Inside the health books on Amazon: Pseudoscience and unsubstantiated remedies

By: nabeela khan&
May 24 2023

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Inside the health books on Amazon: Pseudoscience and unsubstantiated remedies

Source: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Social media is often criticized for amplifying conspiracy theories and mis/disinformation, but what happens when false remedies, pseudoscience, and unsubstantiated treatments are readily circulated through books sold on one of the biggest e-commerce giants, Amazon?

The problem of troubled content available on Amazon and Kindle is massive and not new. Amazon has previously been called out for presenting medically unverified advice and products to customers, especially related to coronavirus. In fact, a study from researchers at the University of Washington showed how Amazon's algorithm promoted vaccine misinformation.

Despite the criticism, we found that medical misinformation still flourishes on the platform. We looked at books under two categories – cures for cancer and liver diseases. The categories were chosen keeping in mind the amount of unverified information online.  We also looked at books on liver cirrhosis and liver diseases. While researching we also came across books on COVID-19, heart diseases, HIV, and even text on "cures" for homosexuality. 

Misinformation galore - of cancer cures and herbal remedies

Our search on Amazon's India website took us to a book that claims to prevent and cure cancer in 90 days or less and is available on Kindle. According to this book, "research shows that there are natural remedies that can effectively kill cancer cells within 90 days.."

The book also claims that thousands of "cancer-free" people include patients with all types and stages of cancer, including many terminal cancer patients. User comments have criticized the book and the falsehood, but it is still available for sale. The book also suggests that cannabis oil can kill cancer. 

However, this is not scientifically proven. According to Cancer Research U.K., the world's largest independent cancer research organization, "There has been a lot of interest in whether cannabinoids might be useful as a cancer treatment. So far, scientific research has been laboratory research, with mixed results, so we do not know if cannabinoids can treat cancer in people." 

The description of another book titled "HOW TO CURE CANCER: Find Out 10 Simple Ways to Fight off Cancer" states, "I have confidence in treating malignant growth with anything that works and doesn't compound the situation. Yet, it's implied that medical procedures and harming shouldn't be satisfactory approaches to treating a sickness, which is repairable in alternate ways." We found the keywords cure for 'cancer' yielded many results on Amazon promoting alternative cancer treatments such as how to defeat cancer, cancer alternative treatments, and natural cures for cancer. 

Experts have, however, warned against using alternative treatments. Cancer Research U.K. explains, "Some alternative therapies might be harmful and cause side effects. They might interfere with your conventional cancer treatment."

The retail giant's policy on misinformation isn't clearly mentioned on its website. The policy emphasizes on illegal content, offensive content such as pornography, sexual exploitation of children, and pedophilia among other things. However, in the past, Amazon has removed several books that have promoted misinformation about COVID-19.

Books on liver diseases promote similar treatments

Similarly, searching for 'cures for liver diseases' yielded results that showed us a book titled "the ultimate guide on how to cure common diseases and detox the liver."

The book claims, "doctors don't know how to heal those diseases. All that is available are medicines to help control them, which is great, but wouldn't it be great if there was something you could do that would get rid of the disease altogether?" This book suggests diets and treatment methods by Dr. Sebi, a self-proclaimed herbalist healer who died in 2016. 

Sebi claimed to cure all diseases with herbs and a plant-based alkaline diet. He was considered a quack by licensed doctors, attorneys, and consumer protection agencies in the U.S. He was arrested and accused by New York State for practising medicine without a license and later prohibited from making therapeutic claims for his supplements.

Dr. Cyriac Abby Philips, a specialist in hepatology and liver transplant medicine popularly known as TheLiverDoc on Twitter, read through the book and told Logically Facts, "Many common alternative medicine treatments sought by cancer patients are pseudoscientific and contain a host of herbal remedies. They can cause negative side effects – direct herbal toxicity on liver or kidneys; and also interact with standard conventional treatments – whereby their effect is reduced or avoidable toxicity is promoted."

"The book was poorly written, with illogical and irrational content, replete with unsubstantiated claims and magical thinking," he added. These books often discourage people from opting for clinical prognosis. Moreover, experts warn that herbal supplements are not a substitute for medical treatments.  

We asked Philips why people reject conventional medicine. To which he replied, "Studies have shown that people who were more susceptible to health misinformation had less education and health literacy and have a positive attitude toward alternative medicine." Several similar books on liver diseases and cures for cirrhosis are listed on Amazon. 

Books promoting HIV cures and more

Many books related to HIV cures with alternative treatments are also available. Another bizarre disclosure was a book recommending healing through prayers. Amazon also recommended books that promoted herbal cures for Herpes and HIV. 

The top results for books about coronavirus, available in India, included a book titled "how to come back alive from hospital." Books describing the author's claims include, "I now present the treatment protocol, which not only has the potential to halt the flu/COVID-19 within two hours but can also help patients to cure chronic respiratory diseases like Pneumonia, Asthma, and Tuberculosis." 

There are other books promoting conspiracy theories around COVID-19, which have been debunked by fact-checkers worldwide. Authors Prerna Juneja, a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington's Information School and Professor of social computing Tanu Mitra called Amazon a "marketplace of multifaceted health misinformation." 

We reached out to Juneja to understand more about their study on the e-commerce website's algorithm. Although her research on Amazon was conducted in 2020, she said, "as of today, when I search "vaccine" on Amazon, I discovered that several anti-vaccine books still appeared prominently in the top search results. It is important to note that these books were already present on the platform during my audit in 2020. This observation suggests that Amazon has not yet taken decisive action to address the presence of these problematic health misinformation books on its platform."

Logically Facts has also reached out to Amazon to understand more about their misinformation policy, and the story will be updated if and when we receive a response.

How fake reviews add to the pool of problems?

Fake reviews are another global issue with Amazon, leading to rampant availability of products and literature that otherwise would have been removed. Product reviews from users provide information to help a buyer decide whether to buy a particular product. However, illegitimate reviews can boost sales of unsafe products. 

The issue arose from paid positive reviews. A 2021 report found that many reviews may have been paid for by the sellers themselves.  Author forums and social media groups for writers have been complaining over authentic literature suffering while many others are gaming the system. An Indian author whose reviews on Amazon were removed, consequently impacting the ranking of her books says that Amazon remains tight-lipped on the question. 

However, a review does not go live immediately. It goes through quality checks and other parameters according to Amazon's policy. Therefore, reviews are often removed.

Amazon has taken strict measures to prevent consumers from posting fake reviews on books and products. In February 2023, Amazon filed lawsuits to protect its customers and selling partners by stopping fake review brokers.

However, there is lack of clarity on how many books Amazon has taken down so far, and how the global giant plans to curb the massive reach of unregulated health misinformation available in its marketplace. 

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We rely on information to make meaningful decisions that affect our lives, but the nature of the internet means that misinformation reaches more people faster than ever before