Monica Doumit: Amazon’s interesting little algorithm

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Amazon is willing to advertise books such as Philip Nitschke’s guide to ending your own life, but not one that questions the transgender movement. PHOTO: Photo: Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick/Lauwin-Park (02)/Wikimedia Commons/Cc-by-sa 3.0

Key marketer is promoting a book on ways to end your life

I’m sure all of you have had the experience where you go searching for something on Google, or even have a conversation about a product, and then – all of a sudden – advertisements for that or similar items start appearing as you browse the internet.

Advertisers use a combination of cookies and IP addresses to enable companies that want your money to place targeted ads on your Facebook or YouTube feed, or into the Google Ads boxes on the sites you visit.

“Are you sure you don’t want to buy it?”, the advertisements ask. “Why not reconsider?”, they taunt. Even though they don’t do it in so many words, that’s the subtext.

“If you were looking for a sign that maybe you should just end it all, perhaps the email from Amazon might be it.”

We’ve all seen it happen and, while we might find it annoying and a little creepy, I think most of us have come to accept it as part of living in a digital world. I had come to accept it, or at least I thought I had, until today.

Earlier in the week, I was reading the story of a Queensland man named David Sanford. Sanford is 84 years old and in good health, but wanted to learn about ways to kill himself if his health were to deteriorate, so he bought a copy of Philip Nitschke’s book, The Peaceful Pill Handbook.

For those unfamiliar with the book, it describes a variety of ways in which someone might take their own life, and crudely provides ratings of the methods outlined in terms of ease of access and use, reliability of death occurring and more. It is indeed as awful as it sounds and, for this reason, was banned for sale in Australia.

Sanford ordered his copy from overseas, but it was intercepted by customs before it got to him. Instead, two police officers paid him a visit to check on his welfare, as they would anyone who was notified to them as a risk of self-harm. The visit made the news because euthanasia activists, including Nitschke, objected to the police doing their job.

Given the timeliness of this event to the debates over euthanasia in South Australia and Queensland, I did a bit more reading on the topic and tried to see how many outlets were advertising the book for sale to Australians, notwithstanding the ban.

Three days later, I woke up to an email from Amazon, suggesting that I purchase the book, “based on [my] recent activity.” In other words, I woke up to an email from Amazon recommending that I should investigate ways to kill myself.

Wow, thanks Amazon.

At first, I shrugged it off because – as I mentioned – I have come to accept the targeted advertising that our digital world brings. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I was researching The Peaceful Pill Handbook for my job. But every day, too many people are researching it and books like it, and the products they describe, because they want to kill themselves.

Imagine that, in a moment of weakness, depression or distress, you search suicide methods online. Imagine still that the moment passed and, by the grace of God, you manage to chase those thoughts from your mind and the contemplation of self-harm goes away.

And then, imagine that like me, three days later, you get an email asking you to reconsider buying the book. If you were looking for a sign that maybe you should just end it all, the email from Amazon might be it.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” the advertisement asks. “Why not reconsider?”, it taunts. Even though it doesn’t do it in so many words, that’s the subtext, particularly to the vulnerable.

I suspect that people will say that the marketing is unintentional; that it’s just the way that the algorithms work and, while unfortunate, it’s not malicious. And I agree with that. But I also think that Amazon, if it wanted to, could tweak the algorithm so that anyone who researches books about suicide doesn’t receive direct marketing for more of them.

If the Amazon boffins are smart enough to ensure that books that question the deleterious effect of the transgender movement are either not sold on its site at all (just ask Ryan T. Anderson about his book, When Harry Became Sally), or sold, but with sponsored advertisements blocked (like what happened with Abigail Shrier’s book, Irreversible Damage), then they would be smart enough to ensure sponsored advertisements for books counselling someone to suicide aren’t delivered into people’s inboxes.

In fact, I’m sure they are smart enough to set the algorithm so that someone searching books about suicide would end up seeing targeted advertisements for mental health services in their local area, or for other forms of support they could access quickly and easily.

The technology is there, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and suggest perhaps they’ve never thought of it. I’m going to write to them and see if they might consider doing something about it. I’ll let you know how I go.

Lifeline Australia 131114
Beyond Blue 1300 2246 3624

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