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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 8:24 AM
Updated: Feb 27, 2019 9:30 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.'

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 96032

Reported Deaths: 2894
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds7110159
DeSoto556559
Harrison385374
Jackson348670
Madison329788
Rankin329377
Lee271468
Forrest247872
Jones247579
Washington223872
Lafayette217339
Lauderdale2049125
Bolivar184066
Oktibbeha177850
Lamar170035
Lowndes156958
Neshoba1566104
Panola147129
Sunflower146546
Warren140550
Leflore140481
Pontotoc126616
Pike123451
Monroe122868
Copiah118433
Scott117427
Coahoma115528
Holmes109659
Marshall109517
Lincoln109053
Grenada108336
Yazoo105930
Simpson103346
Union99724
Tate98737
Leake95338
Adams93837
Wayne90021
Pearl River88353
Marion85935
Prentiss85517
Covington82022
Itawamba81521
Alcorn80311
George77113
Newton77024
Tallahatchie77021
Winston73819
Tishomingo68238
Chickasaw67924
Tippah66917
Attala65925
Walthall60026
Clay59218
Clarke58746
Hancock58222
Jasper57315
Noxubee54816
Smith53215
Calhoun51512
Tunica48615
Claiborne46316
Montgomery46120
Lawrence43313
Yalobusha43314
Perry42319
Humphreys37715
Greene37517
Quitman3735
Stone37112
Jefferson Davis34111
Webster33813
Amite32910
Carroll31612
Wilkinson30518
Kemper28915
Sharkey26613
Jefferson2439
Benton2263
Franklin1923
Choctaw1856
Issaquena1043
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 134231

Reported Deaths: 2357
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson19572348
Mobile13320292
Montgomery8811183
Tuscaloosa8586117
Madison782078
Shelby592349
Lee588759
Baldwin545650
Marshall393343
Calhoun349942
Etowah343945
Morgan327328
Houston280221
Elmore265947
DeKalb240620
St. Clair230835
Walker230683
Talladega214628
Limestone208820
Cullman189020
Dallas178326
Franklin176729
Autauga175725
Russell17573
Lauderdale169833
Colbert164126
Blount160815
Escambia160324
Chilton156431
Jackson156011
Covington138527
Dale135844
Coffee13206
Pike119410
Chambers116142
Tallapoosa115685
Clarke108916
Marion95729
Butler91639
Barbour8737
Winston73812
Marengo71620
Pickens65614
Lowndes65327
Bibb65210
Randolph64213
Hale63428
Lawrence61623
Geneva6074
Cherokee60313
Bullock59914
Monroe5848
Clay5797
Washington55613
Perry5416
Crenshaw53632
Conecuh53511
Wilcox53111
Henry4935
Macon48119
Fayette4508
Sumter43519
Lamar3662
Cleburne3646
Choctaw34912
Greene30315
Coosa1683
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