Medical misinformation rife in Amazon bestsellers about public health

Rebekah Robinson

 

When Amazon started out in the nineties, it seemed to have an almost quaint business aim: to help people find an easier way to buy books. Now, of course, it’s expanded into an all-consuming behemoth that sells practically everything. 

But what happens when you do just want a book — and you happen to want one about vaccines? Chances are, Amazon’s algorithm will serve you up some top recommendations for anti-vaccine propaganda. And if you’re searching for books about cancer, expect a barrage of titles promoting pseudoscientific cancer treatments. 

Amazon has been heavily criticized in the past for selling badly researched, agenda-driven books as science, but it doesn’t appear to have made any difference. 

When I did a search for “vaccines,” a recently published work, The Vaccine Watchman comes up as a top result just below a banner that says “Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines” that links to a CDC website. Despite that disclaimer, a quick perusal of the book’s blurb and introduction brings up claims that the smallpox vaccine is actually more harmful than the disease itself, as well as suggestions that natural remedies are better. 

Other books I found also promoted natural remedies over vaccines. At least half of the top eight featured books in my search results contained anti-vaccine messages or support from authors who have had their medical credentials revoked or are known to spread misinformation and promote conspiracy theories. One book, Turtles All the Way Down: Vaccine Science and Myth, a bestseller ranked at the very top of the bestseller list for books about public health administration, was written anonymously. A typical question this book purports to answer is: “Why would researchers want to skew vaccine research, and how could skewed results be promulgated by the scientific community?”

A similar round-up of books graced the top of my search page for books on cancer cures touting alternative medicine and natural remedies, which we have looked at in previous editions of the Infodemic newsletter. 

Marco Zenone, a researcher of public health and misinformation, recently posted on Twitter about books listed on Amazon Marketplace that have co-opted medical terms in their descriptions and titles to appear more legitimate.

Because Amazon self-regulates, they have the power to decide what content they’ll keep or remove, and Zenone told me, “Amazon is making money from these products, they have a duty to make sure that the products they sell don’t cause harm. And I think, in this case, offering false hope, and fake cancer treatments cause harm, especially to a very vulnerable group.”  

When thinking about the harm in having claims like these so easily accessible, writer and researcher David Robert Grimes told me, “The peddling of misinformation is hugely harmful. Medical fictions rely on simple narratives or scaremongering, and as we tend to emote before we reflect, they are extremely difficult to reverse. This is especially amplified in people with low health literacy, who are far more susceptible to such misinformation and more likely to reject conventional medicine.”

I asked Amazon why anti-vaccine books and questionable cancer cures were so heavily promoted on their site. An Amazon spokesperson told me the site had strict guidelines about which books could be listed for sale, and “promptly investigate any book when a concern is raised.” 

Amazon’s content guidelines include a section on offensive content, which limits the sale of books that include content that promotes abuse, hate speech, or other themes that they deem “inappropriate.” The spokesperson did not indicate whether books containing misinformation or pseudoscience violate its guidelines. 

IN GLOBAL NEWS

Sexually transmitted diseases are on the rise. Syphilis rates are the highest they’ve been in 70 years. And last week, the Los Angeles Department of Health confirmed a monkeypox fatality — possibly the first in the U.S. At the same time, conservatives are signing into law bills banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity, and restricting discussions of certain topics deemed inappropriate for the classroom, including sex and sexuality. And let’s not forget the book bans: in Florida in July, a school board voted to ban two sexual health textbooks from the system’s classrooms. Sex education is a crucial tool for young people to learn about safe sex — but its teachers are being silenced.

A joke TikTok video (I hope) that demonstrated a truly disgusting recipe for chicken marinated in cough syrup, once lived in the fairly obscure recesses of the internet. Then, the FDA issued a warning. Ahem, don’t — repeat don’t — marinate your chicken in Nyquil, it said. The warning went viral, and suddenly the grim concept was all over the web. It is an example of the FDA propelling what was a once unheard of, fringe, joke-recipe for “sleepy chicken” into the mainstream. It’s unknown how many people, if any, have eaten chicken a la Nyquil since 2017, when the video was made. But after the FDA warning, the topic began trending on TikTok with hundreds of Gen-Z teens racing to try the recipe out for themselves. 

Monkeypox has made it to Ukraine. Ukraine has recorded its second case of the virus, with the first appearing just four days earlier on 15 September. Last month, the Kremlin claimed monkeypox could be a secret U.S. bioweapon engineered in military labs. It was the latest addition to a long-running disinformation campaign by Russian authorities, dating back to the Soviet era, that claims America is manufacturing and spreading bioweapons in the form of diseases. Back in the 1980s, Russia claimed — in a propaganda op called “Operation Infektion” — that the U.S. was behind the AIDS crisis. We’re watching closely to see if the Ukraine monkeypox cases will be leveraged as part of this campaign in the Russian media. 

WHAT WE’RE READING 

While healthcare professionals are trying to understand the impact of long Covid, research is still a long way away from determining how widespread long covid is within minority communities. Elaine Shelly writes in The MIT Technology Review how gaps in the healthcare system and implicit biases make it difficult to determine the full extent of a mass disabling crisis.

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Isobel Cockerell. Erica Hellerstein and Katia Patin contributed to this edition.

Tracking coronavirus disinformation from around the world

More Coda Newsletters