Amazon Prime Video has its own conspiracy theory problem, but it’s nowhere near the scale of Google’s
A few months ago, Google admitted it had a problem, which is widely recognised as the first step to recovery. The problem in question was YouTube, and the way its algorithm points the conspiratorially minded to more and more extreme conspiracy theories.
This was a correct diagnosis, but the remedy was pretty pathetic for a company of YouTube’s riches. It was going to point people to Wikipedia for balance. As solutions go, it’s about as useless as equipping bar staff with tiny badges saying “ask me about AA,” while not bothering to warn the wearers that anyone might ask.
But YouTube isn’t alone in this problem, and another tech giant has been exposed as being complicit in the spread of paranoid nonsense: Amazon. An investigation by The Telegraph has uncovered a treasure trove of conspiracy theorist content hiding in the documentary section of the site. There you can find Alex Jones – the Infowars man, who stirred huge amounts of grief for victims by suggesting that children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre were state actors – and David Icke, Britain’s premier expert on government run by space lizards.
Jones’ films include Police State 2 through Police State 4 – a quartet of films not to be confused with the Police Academy series – as well as The Obama Deception, in which Jones claims a New World Order backed the former president’s administration to “con the American people into accepting global slavery.” Icke’s selection is more traditional conspiracy theory fare: aliens, UFOs, reptiles running the Earth, etc.
Is Amazon’s conspiracy theory problem as severe as YouTube’s?
No, and it’s not even close. While The Telegraph is able to highlight around a dozen conspiracy-tinted videos on Amazon Prime Video, it’s many magnitudes higher on YouTube. How many magnitudes? Well, that’s part of the problem: we don’t know. That’s a side-effect of a platform that gets 65-years’ worth of content uploaded every day, while automagically rewarding the outlandish with precious clicks. On Amazon, by contrast, there is a degree of editorial control, even if some of the decisions are questionable.
Perhaps more importantly though, significantly fewer people watch Amazon Instant Video than YouTube. Amazon may have 100 million Prime subscribers, but how many of them use it for their video fix is less clear. By contrast, YouTube is a free service, and gets around two billion people every month. That’s a far bigger well to poison and sociologically significant when that number encompasses nearly a quarter of the world’s population. And yes, most of those users will be dropping in for short DIY tutorials or recipes and not lizard-spotting tips, but there’s certainly scope to change hearts and minds. As former YouTube engineer Guillaume Chaslot revealed, Alex Jones videos were recommended by Google over 15,000,000,000 times while he was at the company.
Which brings me to another key differentiator: YouTube’s video recommendation engine is vastly more sophisticated than Amazon’s. That’s partly down to the difference in video length (Amazon is box sets and movies, while YouTube is broadly catering to three-minute attention spans), but is mainly down to the fact that Amazon doesn’t need to artificially hold attention spans. As CEO and founder Jeff Bezos famously said, the company makes videos to sell more shoes: Prime Video there purely to sell more stuff, so engagement time doesn’t really matter, as long as people keep their subscriptions for the other benefits.
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Which perversely makes the two sites’ relative culpability all the more troubling. Google makes a big show of wanting to make the world a better place, but is demonstrably failing with YouTube. Amazon, on the other hand, just wants to sell shoes – and conspiracy theorists need shoes as much as the next man (unless that man happens to be an illuminati space lizard, of course.)