As panicked consumers buy up hand sanitizer, masks, and other supplies in the hopes of staving off the fast-spreading coronavirus, a shadowy array of grifters and opportunists are flocking to Amazon.com and other online booksellers to capitalize on public fear, producing a steady stream of books and manuals that claim to hold the secret to surviving the outbreak.
Since late January, hundreds of titles related to COVID-19—as the disease caused by the virus is known—have come up for sale online, many of which appear to be written under false or misleading names. One series of books, which includes Coronavirus 101: Everything You Should Know to Avoid Illness and Protect Yourself from the Wuhan 2020 Outbreak and Coronavirus and Face Masks: The Truth, claim to be co-authored by a Dr. Zoe Gottlieb.
Gottlieb’s author page, which features a stock photo of a woman in a lab coat—shot from behind—describes her as a “psychology and infectious diseases expert” with a degree in bioengineering and biomedical sciences from the University of California. A literature search for Gottlieb and her “extensive publication record in immunology and infectious disease outbreaks” turns up zero results. Some of Gottlieb’s books appeared “out of print” Friday morning, following questions from Undark.
Another two books, which were available Wednesday but have since been removed, listed their author as Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who was said to hold a medical degree, along with multiple masters degrees. (The biographical details did not match those of CNN’s chief medical correspondent by the same name.) Yet another publication, titled Coronavirus Disease: A Practical Guide for Preparation and Protection, listed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as its lead author, and a non-existent agency, the U.S. Department of Health, as a co-author. It has also been removed by Amazon, but remains available to order from Barnes and Noble. Representatives of HHS did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment regarding the book.
Some of the titles, which often lack proper grammar and formatting, traffic in dark conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the virus, while many others appear to simply repeat information that is already freely available from public health agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. And while it’s unclear how many of these hastily produced books are being sold, as of Thursday afternoon at least five coronavirus-related titles appeared among the top 100 bestsellers in Amazon’s medical e-book category, with a seemingly dashed-off title about face masks and coronavirus taking the number one spot. In the broader medical books category, that same book—ostensibly written under a pen name by a doctor in Vietnam—was listed as the 31st bestseller as of Friday morning, ahead of science books like The Body: a Guide for Occupants by award-winning author Bill Bryson, or Being Mortal, by surgeon and science writer Atul Gawande. The book itself, however, now appears to have been removed from the online retailer’s website.
Amazon declined to make a representative available for an interview, but in an emailed statement sent by company spokesperson Stephany Rochon, the company stated that it has “always required sellers, authors, and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages,” and that products that violate its policies are removed. “In addition,” the statement read, “at the top of relevant search results pages we are linking to CDC advice where customers can learn more about the virus and protective measures.”
Last month, Business Insider reported that some Amazon vendors were selling books that contained unsubstantiated claims, including titles like Jesus vs. Satan: The Origins of the Coronavirus and Military Virus Apocalypse: Biological Warfare, Bioweapons, and China Coronavirus Pandemic. Though the company now appears to have removed some of those books and is cracking down on vendors that claim to cure or protect against coronavirus, other titles, including one that states “only God can cure coronavirus,” as of Friday morning remain available for sale.
According to David Ropeik, a risk communication consultant, vendors hawking products that capitalize on people’s fear is nothing new. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, he said, the market was flooded with emergency preparedness equipment, including gas masks to protect against anthrax exposure. Such masks, even if consumers purchased the proper type, are only of use if the wearer receives prior warning of a biological weapon attack, Ropeik noted, adding that these exploits are not without public cost. “Marketing to our fear,” Ropeik said, “is a component of social amplification that does real harm.”
Amazon has come under criticism in the past for allowing the distribution and sale of scientifically dubious materials. Following complaints last year, the company was nudged into removing some anti-vaccination documentary films from its streaming platform, although at least one remains available as a DVD. It also removed several books that touted dubious cures for autism—and other internet giants, including Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest, and even public libraries, have all come under scrutiny for being conduits of misinformation.
Allowing opportunists to peddle simple survival guides or hasty compilations of publicly available information would seem to have fewer social consequences, beyond attempting to profit off the ignorance—or desperation—of the unwitting. But Ropeik suggested that whatever the harm, those looking to cash in on coronavirus anxieties are not solely to blame. “Saying it’s Facebook’s fault, or WhatsApp’s fault, or Amazon’s fault—and [that] they should police this better,” Ropeik said, “is overlooking the truth that it’s us that we’re talking about, and our behavior.”
Whether or not that’s fair, it’s clear that online book retailers, which have endeavored to make self-publishing cheap and frictionless, are proving to be highly attractive to hucksters who seem to know an opportunity when they see one. Through its Kindle Direct Publishing service, Amazon promises that sellers can publish e-books and paperbacks for free in “less than 5 minutes.” Publications then appear on Kindle stores across the globe within 24 to 48 hours. If a seller wants to create physical copies of their books, the service will print them on demand once a customer makes a purchase.
Amazon is by no means alone, and many of the same or similarly dubious titles can be found at Barnes and Noble, Walmart, and other retailers. Barnes and Noble’s own self-publishing service advertises that its process takes “as little as 20 minutes” and that books will become available on its website within 72 hours. There appears to be no vetting of authorship or content, and according to Business Insider, Amazon has responded to questions about some of the more spurious materials by saying that it seeks to provide customers with access to a variety of viewpoints.
One elaborately named title available at Barnes and Noble includes misspellings and variant capitalization on its cover: “Coronavirus: Wuhan Coronavirus: All Secrets Revelead [sic]. Mankind is under attack.” The tome promises to deliver “The History and the Ways To Combat Its Spread And Prevent another Epidemic.” The paperback costs $8.95.
Another series of books, selling for upwards of $33 each, includes titles like Equine Coronavirus: Everything a Horse Lover Needs to Know and Canine Coronavirus: Everything a Dog Lover Needs to Know—the latter an apparent attempt to capitalize on recent news that at least one dog, a 17-year-old Pomeranian in Hong Kong, had tested positive for low levels of the novel coronavirus (there’s little evidence that this is widespread or a danger to humans). The author, listed as Malik Hill, Ph.D., also sells books about coronavirus in rabbits and fish, as well as a paperback promising to enlighten readers on “How to Buy a House for Literally $0!”
Journalist and author Maria Konnikova, whose 2017 book The Confidence Game sought to shed light on the psychology and motives of hustlers, suggested that exploiting public fear is a common tactic. “We know that con artists absolutely love crises and moments of panic,” she wrote in an email. “They thrive on uncertainty and instability, when people are emotional and not quite sure which end is up.”
And even if the information isn’t always wrong in the current crop of books related to the novel coronavirus—which as of Friday had infected at least 98,200 people around the globe, and killed at least 3,300—Konnikova suggested that a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted. “The people putting them out for the most part have no knowledge or authority—and so, the false will likely be lumped in with the true,” she said.
“But people will still buy them,” she added, “because they want something to cling to.”
Jane Roberts is the deputy editor of Undark.