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,” 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.”
Tuters’ team identified 20 COVID conspiracy titles, excluding “COVID skeptic” books that expressed doubts about the origins or nature of the virus, which they tracked across Amazon’s 19 international stores. They found that Amazon’s algorithms and user reviews helped those fringe books thrive. Tuters said Amazon is “directing browsers and buyers, speedily and smoothly, down the conspiratorial rabbit hole.”
Along with Icke’s The Answer, those books include Number Games: 9/11 to Coronavirus, which argues the pandemic is part of a conspiracy revealed by a numeric code; a book that says COVID-19 “spawned from the minds of evil men who seek to depopulate our planet Earth and pursue unlimited control”; and Corona 911: The Dark Weapons Backchannel to Pakistan and China From the US Congress, which claims the coronavirus is a biological weapon with connections to US intelligence programs.
They found that the most-recommended book was COVID Operation: What Happened, Why It Happened, and What’s Next. Coauthored by Pamela Popper, a naturopath, it claims COVID-19 is a “hoax” perpetrated “by a wide network of enemies of the people who have managed to disguise themselves as public servants, health professionals, and founders and heads of global non-profits.”
When BuzzFeed News viewed the book on Amazon.com, the site recommended purchasing COVID Operation together with a book titled Anyone Who Tells You Vaccines Are Safe and Effective Is Lying.
Although the company spokesperson said book recommendations are based on customer behavior, Tuters argued Amazon should prevent its algorithm from recommending conspiracy books to customers. “I understand why people are scared or squeamish about censoring books,” he said. “You could change the way the recommendations work. You could demote [the books] or you could even sever them from the recommendations altogether.”
Aside from algorithmic promotion, the research also revealed a pipeline from YouTube to COVID conspiracy books, which people repeatedly mentioned purchasing after learning about them on YouTube.
“The review space functions as a kind of social media in its own right and people organize in these review spaces — they’re in dialogue with one another,” Tuters said.
This is similar to the problem YouTube has, douek said. The video platform has worked to stop recommending harmful or conspiracy theory-focused videos, but viewers still find them on other social media.
“It’s like the human centipede of misinformation,” she said.
The problems affected more than just books written by conspiracy theorists. People have taught the recommendation system to treat The Great Reset, a book coauthored by the head of the World Economic Forum, as if it were filled with conspiracy theories. The book advocates for economic and social action “to create a more inclusive, resilient and sustainable world” after the pandemic.
Conspiracy theorists have fixated on the book, arguing that it’s proof of the global elite’s nefarious plan to use COVID-19 to control the world. Based on its reviews and related book suggestions, people browsing the book’s page on Amazon’s sites could come away thinking that’s its actual message.
“It’s not a conspiracy theory book, but it is kind of valorized by Amazon’s algorithm as a conspiracy theory book,” Tuters said. “One of the first times I encountered that book, [Amazon] tried to bundle it with an explicitly conspiracy theory book for me to purchase.”
Wardle said customer reviews are a uniquely important signal of credibility on a site like Amazon.
“There’s something distinct here about Amazon and purchasing, how it’s the same look and feel of the thing that we use to decide which Instant Pot to buy,” she said. ●