Senator Elizabeth Warren says Amazon’s search algorithm is actively ‘peddling misinformation’ about COVID-19

Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, or AWS, the retail giant's cloud-computing business.
Andy Jassy Mike Blake/Reuters
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has asked Amazon to provide details about COVID-19 misinformation on its platform.
  • The senator is asking how its algorithms work and how Amazon intends to crack down on false COVID-19 narratives.
  • Lawmakers have been pushing large tech companies for more transparency and oversight in their technologies.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Amazon is facing more scrutiny from Washington over the spread of COVID-19 misinformation on its marketplace platform.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter on Tuesday to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, saying the company’s search engine is “peddling misinformation” about COVID-19 and its vaccines as the Delta variant of the virus spreads.

“This pattern and practice of misbehavior suggests that Amazon is either unwilling or unable to modify its business practices to prevent the spread of falsehoods or the sale of inappropriate products,” Warren said in the letter. “An unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers,” she said in the letter.

Warren said in August her staff investigated Amazon’s marketplace and found that searches on the site for “COVID-19,” “COVID vaccine,” and “pandemic” listed as top results books and other products that contained inaccurate information regarding the spread of the disease and its vaccines.

The letter cites a book written by Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins. Mercola has been labelled by the New York Times as the “most influential spreader of Coronavirus misinformation online.” The book remains a highly-ranked result in both “books” and “all categories,” and is listed a the #1 bestseller in “Political Freedom.” Other books on top results listed include inaccurate claims about holistic remedies for COVID-19, such as “medicine” directly sold by Mercola’s site, and ivermectin, a horse dewormer, according to Warren’s letter.

The senator called for an “immediate review” of Amazon’s algorithms, giving the company 14 days to file a public report on the ways its algorithms direct consumers to COVID-19, and outline clear solution as to how they are also changing it.

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider about the letter.

This is the second letter Warren has sent Jassy criticizing the role of Amazon’s algorithm in misinforming the public about the coronavirus. The earlier letter, sent in April, pointed to instances where Amazon’s COVID-sponsored content promoted masks and other personal protective equipment that were not authorized by the FDA. The company also supposedly left out product details that would help potential consumers verify the validity of the masks, like manufacturers and model numbers.

Warren noted in her most recent letter that Amazon no longer promotes any “sponsored” search results like it allegedly did with the non-FDA-approved masks. Amazon also features a banner when some COVID-19 terms are searched, prompting users to find out more on CDC’s website.

Amazon, like many other algorithm-heavy companies, has remained fairly quiet on the exact way its algorithms work. Antitrust regulators and advocates have examined Amazon’s secretive search algorithms before, finding Amazon tweaks its algorithms for the benefit of the company, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal.

Amazon is one of several big tech-based companies that have received continued pushback from Washington lawmakers, who want these companies to do more to monitor and report instances of misinformation on their platforms. Executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter all testified to Congress again in March about the issue.