The business of spreading misinformation online can be lucrative, and merchandising and donation sites are a vital part of this system, enabling conspiracy theorists to profit from spreading inaccurate and harmful content. Now, viewers on right-wing YouTube channels are being directed to buy books on Amazon containing misinformation and conspiracy theories — and creators are using the e-commerce platform to subsidize their misleading content.
We found these Amazon products in part via data from YouTube videos. Researchers with the Infodemic project — a coalition including King’s College London, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Manchester, and the Public Data Lab — investigated URLs shared by YouTubers who promote COVID-19 misinformation and uncovered a number of examples in which these channels shared Amazon links. For instance, Jerome Corsi’s book Killing the Deep State, which claims a network including “clandestine forces within the US intelligence apparatus,” media, and Democratic politicians conspired to “to block and undermine Trump’s every move,” was shared in the description of a YouTube video found by the Infodemic team.
Some of the conspiracy theories peddled on Amazon have previously gained traction in far-right spheres, like the Agenda 21 conspiracy theory that alleges the United Nations is engaged in global population control. Behind the Green Mask: U.N. Agenda 21 — the “how-to-manual for identifying and fighting UN Agenda 21” — was advertised on a YouTube channel that has since been removed for violating the platform’s community guidelines. The book is still available on Amazon.
Additionally, the directors of the film Plandemic, a movie featuring anti-vaccine conspiracy theories that racked up millions of views on Facebook and YouTube, have published a book echoing the same unfounded claims — and it is also available on Amazon.
Amazon also has an affiliate program — a service in which creators receive a commission when users buy Amazon products via their links – with seemingly low standards for inclusion. For instance, we found a YouTube channel that reposts right-wing media figure Candace Owens’ content — including videos questioning the integrity of the 2020 election — also advertised Amazon affiliate links in its video descriptions.
Stefan Molyneux, a white nationalist who once claimed that the “housing crash resulted from refusing to talk about racial IQ differences," was a member of the Amazon affiliates network as recently as August 2020, and he promoted affiliate links on his YouTube channel until he was banned from the streaming platform in June 2020 for promoting hate speech. His Amazon affiliate links now redirect to a page on his website which claims he left the program voluntarily.
Although Molyneux is no longer an Amazon affiliate, his books are still purchasable on Amazon and Kindle, and he has a dedicated author page featuring a sidebar that directs users to other famous racists like Mike Cernovich and Murray Rothbard.
Amazon is not only platforming these misinformers but also helping to fund them — and making a profit in return.
Like any marketplace, Amazon can determine which vendors it wants to work with and which products it wants to sell, and the company should seriously consider raising its standards to avoid supporting dangerous conspiracy theories and misinformation.