Amazon donated $40,000 to the nation's leading source of vaccine misinformation

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Amazon has directly paid more than $40,000 to one of the nation's leading sources of vaccine misinformation, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), according to documents obtained exclusively by Popular Information.

The purpose of NVIC, according to one watchdog group, "is to encourage parents and adults not to vaccinate due to perceived dangers that are not accepted by science." The American Academy of Pediatrics said that those that help NVIC spread its message, "are putting the lives of children at risk, leaving them unprotected from vaccine-preventable diseases."

The cash was sent to NVIC by Amazon through a program called AmazonSmile. If an Amazon customer chooses to participate in AmazonSmile, Amazon donates 0.5% of eligible purchases to a United States non-profit of their choice. Amazon does disqualify some non-profits from participating, including those that promote "intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities." But NVIC is part of the program.

Amazon does not publicly disclose how much it donates to individual non-profits. Popular Information, however, obtained the information through VaxCalc Forum, a password-protected message board for the anti-vaccine movement. On VaxCalc, Chris Downey, a volunteer for NVIC who administers the organization's AmazonSmile account, posts regular updates on the money Amazon sends the organization.

Popular Information reviewed Downey's updates from December 2019, June 2020, and September 2020. Overall, Amazon has sent NVIC $41,533.71, including $8,371.17 over the last three quarters. This is the update Downey shared in September:

The amount sent from Amazon to NVIC has increased each of the last three quarters. Downey encourages VaxCalc users to enroll in the program. "Just a reminder that you can easily support NVIC with every Amazon purchase via," Downey wrote in a post this January.

But some VaxCalc users believe it won't last. "I am thinking that it is just [a] matter of time and we will see that they no longer are going to allow people to give or donate money through AmazonSmile to this type of organization. I hope I am wrong with my thought, but... better to be realistic," one user wrote.

In March 2019, the American Medical Association (AMA) wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and other technology executives, imploring them to do more to prevent the spread of "anti-vaccine related messages." The AMA wrote that "overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are among the most effective and safest interventions to both prevent individual illness and protect public health."

Amazon is sending thousands of dollars to NVIC at a time when scientifically accurate information about vaccines is more critical than ever. A COVID-19 vaccine is expected to become available within the next few months. Misinformation about the health and safety of such a vaccine, which is already being propagated by NVIC even before a vaccine is approved, could significantly extend the length of the pandemic.

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

How NVIC pushes misinformation about COVID

Founded in 1982, NVIC describes itself as the “largest and oldest U.S. consumer-led non-profit organization disseminating information about diseases, vaccines and informed consent to vaccination.” The non-profit actively campaigns against legislation encouraging or mandating vaccines and draws in more than $1 million in contributions each year. It is a major source of anti-vaccine misinformation.

NVIC's co-founder Barbara Loe Fisher argued, for example, that the U.S. uses vaccines to gain access to DNA and to, ultimately, “bring back eugenics and take over health care,” reported The Atlantic. A separate analysis in 2015 described the site as a “repository for information on vaccine injury” and found that “although visitors to the NVIC website will find a great deal of governmental and scientific information on vaccines and vaccination, they are also faced with a vast number of resources that cast vaccines as dangerous.”

In recent months, the group has downplayed the virus and promoted skepticism of COVID-19 vaccines, none of which have been approved by regulators. Fisher told the Financial Times in May that the NVIC is “concerned about fast-tracking the vaccine without proper study.” In June, the group published an article titled “How Fear of a Virus Changed Our World” and wrote:

[W]hy are the majority of people in educated societies like the U.S. cowering in fear before a virus that does not cause any symptoms or complications in the majority of children and adults under the age of 65, and has a mortality rate of about one percent, which is even lower if all the asymptomatic infections are counted?

Media Matters highlighted how parts of the NVIC’s special report on COVID-19 “adopt[ed] right-wing themes unrelated to vaccines, such as the claim that public health orders that promote social distancing result in a ‘loss of civil liberties’ and subject Americans to ‘quarantine shaming.’” In September, the NVIC published a newsletter questioning the legitimacy of masks, saying there was "confusion" about whether masks are effective.

Meanwhile, on its Facebook page, which has more than 209,000 followers, the NVIC routinely shares articles that highlight failed vaccine trials and downplays the severity of the virus. It has also been caught sharing vaccine conspiracy videos, including one by a QAnon influencer and another targeting Bill Gates.

The other anti-Vaccine groups benefiting from AmazonSmile

NVIC isn’t the only anti-vaccine group part of AmazonSmile. Other prominent anti-vaccine organizations are eligible for donations, including The Children’s Health Defense (CHD) and The Informed Consent Action Network.

Media Matters found that the CHD’s Facebook page, which has over 125,000 followers, “routinely shares evidence-free information about coronavirus.” A Facebook page associated with the founder of The Informed Consent Action Network, Del Bigtree, “has been pushing numerous claims that deny the severity of the coronavirus outbreak, advancing the claim that getting a flu shot makes you more susceptible to have a severe COVID-19 case, as well as attacks on coronavirus vaccine development.”

Amazon members can also donate to other state-level, anti-vaccine groups such as the Palmetto Family Council, Texans for Vaccine Freedom, Michigan for Vaccine Choice, Illinois Vaccine Awareness Coalition, and Mississippi Parents for Vaccine Rights, among many others.

How Amazon responded its last vaccine controversy

This isn’t the first time Amazon has come under fire for promoting anti-vaccine misinformation. In 2019, CNN Business reported that searches “for ‘vaccine’ on Amazon yielded a search page dominated by anti-vaccination content.” The page featured at least 15 anti-vaccination books and movies, including a sponsored post for the book “Vaccines on Trial: Truth and Consequences of Mandatory Shots.”

Some of these books and movies “made their anti-vaccination stance clear in their titles.” Others, like "Miller's Review of Critical Vaccine Studies" and "The Vaccine-Friendly Plan," had vague, neutral titles. Some of the anti-vaccine books were labeled as "Best Sellers."

In response, Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos regarding this issue.

The algorithms which power social media platforms and Amazon's recommendations are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information and, as a result, harmful anti-vaccine messages have been able to thrive and spread. The consequences are particularly troubling for public health issues.

In the letter, Schiff also expressed concern that “Amazon accepts paid advertising that contains deliberate misinformation about vaccines.”

Shortly after CNN’s Business report and Schiff’s letter, Amazon began removing anti-vaccine videos from its streaming service, including the notorious documentary “Vaxxed.” Many anti-vaccine books, however, remained on the platform. Currently, the first two search results for “vaccine” are “Miller’s Review of Critical Vaccine Studies” and “The Vaccine-Friendly Plan,” which still features a “Best Seller” tag.

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