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Senator Warren urges Amazon to tackle COVID-19 misinformation

A month before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the West in March 2020, Amazon pledged to remove products that claimed to cure the coronavirus. However, items that promote misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines are still appearing in search results on the Amazon storefront, according to Senator Elizabeth Warren.

The senator’s staff found that searches for terms including “COVID-19,” “COVID,” “vaccine,” “COVID-19 vaccine” and “pandemic” led to results such as books peddling “falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures,” including at least one that Amazon tagged as a best seller. Engadget was able to replicate some of the search results Warren flagged.

In a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, which was spotted by CNBC, Warren urged the company to review Amazon’s algorithms. She called on Jassy to, within 14 days, detail a plan to modify the algorithms so they no longer turn up products that include COVID-19 misinformation, and to release a public report on “the extent to which Amazon’s algorithms are directing consumers” to such items at the moment.

In addition, Warren sought clarification on Amazon’s current policies about those products and what the company has done to tackle the spread of false information. She also wants to know more details about the best-seller tag, and why books containing COVID-19 misinformation are being awarded the label.

Warren acknowledged that Amazon has provided its users with resources for accurate information about COVID-19, including prominent links to the Food and Drug Administration website. Her staff see any instances of Amazon displaying sponsored search results for pandemic-related terms either. However, she said her team’s findings were otherwise “deeply troubling.”

“As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, Amazon is feeding misinformation loops through its search and ‘Best Seller’ algorithms, potentially leading countless Americans to risk their health and the health of their neighbors based on misleading and inaccurate information that they discover on Amazon’s website,” Warren wrote. 

“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,” an Amazon spokesperson told Engadget.

Every major online platform has struggled to keep a lid on COVID-19 misinformation. Most have prohibited users from peddling mistruths and suspended or banned many accounts that broke the rules.

Update 9/9 10AM ET: Added a statement from Amazon.

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