Amazon appears to have donated $40,000 to a top source of vaccine misinformation, according to a screenshot posted by a volunteer for the group

Rachel E. Greenspan
·6 min read
Amazon
Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
  • Amazon contributes money to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), a top source of vaccine misinformation in the US, through its AmazonSmile program. 

  • The company appears to have given more than $40,000 to the group, Popular Information reported. 

  • The NVIC is "one of the most prominent organizations that has been against vaccines of any kind," K. "Vish" Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider, adding that Amazon's funding of NVIT is "shocking." 

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Amazon appears to have donated $40,000 in funds to a major source of vaccine misinformation, according to a report from Popular Information. 

The Popular Information newsletter, founded by journalist Judd Legum, reported on Thursday that Amazon has been funneling funds to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). 

Through AmazonSmile, Amazon donates .5% of eligible purchase profits to the charity an individual user has chosen to support. NVIC is one such organization that the company allows users to contribute to.

AmazonSmile donation records are not publicly available, but Insider confirmed on Amazon's website that users are able to choose the NVIC as their AmazonSmile charity of choice. More than one million 501(c)(3) tax-exempt non-profits are available for donations on AmazonSmile. 

Popular Information's reporting was based on a screenshot of Amazon donation records shared on an anti-vaxx message board by a NVIC volunteer. The outlet obtained the screenshot —  which the volunteer said showed the AmazonSmile donation records to his organization — from a closed message board called VaxCalc Forum.

According to that screenshot, posted by NVIC volunteer Chris Downey in September, AmazonSmile had given the group $41,533.71 to date. Downey did not immediately respond for comment.

Insider was unable to independently obtain a copy of the image showing donation records, as users need to be approved by the anti-vaxx forum in order to view the conversations. 

Screen Shot 2020 10 30 at 3.54.05 PM
Amazon allows users to donate a portion of their purchases to the National Vaccine Information Center, a top source of vaccine misinformation in the US. Screenshot/Amazon

The NVIC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson told Insider that organizations have to meet Amazon's requirements in order to participate in AmazonSmile.

"Organizations that engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities are not eligible," the spokesperson said. "If at any point an organization violates this agreement, its eligibility will be revoked. Since 2013, Amazon has relied on the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control and the Southern Poverty Law Center to help us make these determinations."

The National Vaccine Information Center is a huge source of anti-vaccination sentiment in the US 

The NVIC is "one of the most prominent organizations that has been against vaccines of any kind," K. "Vish" Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Insider. "The fact that one of the most prominent, richest, successful companies is actually funding them is shocking." 

The non-profit organization "campaigns against legislation encouraging or mandating vaccines," Popular Information reported. 

According to the group's website, the NVIC is "dedicated to preventing vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and advocating for informed consent protections in medical policies and public health laws." Barbara Loe Fisher, the NVIC president whom Viswanath said is the nation's most visible spokesperson for "spreading anti-vaccine sentiment," co-founded the group in 1982.  

Despite their similar names, the NVIC is unaffiliated with the National Vaccine Program Office of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The "innocuous" name of the group is "very intentional," Viswanath said, as it makes the group appear more credible than it is. 

"They're very sophisticated in the way they cast seeds of doubt — doubts of vaccines, the effectiveness of vaccines, and the safety of vaccines," Viswanath said. 

That sophistication is evident on the group's website, where a landing page called "Introduction to Autism Information" frames the debunked myth that vaccines cause autism as a "debate." There is no link between vaccines of any kind of developmental disability. 

Viswanath said that while Amazon may not have realized the group's true purpose, it's up to the company to take stock of organizations receiving money through AmazonSmile. "They have to realize that they are funding an organization that is anti-public health and anti-science," he said. "It's a question of values that they want to espouse as a company."

It's not Amazon's first brush with criticism over appearing to support anti-vaccination 

AmazonSmile also partners with other anti-vaccination groups, Popular Information reported, including the Children's Health Defense and the Informed Consent Action Network, both of which have shared COVID-19 misinformation on Facebook, according to Media Matters for America (MMFA), the progressive media watchdog. 

In March 2019, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California pressured Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop facilitating the spread of vaccine misinformation through anti-vaccination books available on Amazon, The Verge reported

"Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public-health catastrophe," Schiff wrote Bezos in a letter, one year before misinformation related to the COVID-19 pandemic would begin to threaten every social platform. 

While other tech companies like Facebook have announced efforts to curb the spread of misinformation during the pandemic, Amazon has been slow to act on removing products related to the QAnon conspiracy theory, declining to comment when previously asked by Insider about the company's stance on the movement. 

Vaccine misinformation is increasingly dangerous during the pandemic 

Though infectious disease experts have repeatedly warned that the pandemic is not to be taken lightly — 229,000 people have died of the virus in the US alone — myths about the virus and its spread have continued to swarm social media. 

The NVIC has been a source of COVID-19 misinformation. In a June article, the organization questioned the severity of COVID-19, asking, "why are the majority of people in educated societies like the U.S. cowering in fear," a common far-right talking point amid the pandemic. 

Along with other prominent anti-vaccination groups, the NVIC is using "Facebook and other major social media platforms to lay the groundwork for widespread coronavirus vaccine rejection," MMFA reported

As Popular Information reported, the group's Facebook page has shared several posts containing false information about the virus, including the false claim that wearing face masks can be dangerous.

In May, the NVIC also shared a conspiracy theory from QAnon influencer Miss Polly, who is credited with helping start the Wayfair conspiracy theory in July and has since been banned from YouTube. "Another BOOM from Amazing Polly," the group said in the post's caption. 

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, whose false claims have gotten him banned from mainstream social media platforms, has called the NVIC "the best-informed group trying to expose the dangers of vaccines," The Atlantic reported

Because the NVIC is against government-mandated vaccines, Viswanath said there's huge overlap between antigovernment or conspiracy theory groups and the NVIC, particularly during the pandemic. 

The concern, of course, is how "mainstream" this type of misinformation has become during the pandemic, Viswanath said, as groups like the NVIC are "amplifying voices against government mandates" related to healthcare. "This is not laying on one corner of the internet," he said. 

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