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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Amazon Quietly Removes Some Dubious Coronavirus Books

As the new coronavirus continues to spread, Amazon has cracked down on third-party sellers looking to profit from the outbreak. It removed more than 1 million listings last month that falsely claimed to defend against or cure the illness, as well as tens of thousands of items, such as face masks, that were offered for inflated prices. But the retail giant is confronting more than just an influx of sketchy coronavirus supplies. Its bookstore has become a source of dubious information about the outbreak, and Amazon has quietly begun removing some books about the virus from its virtual shelves.

As several news outlets have noted, Amazon has flooded in recent weeks with books about Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, some of which appear hastily self-published and contain conspiracy theories. At least a few appear to be successful: Last Friday, a self-published book titled Everything About Face Masks and Coronavirus was the top seller in Amazon’s Medical eBooks category, beating mainstream nonfiction titles like John M. Barry’s The Great Influenza, which ranked number two. That same day, however, the book’s listing was taken down. Its author, Dr. Timothy Zahar—a pen name, according to his bio—has no other books currently listed on Amazon.

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WIRED found that other coronavirus books called out by reporters have since been taken down as well. When reached for comment, the company declined to answer questions about the removal of individual titles. "Amazon maintains content guidelines for the books it sells, and we continue to evaluate our catalog, listening to customer feedback. We have always required sellers, authors, and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages, and we remove those that violate our policies,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Amazon’s content guidelines for books are short. “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,” the company notes on its site. Beyond saying that authors, publishers, and vendors are responsible for ensuring their books don’t violate any laws, the only other guideline is that Amazon may remove books that provide a “poor customer experience.”

A cached version of the listing for Everything About Face Masks and Coronavirus shows the book earned one-star reviews complaining it was “barely readable” and “not worth the money.” “Could've googled the info for free,” one person wrote. Another book, Military Virus Apocalypse: Biological Warfare, Bioweapons and China Coronavirus Pandemic received four- and five-star reviews but also implied that the coronavirus is human-made, a popular conspiracy theory. When Business Insider asked Amazon about the book in February, the company said it was providing customers with access to a variety of viewpoints. It has since been removed.

In its early days, Amazon defended its right to sell any book, no matter its content. When the company was criticized for carrying the title The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure in 2010, Amazon said it believed it was “censorship to not sell certain books.” Since then, the company has been reluctant to disclose what titles it’s unwilling to sell and under what circumstances.

Amazon’s guidelines don’t mention medical misinformation, but the company has previously taken down books that make unscientific or harmful medical claims. After a report was published in WIRED last year, Amazon confirmed to news outlets that it removed several books about vaccines and unscientific autism “cures,” though it declined to specify why. The action also came after social media sites like Twitter and Facebook announced plans to curb misinformation about vaccines.

Social media platforms are facing a similar misinformation tsunami with the outbreak of Covid-19—what the World Health Organization calls an “infodemic.” Facebook and Google have both banned advertisements for face masks after complaints of price gouging and misleading claims. The companies, along with Twitter, say they are working with the World Health Organization and other authorities to direct people to accurate information. Amazon, too, has added a banner to the top of certain search results urging customers to “Learn more about Coronavirus protective measures,” with a link to the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But searching for “coronavirus books” can bring up the banner, followed by over 700 items, including titles like Coronavirus Covid-19 Controversy: Conspiracy Theories Around the Demon Virus From China. Many of these books appear to be self-published and of low quality. One book on Amazon claiming to be a “complete manual” to the coronavirus contains comically nonsensical phrases, according to a public preview. “You bookmark wholesome recipes, select up kale and quinoa at the grocery and purchase a pressure cooker,” reads one sentence in a section supposedly describing Covid-19. The title sells for 99 cents and has over two dozen five-star reviews. Some books are not only poorly written but plagiarized, according to NBC News, which found that the first two chapters of one coronavirus book on Amazon were lifted from its own articles.

Amazon offers an easy way for authors to self-publish for free through its Kindle Direct Publishing service. The platform has additional "Content Quality” guidelines prohibiting content that “disappoints our customers,” including books that are too short or poorly translated, and “content that is freely available on the web.” The spokesperson for Amazon declined to say how it reviews books that are uploaded to Kindle Direct Publishing before they’re available to consumers. Publishing “takes less than 5 minutes and your book appears on Kindle stores worldwide within 24–48 hours,” according to Amazon’s website.

Many of the coronavirus titles on Amazon are part of its Kindle Unlimited subscription service, the so-called “Netflix for books” Amazon launched in 2014. Amazon pays authors who participate in the program about half a cent for each page page subscribers read, according to some estimates. Since its launch, Kindle Unlimited has been a target for scams like fake reviews, book stuffing, and other tricks to rank higher on Amazon charts and earn more royalty money.

In vetting these books, Amazon often appears to be reacting to customer reviews and journalists. For example, Amazon took down two books about the coronavirus after they were referenced in the Business Insider story, including Military Virus Apocalypse. Two other books cited in a Washington Post article, written by an author calling himself Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Coronavirus and Me and Coronavirus Is In/Near My Country, have also vanished.

Amazon didn’t say how many coronavirus books have been removed. There are still plenty of titles available on the site, at least for now. Other online booksellers like Barnes & Noble have some of the same coronavirus books for sale, but Amazon tends to draw the most scrutiny because it sells more than half of the books bought in the United States.

“The fact that they have become a behemoth makes it feel like they should be more accountable,” says Deborah Caldwell Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom. “But from a legal standpoint, from a free expression standpoint—they are a private actor.” And that means Amazon can be as unforthcoming as it wants.

Refusing to provide more transparency helps Amazon downplay its scope and influence, says Danny Caine, the owner of Raven Book Store in Kansas and the author of the zine How to Resist Amazon and Why. “I think they’re trying to brush it off to avoid this scrutiny of being a major source of information.”

For other online platforms, that strategy largely hasn’t worked. After years of public pressure, Twitter, Google, and Facebook now have extensive rules for what they allow on their sites, and they release transparency reports each year outlining how much content they remove and at whose behest. Amazon, on the other hand, doesn’t release a report of banned books. That means when consumers are searching for information about a public health crisis, they don’t know when Amazon has deemed a book unfit or why.

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