March 14, 2019
Amazon removes from the marketplace books promoting dangerous and false “cures” for autism
by Simon Reichley
One week after concerns regarding Amazon’s algorithmic promotion of whack-o conspiracy theory garbage made headlines, the company is back in the news for removing a different breed of insane and dangerous conspiracy theory garbage. According to a report by Brandy Zadrozny in ABC News, Amazon has removed from their marketplace a pair of books promoting false “cures” for autism, titled Healing the Symptoms Known as Autism and Fight Autism and Win. Both books prescribe dangerously stupid and bogus treatments, including bleach-baths and the misuse of medicine intended to treat acute arsenic toxicity.
Amazon’s decision to remove these titles appears to be in response to increased scrutiny of the site’s policies regarding these books, and others like them. Monday, one day before Zadrozny’s report ran, Matt Reynolds at Wired published a piece titled “Amazon sells ‘autism cure’ books that suggest children drink toxic, bleach-like substance,” and last week, Renee Diresta published a long piece (also on Wired) about the role Amazon has played in the widespread dissemination of medical quackery and health misinformation.
The material impact of health misinformation, and the rise of what experts are calling “vaccine hesitancy,” has come into sharp relief this year, with major outbreaks of measles in Portland, OR and Clark County, WA, and a general resurgence of the disease countrywide.
The question of Amazon’s complicity in the spread of dangerous medical misinformation is part of a larger conversation about what obligations and responsibilities Amazon should or shouldn’t have, in an era of dramatic market consolidation. Given that Amazon has accumulated a massive amount of influence over what Americans read and watch, how should they exercise their defacto regulatory power?
Consider another story, which we wrote about last week: Qanon conspiracy book promoted by Amazon’s algorithm. The problem with the Qanon book is superficially similar: Amazon’s recommendation algorithms are being manipulated by a small but dedicated group of users to promote books that are actively hostile to public health and social cohesion. But there’s a major disjunction between our social norms regarding freedom of political speech and those regarding the protection of children from malicious or negligent parents.
In the case of the books on autism, the consensus seems to be that those books should not be available for purchase because they have an adverse impact on a group of people (the young and the developmentally disabled) who are less likely to be able to defend themselves against their guardians or caretakers. We (not we, Melville House, but we, the polity) suspend our support for the freedom of speech in order to protect an especially vulnerable population.
In the case of the Qanon book, it seems, we mostly agree that the authors and adherents are crackpots and assholes and that they have a small but real shot at totally destroying the union. But, we also believe that censoring political speech sets a hugely dangerous precedent, one that may in fact outweigh the threat posed by this stupid book. So, the book remains on sale.
What’s wrong with this situation? What’s the problem with how we come to these two distinct conclusions? Isn’t that just us, the polity, deliberating, and coming to agreement (or at least a compromise) on a series of complicated questions?
No! Definitely, that is not what is happening. What is happening is that some people online are talking about some messed up stuff for sale on Amazon, and some of them are writing about that stuff, and other people are reading about it, and then Amazon, fearful of losing an infinitesimal amount of their infinite cash-stream on account of some bad press, has unceremoniously yanked a few offending titles, but refused to clarify a position on anything, or assert a governing principle based on and supporting its actions, positions, and principles which might fruitfully be applied to similar cases in the future. What has happened is that we have completely avoided doing any sort of politics. We (the polity) have been condescended to—again—by Jeff Bezos, who has told us that our concerns are silly, but that, out of a sort of paternal affection, he will take the offending object out of our sight.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.