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Amazon directs customers to vaccine misinformation, study finds

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By Hebe Campbell
 In this Thursday April 16, 2020 file photo, The Amazon logo is seen in Douai, northern France.
In this Thursday April 16, 2020 file photo, The Amazon logo is seen in Douai, northern France.   -   Copyright  Michel Spingler/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

The world's largest online retailer Amazon directs customers towards books containing vaccine misinformation, a new study has found.

This was found to be the case even when customers haven't shown any intention of purchasing a product containing misinformation.

When Euronews searched for the term "vaccinations" on Amazon France, the website generated a number of products containing false claims about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The best-selling book at the top of the page contained a series of questions about the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. These claims have been disputed by the World Health Organization and other leading international bodies.

Moreover, Amazon recommended Euronews buy other similar books containing misinformation when we on the best-selling book. Many of these anti-vax books had received positive reviews.

The study by the University of Washington focused on Amazon's algorithms, which are designed to keep customers on the website and sell more products.

"If you were looking around for vaccinations, it [Amazon] would pop that up," said Dr Charles Dinerstein from the American Council on Science and Health

"Among the most popular things often are anti-vax misinformation [and] once you've got that in the algorithm it gives you more, and more, and more," he told Euronews.

In a statement, Amazon said they have guidelines in place to address content that is "illegal" and that they welcome user feedback on "heavily debated" titles and products.

"We remove products that do not adhere to our guidelines and when a concern is raised we promptly investigate it," a company spokesperson said.

Amazon has also included a tab directing customers to factual information about COVID-19, but this does not appear for every search term.

When further questioned about their site's algorithms, Amazon said they direct users to products based on a number of attributes, including price and whether other customers have clicked on it.

But the company made no direct mention of whether they assess if a product is factual or based on verified information.

"If you go to the book store you can wander the shelves and maybe find something that you see is interesting. So surprise and serendipity play a role. If you buy a book on Amazon you either buy a book or it pushes you towards it," said Dr Dinerstein.

Other tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter have faced intense scrutiny on tackling the spread of online misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic.