The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This Amazon program has funneled thousands to anti-vax activists during the pandemic

The e-commerce giant helped fund the operations of anti-vaccine advocates and groups opposed to government-mandated vaccination through its AmazonSmile program.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. protests the coronavirus vaccination green pass in Milan, last month. Amazon sent his Children's Health Defense group nearly $11,000 last year. (Antonio Calanni/AP)

SEATTLE — Groups trying to discourage Americans from getting the coronavirus vaccine have raised tens of thousands of dollars for the efforts from Amazon.

AmazonSmile, a charitable-giving arm that donates a half percent of every purchase from its online store to the nonprofit of a shopper’s choice, gave more than $42,000 to a dozen anti-vaccine nonprofits last year, according a Washington Post analysis of its tax returns.

While it’s a relatively small amount — particularly out of the more than $60 million it shared with nonprofits overall — these groups are able to stretch funds in large part thanks to the nature of spreading viral messages on social media, said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy organization that’s focused on fighting vaccine misinformation.

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“They are able to do a lot of damage with very little money,” Ahmed said.

Even as Amazon has encouraged its workforce to get vaccinated, it will continue to fund groups that oppose vaccination, spokeswoman Stacey Keller said in an emailed statement.

“We respect that our customers have a wide variety of viewpoints on this matter, which is why the charities in question continue to be included in the list of organizations customers can choose from as part of AmazonSmile,” Keller said.

(Amazon founder and chairman Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon has faced criticism for indifference to the promotion of coronavirus misinformation before. This past summer, Amazon customers posted reviews of ivermectin on the site that touted the horse dewormer as a covid-19 treatment, even as the Food and Drug Administration has warned against human use of the animal version of the product. And it has faced criticism for publishing books on the topic.

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It’s part of a larger issue of the tech giant’s inability to control its platform, which has been plagued with issues including counterfeits and fake reviews as it pushed for bigger selection on its marketplace.

Founded in 2013, AmazonSmile lets almost all nonprofits participate, excluding those that are included on a list of hate groups from the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as those on the list of groups suspected of ties to terrorism compiled by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control. The groups must also qualify as a charitable organization, often called a 501(c)(3), with the Internal Revenue Service.

And according to the terms of AmazonSmile’s Participation Agreement, Amazon says it won’t give to organizations that “engage in, support, encourage, or promote … other illegal, deceptive, or misleading activities.”

Keller declined to comment on whether the activities of the groups to which AmazonSmile is sending money are deceptive or misleading.

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AmazonSmile, like other private foundations, is required to include a list of grants it gave on its tax returns, which are public. However, AmazonSmile’s list of grants is more than 1,700 pages of tiny text that can’t be searched with computer tools — and sorted by the amount of the donation, not alphabetically, making it difficult to figure out how much was given to specific groups.

In total, AmazonSmile doled out $60.5 million in 2020 to about 300,000 groups including the American Red Cross, Nature Conservancy and the Wounded Warrior Project, according to its tax filing.

Some of the groups that oppose vaccines and government-mandated vaccinations actively pursue AmazonSmile dollars. The Web homepages for the National Vaccine Information Center and Physicians for Informed Consent include prominent messages encouraging visitors to shop at AmazonSmile, using the program’s logo. AmazonSmile donations represent about 2 percent of total revenue for Physicians for Informed Consent, or $3,626, according to that group’s tax filings.

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AmazonSmile has faced previous criticism for funding controversial groups. In 2014, the Seattle Times reported that the program funded groups seeking to undermine lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality, even as the company offered benefits to same-sex partners of its employees and covered transgender surgical procedures. In 2019, the Guardian raised questions about the program funding anti-vaccination groups.

And last year, Popular Information, a newsletter, reported that Amazon had paid the National Vaccine Information Center $41,533 over several years through AmazonSmile, according to internal documents from the group it had obtained.

That group was again the biggest anti-vaccine beneficiary of AmazonSmile’s largesse in 2020, receiving $12,675. That group laid out plans to sow distrust in coronavirus vaccines a year ago, before they became widely available.

Amazon also paid $10,969 last year to Children’s Health Defense, a group founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that sued to block a D.C. law that allows minors to be vaccinated without their parents’ knowledge.

Amazon gave Informed Consent Action Network, which offered legal support to challenge vaccine requirements this past spring, $2,970.41 in 2020.

Del Bigtree, the founder of the Informed Consent Action Network, falsely claimed that coronavirus vaccines — which had just begun to be distributed in the United States — were “dangerous” at a private October 2020 conference hosted by the National Vaccine Information Center and observed by researchers from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

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Other vaccine opponents at the conference promoted supposed alternative treatments, like inhaling hydrogen peroxide, which does not in fact treat the coronavirus and can be harmful.

And last winter, after Kennedy shared dubious claims about the coronavirus, Instagram permanently banned him for “repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” according to Raki Wane, a spokeswoman for Meta, the Facebook parent company that also owns Instagram.

AmazonSmile contributions to Informed Consent Action Network account for less than 0.1 percent of the group’s annual budget, Bigtree said in an emailed response to questions. And Bigtree, who prefers the description “vaccine-risk aware” to “anti-vax,” said there would be “no impact on ICAN if the AmazonSmile funds stopped.”

In an email, Rita Scheffler, a spokeswoman for Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, called the group “a public interest organization that advocates for transparency and robust safety testing of vaccines and other medical interventions.”

None of the other groups responded to requests for comment.

Contributions via the AmazonSmile program make up a few percentage points, at most, of the anti-vaccine groups’ annual budgets, as reported in their tax filings.

Still, “Amazon is directly funding the disinformation that is being bombarded at people” and could endanger their lives, Ahmed said.

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In an emailed response to an inquiry from The Washington Post, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) called on Amazon to stop.

“Amazon has allowed COVID-19 misinformation to spread on its platform, while AmazonSmile is funding groups that spread dangerous COVID-19 and anti-vax misinformation,” Warren said. “I’ve called on Amazon to use its power to stop it, but they refuse to act. Amazon must put public health ahead of profits — this needs to end now.”

Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths persist nationwide as the country closes in on 50 million reported coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic. Those infections are rising as nearly two-thirds of the country has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine and more half the country is fully vaccinated, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And a CDC study published in September found that people who were not fully vaccinated this spring and summer were more than 10 times more likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times more likely to die of covid-19, than those who were fully vaccinated.