September 08, 2021

Warren Investigation Finds Amazon Provides Consumers With COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation in Search Results

Senator Demands that Amazon Review and Correct Its Algorithms that are Leading Consumers to Falsehoods

Text of Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy regarding the alarming discovery that Amazon is peddling misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments through its search and “Best Seller” algorithms. This is the second time in six months that Senator Warren has identified Amazon practices that mislead consumers about COVID-19 prevention or treatment — earlier this year, she raised concerns that the company is providing consumers with false and misleading information about FDA-authorized KN95 masks. Following the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine and as the Delta variant surges across the country, Senator Warren is calling on Amazon to take aggressive action to stamp out COVID-19 misinformation.

During the week of August 22, 2021, Senator Warren’s staff conducted sample searches on of pandemic-related terms such as “COVID-19,” “COVID,” “vaccine,” “COVID 19 vaccine,” and “pandemic.” The top results consistently included highly-ranked and favorably-tagged books based on falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures, including those written by the most prominent spreaders of misinformation. For example, books by Dr. Joseph Mercola — described as “the most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online” — are among the top search results for “COVID-19” and “vaccine” despite his 600 articles posted on Facebook casting doubt on COVID-19 vaccines and multiple federal investigations for misleading consumer practices. 

“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—an unethical, unacceptable, and potentially unlawful course of action from one of the nation’s largest retailers,” Senator Warren wrote. “At a time when every step towards ending the pandemic could save countless lives, misinformation poses a substantial obstacle.”

Despite the fact that vaccination remains our greatest tool to protect Americans from the virus, myths about COVID-19 vaccines continue to spread, often facilitated by misinformation and conspiracy theories that insist the virus is a hoax, promote false cures to COVID-19, raise false concerns about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and lead to further illnesses and deaths. 

“Given the seriousness of this issue, I ask that you perform an immediate review of Amazon’s algorithms and, within 14 days, provide both a public report on the extent to which Amazon’s algorithms are directing consumers to books and other products containing COVID-19 misinformation and a plan to modify these algorithms so that they no longer do so,” Senator Warren wrote