Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been media reports about Amazon book search algorithms putting health- and vaccine-related misinformation at the top of reading lists. But as the pandemic has brought new attention to the risks of algorithm-amplified misinformation, just how bad is the problem? Is there any concrete, empirical evidence to prove or disprove anecdotal stories, opinion pieces and other assertions coming out in popular press in recent years? A paper recently presented by University of Washington Information School researchers at a leading academic conference shows the importance of auditing algorithms to better understand the ways they may or may not give greater traction to problematic online content like vaccination misinformation.
Earlier this month at the 2021 ACM CHI Virtual Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, iSchool Ph.D. student Prerna Juneja presented findings from a recently published paper, “Auditing E-Commerce Platforms for Algorithmically Curated Vaccine Misinformation,“ which was awarded a CHI Best Paper Honorable Mention.
The paper, written with iSchool assistant professor and Center for an Informed Public faculty member Tanu Mitra, details research that examined how vaccine misinformation has been amplified by algorithms used by Amazon and, through an auditing framework, found the e-commerce giant’s platform to be a “marketplace of multifaceted health misinformation,” as The Seattle Times wrote in a Jan. 28 article about their research. It’s a platform where searches surface books and other products that promote vaccine misinformation but also a place where “as customers engage with products espousing bogus science, Amazon’s recommendation algorithms point them to additional health misinformation.”
The research by Juneja and Mitra was conducted before the release of COVID-19 vaccines last year, but released earlier this year just as vaccine production and distribution was ramping up in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
During the iSchool’s May 18 Spring Lecture, “Algorithmic Bias and Governance,” which featured presentations from Mitra and iSchool associate professor Chirag Shah, Mitra pointed out that on the day of the lecture, Amazon searches she did continued to turn up some books promoting vaccine and other health misinformation.
Given that likelihood, Mitra said, more research and cross-sector collaboration is needed to better understand algorithms, related tech policy challenges and opportunities to mitigate harmful risks and behaviors.
“It is in the interest of organizations to actually work with their users, collaborators, interested third-parties and academics to think about how they can chart this way forward … for algorithmic governance and control these sorts of harmful behaviors,” Mitra said.