Ebook Services Are Bringing Unhinged Conspiracy Books into Public Libraries

Librarians say Holocaust deniers, antivaxxers, and other conspiracy theorists are being featured in the catalogs of a popular ebook lending service.

For years, the digital media service Hoopla has given library patrons access to ebooks, movies, and audiobooks through bulk subscriptions sold to public libraries. But more recently, librarians have started calling for transparency into the company’s practices after realizing its digital ebook collection contains countless low-quality titles promoting far-right conspiracy theories, COVID disinformation, LGBTQ+ conversion therapy, and Holocaust denial.

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In February, a group of librarians in Massachusetts identified a number of Holocaust denial and anti-Semitic books on Hoopla, including titles like “Debating The Holocaust” and “A New Nobility of Blood and Soil”—the latter referring to the infamous Nazi slogan for nationalist racial purity. After public outcry from library and information professionals, Hoopla removed a handful of titles from its digital collection.

In an email obtained by the Library Freedom Project last month, Hoopla CEO Jeff Jankowski explained that the titles came from the company’s network of more than 18,000 publishers: “[The titles] were added within the most recent twelve months and, unfortunately, they made it through our protocols that include both human and system-driven reviews and screening.”

However, quick Hoopla keyword searches for ebooks about “homosexuality” and “abortion” turn up dozens of top results that contain largely self-published religious texts categorized as “nonfiction,” including several titles like “Can Homosexuality Be Healed” which promote conversion therapy and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. This prompted a group of librarians to start asking how these titles are appearing in public library catalogs and why they are ranked so high. 

“If [ebooks containing disinformation] were on the tenth page of results it wouldn’t be as noticeable, but they’re on the first page of results,” Jennie Rose Halperin, the executive director of Library Futures, told Motherboard. “What this says to me is that vendors don’t think people who are accessing resources through public libraries deserve quality, verifiable information.”

Screenshots of Hoopla search results, courtesy of Jennie Rose Halperin accessed with a Boston Public Library card.

Hoopla serves more than 3,000 library systems and is in more than 8,500 public libraries across the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Hoopla allows library users to check out ebooks from their personal devices. All anyone needs to explore Hoopla’s ebook catalog is a registered public library card. Hoopla is one of a few major ebook vendors libraries use to ensure library-goers have access to digital content. But unlike other services like Overdrive, which lets librarians order individual ebooks, Hoopla only sells ebook subscriptions, meaning that libraries have little choice over what titles they're getting from the service. 

Unlike print books that libraries can buy directly from publishers, publishers only sell lending rights to ebooks using third-party vendors like Hoopla. Ebook use has been on the rise for the past decade, and vendors like Overdrive and Hoopla have claimed dramatic increases in ebook checkouts during the pandemic when many libraries were unable to operate at a full in-person capacity. Since March 2020, demand for ebook titles from lending services like Hoopla soared.

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Sarah Lamdan, a law professor at the City University of New York School of Law data analytics companies in publishing says many libraries choose to subscribe to bundles because it’s cheaper for libraries that are already strapped for cash. 

“We lease these streams of content like on Netflix or Spotify,” Lamdan told Motherboard. “It’s more expensive to be deliberate and choose titles a la carte than it is to buy one of these bundles, and [libraries] are not given a lot of choice about it. Although libraries are super trusted and seen as so important to society, they’re not properly funded.” 

“It’s just another way that the outsourcing of traditional information roles is really poisoning the well of fact and truth and reliable information sources,” Lamdan added.

A white supremacist ebook titled "A New Nobility of Blood and Soil" that has since been removed by Hoopla. Screenshot courtesy of the Library Freedom Project

Librarians also say that ebook subscription prices are unsustainable as they typically cost three times as much as a customer's ebook purchase through Kindle. This is emblematic of at least a decade of tension in the digital library market in which librarians have little power to negotiate with publishers and vendors over prices that continue to climb. Libraries are also operating in a time loop where they have to keep purchasing licenses from the Big-Five publishers (Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Macmillan, Penguin Randomhouse and Simon & Schuster) through what's called “metered access.” Typically ebook subscription licenses expire after a two-year term or after 26 circulations per purchase. Except the price keeps climbing.

