When BuzzFeed News viewed the book on Amazon.com, the site recommended the purchase. COVID operation accompanied by a book entitled Anyone who tells you that vaccines are safe and effective is lying.
Although the company’s spokesperson said the book recommendations are based on customer behavior, Tuters argued that Amazon should prevent its algorithm from recommending conspiracy books to customers. “I understand why people are afraid or reluctant to censor books,” he said. “You could change the way recommendations work. You could downgrade [the books] or you could even separate them completely from the recommendations.
Besides algorithmic promotion, the research also revealed a pipeline from YouTube to COVID conspiracy books, which people have repeatedly mentioned having purchased after hearing about them on YouTube.
“The review space functions as a sort of social media in its own right and people organize themselves in these review spaces – they engage with each other,” Tuters said.
It’s similar to the YouTube problem, Douek said. The video platform has struggled to stop recommending harmful or conspiracy theory-focused videos, but viewers are still finding them on other social media.
“It’s like the human centipede of disinformation,” she said.
The problems touched more than books written by conspiracy theorists. People have learned the referral system to process The big reset, a book co-authored by the president of the World Economic Forum, as if filled with conspiracy theories. The book calls for economic and social action “to create a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable world” after the pandemic.
Conspiracy theorists focused on the book, claiming it is proof of the global elite’s nefarious plan to use COVID-19 to control the world. Based on his reviews and suggestions for related books, people browsing the book’s page on Amazon sites might think this is his real message.
“It’s not a conspiracy theory book, but it’s sort of valued by Amazon’s algorithm as a conspiracy theory book,” Tuters said. “One of the first times I encountered this book, [Amazon] I tried to pair it with an explicit conspiracy theory book to buy.
Wardle said customer reviews are a particularly important credibility signal on a site like Amazon.
“There’s something distinct here about Amazon and shopping, that it’s the same look and feel that we use to decide which Instant Pot to buy,” she said. ●