In the Amazon bookstore, “algorithms shape sales, but also public discourse”

While the European Commission has officially asked Amazon, as part of the European Digital Services Regulation (DSA), to provide more information on the means put in place to protect its users, researchers from the nonprofit organization non-profit AI Forensics and the company Check First looked at the recommendation algorithm of the American platform’s bookstore space.

In a report published Monday, December 11, the two entities highlight the fact that Amazon’s recommendation and search system “not only promotes misleading books on health, immigration, climate change and issues genre, but also traps users in such narratives.” The authors fear that “with 181 million Amazon users in the European Union alone, these risks [could] have disproportionate impacts.”

The investigators – who focused on the French and Belgian versions of the Amazon bookstore – took as their starting point a list of 2,000 best-sellers tackling highly debated social themes, such as health, ecology or ‘immigration. Over several weeks in October and November 2023, and using profiles with no history to analyze how the algorithm behaved by default, they then looked at what other books Amazon was directing people to from the product sheet, like the “Products frequently purchased together” section. In total, more than 60,000 book recommendations were analyzed.

The book, a legitimate source of information
The researchers find that “for 71.7% of Amazon France search results with the term “Covid,” the associated search queries contained books by authors known to spread misinformation.” On the same subject, “80% of the top 10 books question the existence of the pandemic, minimizing its effects on health or presenting it as a conspiracy. The proportion is even more alarming on the [keyword] “vaccine” since 90% of the results offer anti-vaccination stories,” details the report. On the subject of immigration, this time, researchers found that 30% of the top 10 works on this theme “propagate negative views on immigration”.

Contacted by Le Monde, the AI Forensics team considers these results to be all the more worrying given that “books represent a legitimate source of information in public opinion” whose contents would supposedly have more credibility than a publication on a social network. Furthermore, according to Raziye Buse Çetin of AI Forensics, these results would undoubtedly have been “considered unacceptable if they had been concluded about other platforms”.

Failing moderation
For the director of AI Forensics, Marc Faddoul, as for the researcher affiliated with EHESS Paul Bouchaud who worked on the investigation, there is no doubt that Amazon is much more than a simple and neutral Marketplace. “Amazon’s algorithms shape not only sales but also public discourse, notably through book recommendations. Our results highlight Amazon’s inability to put in place basic mechanisms to mitigate systemic risks, thus showing the limits of self-regulation through AI,” argues Mr. Faddoul. For the authors of the report, the results of their investigation show that Amazon is not within the scope of the DSA: “Under Article 34 of the DSA, platforms like Amazon are required to identify, to analyze and assess systemic risks, taking into account factors such as algorithmic systems and content moderation,” they specify.

Worse, Amazon would, according to them, contravene its own terms and conditions. Pointing out faulty moderation, the investigators noted that works with “sexually explicit content” (in particular hentai manga, of a pornographic nature) could appear in the categories of adolescent books or in general and general public categories such as “family and well-being “.

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