At least eight states have introduced library ebook bills since 2020, many inspired in response to Macmillan’s 2019 embargo on frontlist ebook titles which prompted a number of appeals to both federal and state legislators. Each bill would require any publisher offering to license “an electronic literary product” to consumers in the state to also offer to license the content to public libraries “on reasonable terms” that would enable library users to have access. 

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While two bills passed unanimously last year in Maryland and New York, the bills are now effectively dead. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) filed suit last December, arguing that the Maryland law infringes on the exclusive rights granted to publishers and authors under copyright, moving for a preliminary injunction blocking the law. But earlier this month, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh noted in a court filing that the state would not provide any further evidence in response to the legal challenge from AAP. Last December, Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed New York's ebook law, citing the same legal concerns raised by the AAP in the Maryland lawsuit. 

Callan Bignoli, library director at Olin College of Engineering and member of the Library Freedom Project says that Hoopla is lacking in accountability and oversight measures. She notes that like social media platforms, there’s an aspect of secrecy around how Hoopla’s search algorithm works. Bignoli says the lack of transparency around Hoopla’s collection development processes is incompatible with library ethics. 

“[Librarians] are trained professionals that do an enormous amount of intentional collection development and spend a lot of time picking out the materials that make sense for our communities and also protecting our communities against disinformation,” Bignoli told Motherboard. “We’re dependent upon [Hoopla] to help us with this need for content and this need for selection and to pay costs that are cheaper, but in return, we’re getting this extremely nontransparent collection process and we don’t even know how this works.” 

Search results for "Vaccine" on Hoopla's digital catalog show various conspiracy ebooks about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issue comes at a time when schools and libraries are under attack for providing access to books about racial inequality and the LGBTQ+ community. The ebook lending business model also echoes concerns around the consolidation of social media and Big Tech platforms,  like Meta’s ownership of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. 

Shagun Jhaver is an assistant professor at Rutgers University researching content moderation and online harassment. He also sees parallels between Hoopla’s practices and other big tech companies in the uncertainty around how human moderation is happening at Hoopla, and how much control they have over what automated tools the company is using. One of the challenges companies that rely on automated tools are seeing is the emergence of Aesopian languages on social media platforms like Instagram, YouTube and TikTok where users use code words to circumvent having their posts flagged and removed by content moderation systems. 

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“As a platform, if you say that I’m going to ban any comment getting these 100 words, then people are just going to misspell those words slightly differently and try to get around them,” Jhaver told Motherboard. “We see a lot of that happening on these platforms where people infer that some keywords are automatically removed. So these are slightly distorted so that the people who are in the know or people who read it will be able to understand it, but they circumvent moderation, which is just looking for specific words.” 

In a statement from Hoopla emailed to Motherboard, the company reiterated that the Holocaust denial ebook titles were removed quickly from its platform: “We take seriously our role to help Libraries provide their patrons with access to a broad variety of content and customize the collection that best fits the needs of their communities. We are working to refine our policies and create more tools that empower Libraries to choose which titles they offer to their patrons. We have always listened to our Library partners to service them better, and we will continue to do so on this important topic.”

All the librarians interviewed for this story have called for more transparency and accountability from Hoopla and other ebook lending services, and for librarians’ right to choose which ebooks end up in their collections at an affordable price. But at a time when books are being challenged and banned at unprecedented rates, Halperin with Library Futures says it would be easy for adversaries to call out librarians for attempts to censor content even if the books on Hoopla's digital shelves that contain disinformation that has been historically and medically debunked. 

“The conversation around this should be nuanced,” Halperin said. “It’s not just a simple question about censorship. And the conversation about speech has been so poisoned by the book banning from the right, which means that we can’t have a nuanced conversation about what [materials] are appropriate for libraries to collect, what are appropriate collection development policies, what is appropriate for communities and what is useful for communities."

But all librarians interviewed for this story agree that more nuanced conversations around the censoring of books also need to be discussed with companies like Hoopla. Lamdan fears that without all parties' willingness to take the next step, more disinformation will appear on these platforms without explanation and possibly removed without explanation, and this will hurt the next generation. 

"I imagine [my children] going to the public library to research Anne Frank or to research the Holocaust," Lamdan said. "If they were to go to the library, use the catalog, the first page of results they would get would have this kind of misinformation on it. So it's not negligible, it's a big deal."

Tagged:

extremism, eBooks, Libraries, hoopla, covid conspiracies

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