Rep. Adam Schiff rips Amazon and Fb for ‘straight profiting’ on COVID-19 misinformation

Erin Forsythe, a nurse practitioner with Virginia Mason, administers a COVID-19 vaccine shot Sunday at the Amazon Meeting Center in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Taylor Soper)

Rep. Adam Schiff, in separate letters to bosses of tech giants Amazon and Facebook, criticized the efforts of both companies to curb the spread COVID-19 and related vaccination information.

The pair of letters, dated a day after Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s missive also sharply rebuked Amazon for vaccine misinformation, accused both companies of “directly profiting” on the spread of false vaccine and virus information on their respective sites.

To Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Schiff wrote, “As long as these materials remain on your site, Facebook is directly profiting from the sensationalism of antivaccine misinformation, while these conspiracy theories continue to directly contribute to COVID-19 deaths.”

And to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy, Schiff pointed out that Amazon’s own algorithms can be gamed to push people toward false information. “Further, Amazon algorithms and lists have been easily manipulated by bad actors through false reviews, targeted purchasing, miscategorization, or even intentional misspellings,”  he wrote.

“As long as these materials remain on the site, Amazon is directly profiting from the sensationalism of antivaccine misinformation.”

An Amazon spokesperson said when it comes to vaccines, the company leads by example. “As a company, we continue to encourage our employees to get vaccinated, and we believe it is an important step for communities to stay healthy and recover from the pandemic.”

A company spokesperson also confirmed the company will respond to Warren’s questions.

The pointed criticism from the two powerful Democrats comes at a fraught time for the four tech giants — Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple — as Congress probes both the power and reach of a handful of the most valuable companies in the world.

Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s Amazon-busting legislation, the “Ending Platform Monopolies Act” would potentially force the company’s dismantling, has both bipartisan and Biden administration support, the 7th District Democrat said in a recent interview with GeekWire.

Her legislation is part of a five-bill package that seek to create a framework to dismantle large tech companies into smaller ones (Amazon and Amazon Web Services, for example); to make mergers more expensive and difficult; to break up businesses that use their dominance in one area to get a stronghold in another; and to stop companies that create purportedly open marketplaces and only to game it to favor their own products.

Schiff’s and Warren’s comments don’t appear to indicate any softening of the tone toward at least two of the companies. Schiff had contacted both companies about similar issues in 2019, at the pandemic’s outset.

And while he conceded that the pair were trying to curb COVID-19 misinformation, neither had gone far enough.

“It is, of course, inevitable that malicious users will attempt to propagate harmful content, and I appreciate Facebook’s efforts to provide accurate information on COVID-19 when possible,” Schiff wrote in his letter to Zuckerberg.

“Research has shown, however, that combatting anti-vaccine conspiracies by posing factual and counter-factual information as opposing, but equal viewpoints is ineffective at combatting misinformation and disinformation.

In a statement issued after he sent the letters, Schiff said the social media companies are helping to perpetuate the pandemic.

“Vaccine hesitancy fueled by misinformation stands between us and truly ending the COVID-19 pandemic. And nowhere is that misinformation more apparent, potent, and transmissible than on social media and e-commerce sites,” Schiff said. “As the administration of vaccines around the country continues, misinformation is on the rise on major online platforms.”

Schiff asked the companies to respond to a series questions including:

  • What is the size of your content moderation operation, including numbers of staff and resources devoted, and what are your goals for depth and breadth of moderation? What is the status of progress toward meeting these goals?
  • What steps are you currently taking to ensure that algorithms are not used to promote misleading or false health information?

A spokesperson for Facebook said the company is working aggressively to remove false information.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have removed over 20 million pieces of COVID misinformation, labeled more than 190 million pieces of COVID content rated by our fact-checking partners, and connected over 2 billion people with reliable information through tools like our COVID information center,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“The data shows that for people in the US on Facebook, vaccine hesitancy has declined by 50% since January, and acceptance is high. We have removed over 3,000 accounts, pages, and groups for repeatedly violating our COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation policies and will continue to enforce our policies and offer tools and reminders for people who use our platform to get vaccinated.”

Read both letters below.

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