How Amazon's Algorithms Recommend QAnon and Extremist Material to Users: Report

Amazon has been accused of helping to spread dangerous conspiracy theories and racist propaganda via its algorithms suggesting further reading for customers.

A report from think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue details how the online giant appears to recommend anti-vaccine books, extremist material and QAnon disinformation through its "Customers who bought this item also bought" and "Customers who viewed this item also viewed" features.

The report also accuses Amazon of "cross-pollinating" conspiracy theories by suggesting books about QAnon beliefs "in the space of a handful of clicks" to people who had searched the site for information on COVID-19 vaccines.

The institute found that users who searched for a particular QAnon text were recommended other materials containing 9/11 and anti-semitic conspiracy theories or books by David Icke—best known for believing that the world is controlled by shape-shifting lizard-people.

The report said: "At the core of this issue is the failure to consider what a system designed to upsell customers on tote bags or fitness equipment or gardening tools … would do when unleashed on products espousing conspiracy theories, disinformation or extreme views.

"The entirely foreseeable outcome is that Amazon's platform is, in effect, inadvertently but actively promoting these ideas to their customers."

In a statement to Newsweek, an Amazon spokesperson said: "We take the concerns from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue seriously and are committed to providing a positive experience for our customers.

"Similar to other stores that sell books, we provide our customers with access to a variety of viewpoints and our shopping and discovery tools are not designed to generate results oriented to a specific point of view."

The report, Recommended Reading: Amazon's algorithms, conspiracy theories and extremist literature, points out how the website's auto-complete search function can lead shoppers down "recommending rabbit holes."

It found that typing "vaccine" would bring up anti-vaccine books and searching for "election" generated auto-complete suggestions relating to the baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

The report also pointed to concerns around Amazon's author pages, using the example of Anton Long, founder of the neo-Nazi satanic group the Order of Nine Angles. Long, believed to be a pseudonym, has published several books that set out his group's racist ideology.

A click on his Amazon author page brings up recommendations for other extremists such as Varg Vikernes, a far-right "black metal" singer known for murdering a rival band member and burning down three churches in the 1990s.

The report said: "For most users, these recommendations are at best a useful way of finding new content they are interested in, and at worst an irritation to be harmlessly ignored.

"For conspiracy theorists, white nationalists and users perhaps only curiously dipping their toes in the murky waters of extremist or conspiratorial content, however, these recommendations could serve as a gateway into a broader universe of conspiracy theories and misinformation, or to increasingly radical far-right and white nationalist content."

Amazon has been criticized in the past for selling neo-Nazi and anti-semitic items, as well as extremist texts such as the race war novel The Turner Diaries, which is said to have inspired the 1995 Oklahoma bombing. The book was removed from Amazon in January, according to The Verge.

The institute's report was published as Martin Geddes, a QAnon promoter based in the U.K., claimed Amazon had removed one of his books from sale for violating its content guidelines. The retailer has been asked for comment.

The Institute for Strategic Dialogue acknowledged that the idea of Amazon banning books was a "contentious issue," but it pointed to the steps taken by social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, which "removed explicit QAnon-related content from certain algorithmic recommendation functions in 2020."

The report said: "If Amazon wishes to keep this type of content on its marketplace, turning off recommendations for these books would at least prevent their own algorithms from promoting it and thereby actively contributing to the spread of conspiracy theories, disinformation or racist beliefs."

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An Amazon warehouse in Las Vegas, seen on March 31, 2021. A report has detailed how the retailer's algorithms can help customers discover extremist materials. Ethan Miller/Getty Images