A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, snake-oil remedies and conspiracy theories remain near the top of Amazon.com search results for terms related to the disease, despite steps the company has taken to try to direct shoppers to legitimate health information.
Among the first results for ‘COVID cure’ on the online retail platform is a self-published book on the drug ivermectin, which anti-vaccine advocates and right-wing pundits have falsely claimed is a treatment for COVID-19. The federal Food and Drug Administration has urged people not to take ivermectin, which in its over-the-counter form is commonly used to deworm horses, warning that it is “dangerous and can cause serious harm.”
Amazon did not answer questions about why unproven treatments and conspiracy theories lead its search results, instead responding with a statement affirming its commitment to providing “customers with access to a variety of viewpoints.”
The search results underscore what some have said is large tech companies’ inability or unwillingness to police their sprawling online platforms as COVID misinformation spreads and mutates.
In July, federal lawmakers introduced a bill seeking to hold social media companies like Facebook and Twitter accountable for the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.
The bill, introduced by U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., would strip social media companies of their current legal protections against misinformation spread by their users about a public health emergency.
“For far too long, online platforms have not done enough to protect the health of Americans,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “These are some of the biggest, richest companies in the world and they must do more to prevent the spread of deadly vaccine misinformation.”
Lawmakers’ ire has largely focused on social media companies, not retail platforms like Amazon. But the company has drawn fire from federal regulators who have repeatedly asked Amazon to stop selling products that make unproven claims to be effective in neutralizing the coronavirus.
Amazon had pledged to remove such listings, only to be foiled by sellers who were able to beat the company’s misinformation detectors by putting false information about products’ efficacy against COVID-19 in their listings’ image galleries, which are not keyword-searchable.
Sellers and shoppers alike are adept at remaining one step ahead of Amazon’s fraud-detection systems.
In product reviews for the horse formulation of ivermectin available on Amazon.com, shoppers describe using the product to treat COVID-19, using slight misspellings to trick the bots trawling Amazon’s reviews for misinformation and violations of its rules, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
The Seattle-based commerce giant has taken some steps to make it harder for shoppers to purchase unproven COVID treatments.
Wednesday, Amazon began blocking some autocomplete suggestions that direct shoppers to ivermectin, The Verge reported. And when shoppers search for “ivermectin,” Amazon shows a message linking to the FDA’s warning and advising “against the use of ivermectin to treat or prevent COVID-19.” Amazon doesn’t list any product results for the search terms “ivermectin for humans,” “ivermectin for COVID,” or “COVID vaccine.” And Amazon flashes a banner directing shoppers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website on top of all search results related to the coronavirus.
But on Wednesday morning, a book by Bethany Roberts called “Ivermectin: A Cure for Covid 19?” was the first Amazon.com result for the search “COVID cure.” The listing vanished Wednesday afternoon, after racking up several one-star reviews from shoppers who had thought they were ordering ivermectin tablets.
“Thought I was buying the product, this was very misleading,” one shopper, who said they were trying to buy four boxes of ivermectin, wrote earlier this week.
Other listings for books by Roberts on ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, another discredited treatment for COVID-19, were the sixth, eighth and twelfth results for the search “COVID cure.” Roberts could not be reached for comment.
The rest of the first page of search results included books about the science of mRNA vaccines next to books hawking unproven COVID treatments like sauna sessions and silicon supplements.
Amazon has previously faced scrutiny for selling books and other products with health misinformation.
A University of Washington study published early this year found that roughly 10% of Amazon products linked to search terms like “vaccine” contain serious misinformation about vaccine safety — including nearly all of Amazon’s top-ranked search results.