In the wake of the Pittsburgh massacre, I invited my followers on Twitter to send me their inquiries about anti-Semitism. The response was overwhelming, and ran the gamut from questions about specific aspects of the prejudice to requests for advice on how to help fight it. One reader asked for more information about the Rothschild family, the Jewish banking dynasty that is a favorite bogeyman of anti-Semites and is typically used as a stand-in for the Jewish conspiracy that purportedly controls world affairs. He explained that some in his circle of friends regularly make bigoted remarks about the Rothschilds and their vast power and he wanted to set them straight. I’d written a report about the Rothschilds in school years ago, but figured there was probably better, more up-to-date material out there. So like anyone else, I went to Amazon.com and plugged in “history of rothschilds.” To my surprise, this is what I got:
Rather than direct me to serious scholarship on the Rothschilds, like historian Niall Ferguson’s multivolume history on the family, Amazon first recommended blatantly bigoted content.
This isn’t the only instance of Amazon’s algorithm feeding intellectually bankrupt content to intellectually curious readers regarding fraught subjects. A search for “who did 9/11” yields this book as the #1 search result:
As the book’s own blurb notes, its author, Nick Kollerstrom, is a “longtime member of Britain’s 9/11 truth group.” Among other conspiracies, the book contains an entire chapter entitled “9/11 and Zion” which blames the attack on the Jews. (Kollerstrom also happens to be a Holocaust denier who infamously declared, “Let us hope the schoolchildren visitors are properly taught about the elegant swimming pool at Auschwitz, built by the inmates, who would sunbathe there on Saturday and Sunday afternoons while watching the water polo matches.”)
Similarly, if one searches for “Jews and the slave trade,” the second, fourth, and fifth results are not scholarship on the subject, but notoriously anti-Semitic publications from Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. Farrakhan has worked for years to mainstream the baseless anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews were behind the African slave trade.
(All searches above were done logged out from Amazon while incognito on Chrome, to ensure that the search results were the default ones, and not influenced by the specific user or their past search history.)
This isn’t Amazon’s first run-in with anti-Semitism concerns. Back in 2000, the company came under fire for stocking The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most influential anti-Semitic tracts in history. At the time, while firmly distancing itself from the bigoted content, Amazon insisted that it would not remove it from the catalog, because the company does not censor books. Today, copies of The Protocols on Amazon carry a cautionary message from the Anti-Defamation League and the following disclaimer from the company:
As a bookseller, Amazon strongly believes that providing open access to written speech, no matter how hateful or ugly, is one of the most important things we do. And because we think the best remedy for offensive speech is more speech, we also make available to readers the ability to make their own voices heard and express their views about this and all our titles in reviews and ratings.
It’s a reasonable defense. But it does not cover Amazon’s algorithm prioritizing the bigoted books over the legitimate ones.
The problem here is not that Amazon sells anti-Semitic material. The problem here is not that Amazon is trying to be anti-Semitic. It’s that the company is ignorant of anti-Semitic ideas, and so has not trained its algorithm to discount them. If a human librarian were asked about the Rothschilds, 9/11, or Jews and the slave trade, they would know how to distinguish between conspiratorial rantings and genuine documentation. They would also likely be aware of the anti-Semitic canards swirling around the subjects, and would steer interested readers away from them. Amazon’s vaunted search engine, perfectly tuned to maximize sales and the user’s shopping experience, has no such cultural competency.
Beyond the moral failure, these results also represent a straightforward professional failure. When a person searches for “history of rothschilds,” they are looking for historical information on the family, not a book featuring a shadowy figure squeezing blood out of globe. A bookselling algorithm that feeds readers misinformation is a broken bookselling algorithm.
If big tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google want to get serious about combating online hate and misinformation, they need to start developing cultural competency on bigotry—and fast. They need not just coding experts working on their algorithms, but anti-hate experts who can flag conspiratorial currents. After all, it’s impossible for computers to identify a prejudice if they don’t know what it looks like. It’s about time we started teaching them.