Earlier this week, I started a search on Amazon and mistyped, entering just two letters in: “iv.” Amazon then helpfully compiled a list of suggested search results, almost all of which related to the deworming version of the drug ivermectin for horses. That drug is central to one of the more recent and more mind boggling share the story about vaccine misinformation, a false cure touted by shopkeepers and others out to make a quick buck.
This evening, Amazon spokesperson Craig Andrews says: The edge that “Amazon’s autocomplete responses are driven by customer activity. We block certain autocomplete responses to address these concerns.”
Like Facebook, TikTok and Reddit, Amazon has been unable to limit the spread of misinformation about COVID-19. Unlike those platforms and others, Amazon has seemingly done very little to try and stop it.
Amazon is not unique in using an algorithm to drive the autocomplete results. But as companies like Google have learned, there are “data gaps” for previously unpopular search terms that can suddenly skew the algorithm when those terms are dragged into a new disinformation campaign. Google has gone to great lengths to fix the data invalidation issue, most recently by issuing warnings on search results it believes are affected by the issue. As of the publication of this article, Amazon search results are still showing listings for ivermectin.
When you click through to one of those suggested search terms, Amazon simply lists many options for buying the drug intended to treat animals — without any further context about its dangers when ingested by humans. While there are legitimate uses for ivermectin in humans, treating COVID-19 is not one of them. And while it should go without saying that taking the veterinary version is a really bad idea, that’s exactly what happens.
In a bulletin issued by the Mississippi Department of Health, the agency says that “At least 70% of recent calls” [to poison control] have been associated with the ingestion of livestock or animal formulations of ivermectin.”
Ivermectin may cause side effects ranging from “skin rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, swelling of the face or extremities, neurological side effects (dizziness, seizures, confusion), sudden drop in blood pressure, severe skin rash that may cause hospitalization and liver injury.” (hepatitis),” according to the FDA.
While other platforms have struggled to present information boxes that lead to reliable and trustworthy information about COVID-19 and COVID-19 treatments, Amazon does not display such information in search results or on ivermectin product pages. An Amazon spokesperson tells me that if you search specifically for “ivermectin for covid”, it only links to the FDA’s Warning Page About the Drug.
It seems that in at least some product listings, at least some moderation teams at Amazon are monitoring issues. Some of the best search results for ivermectin have very few written reviews. Scroll down a bit, though, and there are plenty out there that are clearly intended to discuss the use of the drug in humans. a reviewer, for example, wrote that it “worked well on my 200lb horse” and that “long CV is already going away”. Another appreciated a product 5 stars, writing that “I like the taste […] Ivermectin is too hard to get, but so effective at preventing something I can’t list here.”
Over on Reddit, over a hundred subreddits got dark today in protest at that platform’s refusal to ban communities that spread disinformation about COVID-19. TikTok seems to be playing crazy with videos on its platform, and Facebook has struggled to enforce its policies against misinformation as communities resort to euphemisms like ‘moo juice’.
On Amazon, veterinary ivermectin remains easy to find without any scientific information that could educate a consumer about the dangers of taking a drug intended for animals. It also remains easy to buy on that platform, in some cases with free Amazon Prime delivery handled by an Amazon warehouse.