Published: 29 April, 2021
Author: Elise Thomas
The role of algorithms in propelling conspiracy theories and radicalisation has been brought into sharp focus by the interlocking crises of the past 12 months. Social media platforms have sought to tamp down on algorithmic recommendation of conspiracy theories and extremist content.
This briefing uses Amazon’s book sales platform to illustrate how these problems with algorithmic recommendation extend far beyond the social media platforms. At the core of this issue is the failure to consider what a system designed to upsell customers on 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 inadvertently but actively promoting these ideas to their customers.
The question of banning books is contentious and demands a broader conversation. However, there is a relatively simple solution to the problem of algorithmic amplification: turning recommendations off on these products, to avoid actively promoting harmful content and also avoid funnelling extra money into the pockets of its creators.
Elise Thomas is an OSINT Analyst at ISD, with a background in researching state-linked information operations, disinformation, conspiracy theories and the online dynamics of political movements.