Amazon books offering pseudoscience about vaccines

Amazon and other companies should take steps to ensure that their algorithms do not point the public to junk science, but they can also make a choice about what they sell, says expert

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OTTAWA – Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines is not only sent by social media – it can also be sent to your front door with a day’s delivery in paper books full of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

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When you search on Amazon, the world’s largest bookstore, almost all of the best results are books that argue against the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. In particular, COVID-19 vaccines are targeted by many of the titles as part of a “major reset.”

The best results include books that suggest that vaccines are “Poisoning the population, one shot at a time,” as a title indicates, or that vaccines are part of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “Biometric Vaccine Totalitarian Agenda.” A title near the top of Amazon’s search results is blunt: “Anyone who tells you that vaccines are safe and effective is lying.”

Timothy Caulfield, a professor at the University of Alberta who holds the Canada Research Chair in health legislation and policy, says books on pseudoscience are all too common on health issues.

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‘It is an overlooked source of misinformation. These algorithms used to select books for you push misinformation, ”he said.

Caulfield said the algorithms that drive web searches on sites like Amazon, as well as Google and Facebook, can create an ecosystem that points people toward bad information.

“These algorithms are used to create the search results, they create our universe, they create our information universe.”

Canada’s vaccine program is poised to move into a new phase this week with the arrival of 2.9 million vaccines for children ages five to 11. Health Canada approved the vaccines Friday after reviewing clinical trials and production information.

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Caulfield, who has written his own book on vaccines, said people’s desire for alternatives and miracle cures is strong in health care, and as a result, there are many books with poor information.

“Because of that tolerance for pseudoscience, we have all these products out there. And that obviously does enormous damage,” he said. “The message is that tolerance for pseudoscience has real consequences, and we’re seeing that now.”

Screenshot of the best book results taken from Amazon.ca for 'COVID Vaccine' contains conspiracies.
Screenshot of the best book results taken from Amazon.ca for ‘COVID Vaccine’ contains conspiracies.

By comparison, Amazon offers results for such other topics as climate change or the January 6 attack on U.S. Capitol titles that would more likely stand up to a fact-checker. Caulfield said people have always been more tolerant of alternative means of health care than they would be in any other area. “We do not have alternative engineers building bridges for us. We do not have aircraft with life force flying us between cities.”

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He said the health community could also help the situation by publishing more in commercially available books and not just in academic or scientific journals.

“One of the best ways to combat misinformation is to flood pop culture with accurate information with engaging, divisible content that is scientifically accurate.”

Amazon posts a link at the top of its results page to topics related to COVID-19 with information from Health Canada on vaccine efficacy and safety.

In a statement, the company said it provides a variety of views and is always looking to improve the service.

Screenshot of prominent book results for 'COVID vaccine' on amazon.ca
Screenshot of prominent book results for ‘COVID vaccine’ on amazon.ca

“Like other stores that sell books, we give our customers access to a variety of views. We are committed to providing a positive customer experience and have policies that outline what products may be sold in our stores,” the statement read. “Our shopping and discovery tools are not designed to generate results oriented to a particular point of view, and we always listen to customer feedback.”

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The company has its own publishing platform that allows authors to publish to its Kindle e-reader and has content guidelines for the service, which bans pornography, hate speech and the promotion of terrorism, among other things.

Caulfield said Amazon and other companies should take steps to ensure that their algorithms do not point the public toward junk science, but they can also make a choice about what they sell.

“They have no obligation to help these people sell misinformation that harms people,” he said. “They do not have an obligation to market harmful things.”

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Email: rtumilty@postmedia.com

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