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Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories thrive on Amazon

Amid a growing measles outbreak in the United States, the...

Posted: Feb 27, 2019 9:24 AM
Updated: Feb 27, 2019 10:30 AM

Amid a growing measles outbreak in the United States, the role of powerful tech companies like YouTube and Facebook in spreading vaccine misinformation is under heavy scrutiny.

But there is another massive platform offering spurious anti-vaccination content to people seeking information, a review by CNN Business reveals: Amazon, the world's largest online marketplace. And, asked about it, an Amazon spokesperson only pointed CNN Business to the company's content guidelines page, which says the following: 'As a bookseller, we provide our customers with access to a variety of viewpoints, including books that some customers may find objectionable. That said, we reserve the right not to sell certain content, such as pornography or other inappropriate content.'

A recent search for 'vaccine' on Amazon yielded a search page dominated by anti-vaccination content. Of the 18 books and movies listed on the search page, 15 contained anti-vaccination content. The first listing was a sponsored post — that is, an ad for which Amazon was paid — for the book 'Vaccines on Trial: Truth and Consequences of Mandatory Shots' by Pierre St. Clair, which Amazon was also offering for free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Among the search results were books and movies that made their anti-vaccination stance clear in their titles, like the movies 'We Don't Vaccinate!' and 'Shoot 'Em Up: The Truth About Vaccines.'

But perhaps more disturbing from a public health and misinformation perspective, there were also books that people simply searching for information — new parents, for instance — could mistake for something offering neutral information accepted by the public health community, like 'Miller's Review of Critical Vaccine Studies: 400 Important Scientific Papers Summarized for Parents and Researchers' and 'The Vaccine-Friendly Plan: Dr. Paul's Safe and Effective Approach to Immunity and Health — from Pregnancy Through Your Child's Teen Years,' both of which featured Amazon's 'Best Seller' tag.

Amazon also offers its Prime members a number of anti-vaccination movies for free viewing on Prime Video, like 'VAXXED: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe,' which was dropped from the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 following a public outcry.

Its director, Andrew Wakefield, has played a central role in spreading anti-vaccine propaganda. Wakefield was part of a team of researchers who published a 1998 study that became the basis for the anti-vaccination movement. The study was later retracted and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license.

Amazon declined to comment on how much it was paid for the ad for 'Vaccines on Trial' or whether it has accepted money to promote any other anti-vaccination books or movies.

CNN Business' findings upset at least one expert in the field.

'It's dirty money,' Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a prominent proponent of vaccination, said of the ad Amazon ran. 'What Amazon is willing to do is, for a price, put bad information out there. They should be held accountable. ... There aren't two sides to the science. Vaccines don't cause autism, diabetes, MS, or any of the other chronic disorders anti-vaccination proponents claim.'

Tech companies under fire

Earlier this month, Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, sent an open letter to Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, expressing concern that the companies are 'surfacing and recommending' anti-vaccination content that has caused 'declining vaccination rates which could reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.'

'The algorithms which power social media platforms as well as Amazon's recommendations are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and as a result harmful anti-vaccine messages have been able to thrive and spread,' Schiff said in a statement to CNN Business. 'Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public health catastrophe.'

In a statement sent to CNN earlier this month, a Facebook spokesperson said it has 'taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do.'

'We're currently working with outside experts on additional changes that we'll be announcing soon,' the spokesperson said.

Critics have also pointed to YouTube's practice of recommending videos based on watch history as leading users to anti-vaccination misinformation. The Guardian recently discovered an anti-vaccination video was recommended alongside a Mayo Clinic clip on the measles vaccine.

'Misinformation is a difficult challenge and any misinformation on medical topics is especially concerning,' a YouTube spokesperson told CNN Business on Monday.

'We've taken a number of steps to address this including surfacing more authoritative content across our site for people searching for vaccination-related topics, beginning to reduce recommendations of certain anti-vaccination videos and showing information panels with more sources where they can fact check information for themselves. Like many algorithmic changes, these efforts will be gradual and will get more and more accurate over time.'

Pinterest also recently announced it had blocked all vaccine searches from its platform in a temporary ban.

