In the 19th century, we had snake oil salesmen. Today, we have Amazon—or so Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) seems to suggest.
If not the salesmen themselves, then Amazon is certainly the enabler, the means by which the salesmen successfully lure their gullible customers, at least according to Warren. Last week the senator sent a letter to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy with "concerns that Amazon is peddling misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and treatments through its search and 'Best Seller' algorithms."
"During the week of August 22, 2021, my staff conducted sample searches on Amazon.com of pandemic-related terms such as 'COVID-19,' 'COVID,' 'vaccine,' 'COVID 19 vaccine,' and 'pandemic,'" wrote Warren in her letter. "The top results consistently included highly-ranked and favorably-tagged books based on falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and cures."
"Warren asked Amazon to conduct a review within 14 days and provide public reports on both the extent to which Amazon's algorithms are directing consumers products containing misinformation and on a plan to change the algorithms," reported The New York Times.
She's right: The top result for COVID-19 in Amazon Books includes Joseph Mercola and Ronnie Cummins' "The Truth About Covid-19: Exposing the Great Reset, Lockdowns, Vaccine Passports, and the New Normal," which has been blasted for its inaccuracies. Mercola has been a natural health proponent since the 1990s, hawking alternative remedies on his website, sounding off about everything from grain-free diets to the purported harms of 5G. He casts doubt on the efficacy of COVID vaccines, playing fast and loose with efficacy percentages, implying that medical journals and public health officials have lied about the vaccines working. His book may have some nuggets of truth in it—questioning the efficacy of lockdowns, though not appreciated by the public health establishment, is a worthwhile pursuit—but plenty of writers out there manage to question COVID public policy while not peddling bad scientific information that strains credulity.
Still, Mercola's books should not be banned; people should have access to alternative information, however foul, and be able to judge the veracity for themselves. Other books that pop up when you search COVID-19 in Amazon Books include those authored by mainstream sources like Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, carried alongside charlatans like Alex Berenson, New York Times reporter turned COVID quack. ("As his conspiratorial nonsense accelerates toward the pandemic's finish line, he has proved himself the Secretariat of being wrong," wrote The Atlantic's Derek Thompson.) There's a self-published book on COVID through the eyes of the author's Jack Russell terrier. Even former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's pandemic memoir on what a great governor he is/was pops up on the first page of search results for COVID-19. Just as I don't recommend following Cuomo's leadership advice, I wouldn't recommend following Mercola's COVID prevention and curing advice, or Berenson's. Content moderation decisions are hard, and Amazon customers are, by and large, adults who don't need to be nannied by the government.
But Warren's complaint, which hinges on the idea that Amazon already engages in content moderation, choosing to remove some books rife with misinformation from its virtual shelves, suggests that the American public truly cannot decide for themselves which authors and products to trust. She attempts to insert the government into the buyer-seller relationship, purporting to act for the public's own good. Warren, a font of bad ideas, does this a lot, proffering the idea that the government ought to intervene out of an always-benevolent, vested interest in consumer welfare.
Amazon doesn't need to explain its content moderation framework to her, nor should it err on the side of doing more of it; employees have circulated petitions calling for the removal of Abigail Shrier's book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters and the company already made the controversial decision not to run sponsored ads from Shrier's publisher promoting the book. (It ultimately chose to sell the book despite the outcry.) When the company wades into ultra-politicized topics like whether people ought to be able to buy books that critique trans orthodoxy—or COVID vaccines, or the efficacy of lockdowns—it runs the risk of making the wrong call, bending to the employees and naysayers who shriek the loudest. It's probably better for Amazon to allow the Mercolas of the world to sell their products, to let people judge for themselves what to read, and to stave off potential persecution complexes the grifters can later capitalize on.
Time and time again, Warren reminds us that she views wealth in America as a fixed pie, one where the richest overlords are hoarding money, creating little of value at the expense of the poor and downtrodden. She's been chomping at the bit to regulate Amazon (and those affiliated) for years. So maybe Amazon does need to explain its process to Warren, since she's appointed herself the guardian of right-think, here to protect the American public from themselves.