In a six-page letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Sen. Elizabeth Warren expressed concerns that the “search and ‘Best Seller’ algorithms” on the online retail giant’s website are spreading misinformation about vaccines and the treatment of COVID-19.
“Alarmingly, Amazon—the nation’s leading online retailer—and the company’s search algorithms appear to contribute to the spread of COVID-19 misinformation,” Warren wrote in the letter dated Sept. 7.
“During the week of August 22, 2021, my staff conducted sample searches on Amazon.com of pandemic-related terms such as ‘COVID-19,’ ‘COVID,’ ‘vaccine,’ ‘COVID 19 vaccine,’ and ‘pandemic.’ The top results consistently included highly-ranked and favorably-tagged books based on falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures.”
Amazon’s public relations department didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Warren, who has been a frequent critic of the power and reach of the nation’s big four tech companies — Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple — told Jassy that this is not the first time this year that Amazon has been a platform for misinformation.
“This is the second time in six months that I have identified Amazon practices that mislead consumers about COVID-19 prevention or treatment: earlier this year, I wrote regarding concerns that the company is providing consumers with false and misleading information about FDA-authorized KN95 masks,” Warren wrote.
“This pattern and practice of misbehavior suggest that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products—an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers.”
In July, Amazon launched its own home vaccine kit. That $39.95 kit, along with Amazon’s in-house COVID-19 program which has tested more than 750,000 employees, reveals the company’s considerable focus on the pandemic.
Warren conceded that the company, “does not appear to have any ‘sponsored’ search results for pandemic-related terms, as it did for KN95 masks, although it does rely heavily on the ‘Best Seller’ tag.” She also acknowledged that Amazon does direct users to helpful information about the spread of the virus with links to the Food and Drug Administration’s website.
But Warren was sharply critical of the website’s top ranking of COVID misinformation peddlers Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins and their book called “The Truth About COVID-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal.”
“Not only was this book the top result when searching either ‘COVID-19’ or ‘vaccine’ in the categories of ‘All Departments’ and ‘Books’ it was tagged as a ‘Best Seller’ by Amazon and the ‘#1 Best Seller’ in the ‘Political Freedom category,’ the Massachusetts Democrat wrote.
In conclusion, she asked Jassy four questions she’d like answered by Sept. 22:
- What are Amazon’s existing policies regarding the listing, promotion, and sale of books and other products containing COVID-19 misinformation on its platform?
- What specific actions has Amazon taken to address the spread of COVID-19 misinformation via search results or other uses of its platform?
- Why do Amazon’s search algorithms prominently list books with COVID-19 misinformation?
- Why do books with COVID-19 misinformation receive “Best Seller” tags from Amazon? What criteria does Amazon use to award these tags, and what steps does Amazon take to highlight products containing the tag?
It remains unclear if Jassy, who took over as CEO in July, will be responding to the queries.