Measles outbreak linked to unvaccinated people

In February, the CDC reported 159 measles cases had been confirmed in 10 states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. The CDC partially attributed the outbreak to 'US communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.'

According to the CDC, the majority of the people who got measles were not vaccinated.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb recently told CNN in an interview that lax enforcement of vaccination requirements by some states could be to blame.

Anti-vaccine communities span the political spectrum, a phenomenon perhaps best illustrated by vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s meeting with then President-Elect Donald Trump in 2017. Trump asked Kennedy to chair a commission on vaccine safety, Kennedy said afterward; the commission never came to fruition.

Offit said the measles outbreak is a sign that the anti-vaccine movement has real consequences.

'Do we have to wait until there's a few thousand cases of measles and children start to die. Will that move us?' he said. 'Invariably it is the children who will suffer from our ignorance.'

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 724214

Reported Deaths: 13363
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion989071736
Lake53172962
Allen40223675
Hamilton35354408
St. Joseph35270550
Elkhart28228437
Tippecanoe22297217
Vanderburgh22231396
Porter18560304
Johnson17832376
Hendricks17098313
Clark12897191
Madison12519339
Vigo12379244
Monroe11811168
LaPorte11691210
Delaware10571185
Howard9823215
Kosciusko9347117
Hancock8204139
Bartholomew8036155
Warrick7754155
Floyd7630176
Wayne7002198
Grant6986174
Boone6652101
Morgan6529139
Dubois6139117
Marshall5954111
Dearborn577177
Cass5769105
Henry5671102
Noble555783
Jackson499672
Shelby488196
Lawrence4470120
Gibson433791
Harrison432972
Clinton426353
DeKalb423284
Montgomery423088
Whitley392739
Huntington386380
Steuben381057
Miami379165
Knox370990
Jasper361347
Putnam357760
Wabash352478
Adams340354
Ripley338370
Jefferson328481
White312254
Daviess294399
Wells290281
Decatur282992
Fayette278362
Greene276085
Posey270733
Scott264453
LaGrange263870
Clay258945
Randolph239581
Washington239131
Spencer230431
Jennings228848
Starke213252
Fountain211846
Sullivan210442
Owen195856
Fulton194240
Jay190429
Carroll187820
Perry182537
Orange181854
Rush172625
Vermillion167643
Franklin167235
Tipton161945
Parke145416
Blackford134332
Pike132634
Pulaski115945
Newton106734
Brown101441
Crawford99014
Benton98114
Martin87415
Warren80515
Switzerland7808
Union70610
Ohio56211
Unassigned0413

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1077284

Reported Deaths: 19344
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1251861392
Cuyahoga1110942107
Hamilton796611200
Montgomery511561012
Summit46842933
Lucas41780782
Butler38228580
Stark32099907
Lorain24828480
Warren24214297
Mahoning21403586
Lake20518368
Clermont19704238
Delaware18463131
Licking16373210
Fairfield16083199
Trumbull15966466
Medina15192262
Greene14991244
Clark13927297
Wood13020188
Portage12772201
Allen11564231
Richland11277198
Miami10652215
Muskingum8783132
Wayne8738210
Columbiana8735229
Pickaway8527121
Marion8494135
Tuscarawas8459243
Erie7831154
Hancock6880126
Ross6821152
Ashtabula6756169
Geauga6659148
Scioto6385101
Belmont5828167
Union569347
Lawrence5536102
Jefferson5481151
Huron5409119
Darke5333122
Sandusky5316120
Seneca5248121
Athens518058
Washington5137109
Auglaize487084
Mercer479085
Shelby466893
Knox4472110
Madison434761
Putnam4260100
Ashland420989
Fulton419869
Defiance416597
Crawford3954106
Brown391857
Logan380676
Preble378298
Clinton369861
Ottawa365779
Highland352761
Williams337075
Champaign329258
Guernsey314453
Jackson311651
Perry294250
Morrow283639
Fayette280649
Hardin269864
Henry267766
Coshocton263858
Holmes2587101
Van Wert242463
Pike237233
Adams235852
Gallia235148
Wyandot230654
Hocking214662
Carroll190947
Paulding171140
Meigs144339
Noble133437
Monroe130642
Morgan108223
Harrison107337
Vinton82015
Unassigned02
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