(May 14, 2021) Amazon, the world’s largest online marketplace uses algorithms as part of its sales strategy, artificial intelligence that might give the consumer tips on another good book about gardening, but also advances dangerous misinformation for profit.
The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which studies extremism and polarization, just released a study, Amazon’s algorithms, conspiracy theories and extremist literature, conducted by researchers Prenera Juneja and Tanushree Mitra at the University of Washington which concluded that “10.47% of Amazon’s search results on key terms related to vaccines include health misinformation, and that misinformation results rank more highly than debunking results.”
The algorithms in question are by nature not inherently destructive, merely designed to help users find other products or books that share a similar description or of a similar topic. If an avid gardener to were to search for a book about orchids, they would experience suggestions in line with that topic. The issue is that these same algorithms are promoting the same extreme content that is fueling conspiracy theories, theories which are rapidly becoming involved in the mainstream political dialogue.
Protesters that rail against public health measures are a symptom of a larger population consuming this material, and prominent politicians in both Canada and the United States will not outright disavow these theories, knowing that there is a base of support for them.
The conspiracy theories promoted in the online marketplace as well are coming closer to becoming mainstream. Books with titles suggesting conspiracies surrounding vaccines fill Amazon’s digital shelves, making up at least one in ten of all search results. Available medical information like vaccines contain information not certified by the medical establishment, and those search results are clicked on more than those which contain accurate, correct information. From a profit driven perspective, it would make sense that a company like Amazon would not make an ethical distinction and Amazon had been on the fence of allowing one of these books to be available, and quietly decided that indeed a book promoting lies about COVID-19 was acceptable content to publish. The author of one of such title was then touted on Fox News as an example of success against censorship. (The same book is also available on the Apple store and Barnes and Noble.)
It seems while there is a demand for these products and therefor profit, conspiracy theories will flourish in the mainstream marketplace.
As researchers Prenera Juneja and Tanushree Mitra say,
"The question of whether these books should be sold on Amazon’s platform is a contentious one. Book banning has a long and complex history, and there are good reasons to be wary of it. However, the question
of whether Amazon should actively promote books containing potentially harmful content to its customers is arguably a separate and, in some ways, simpler issue. Removing recommendations for books that espouse conspiracy theories, disinformation or extremist viewpoints could go a long way towards reducing their reach, and thereby reducing the spread of this content."
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