The stock market is crashing, travel companies are going bust and workers on zero-hour contracts are starting to worry whether they will receive sick pay or not. But some people have found a way to profit off the back of the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s not just loo roll manufacturers.
Since the start of the year, a handful of e-books have been published on Amazon claiming to offer expert advice on how to survive coronavirus. Now, a search for “coronavirus” on the Kindle store brings up 860 results. At best, these books are profiting from repurposing information already widely available, and at worst they are spreading conspiracy theories.
The people behind the books are using pseudonyms, fake reviews and buzzwords to make their way to the top of Amazon’s bestseller lists. And they mostly seem to be getting away with it, too.
Some of the books are using names of official departments to appear legitimate. One entitled Coronavirus Disease: A Practical Guide for Preparation and Protection, which is available to buy on the Kindle store for £6.71, has listed one of its authors as ‘U.S. Dep. of Health & Human Services’. The real HHS confirmed to VICE this was not an official publication.
Others are using fake authors and fake reviews to sell copies. Two of the books have very similar long-winded names, WUHAN CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19): Facts, Myths and Everything in Between… All You Need to Know About the 2020 Pandemic by Sarah Wisconsin and Wuhan 2020 Coronavirus Outbreak: (Definition, Symptoms, Transmission, and Prevention) – All You Need To Know About Ncov Including A Simple Guideline to Protect Yourself and Travel Advice by Dr Carla Peng.
Both these authors have no social media presence, or any evidence of them being real people, and both books have a five-star rating with around 30 reviews, most of which are ‘verified purchases’. This would probably be enough to convince a worried buyer they are legit, but a closer look at the reviews shows otherwise. Both books have been reviewed by four of the same people, the usernames Anthony*, peter higbee, Teri Mikkelsen and Cristal. In fact, Cristal copied and pasted the exact same review on both books.
Two reviews on Sarah Wisconsin’s book are almost identical, except for a couple of words being swapped. Reviewer Filomena Falor says: “This book is non one-sided and just referencing realities that you can cross reference. If not, they will say they are uncertain, which tells us precisely what we are managing” while peter higbee goes for the slightly more normal-sounding “This book is non biased and only mentioning facts that you can cross reference. If not, they will say they are unsure, which lets us know exactly what we are dealing with”.
Of course, there is a chance these users are simply passionate about coronavirus and want to share their love for these books, but a Google search for their usernames brings up dozens of other reviews. They are all for e-books with hardly any other reviews, all worded in similarly strange ways. Perhaps even more strangely, most of the other reviews are either for self-help books, IT explainers or keto diet or ‘one-pot’ cookbooks.
One of these reviewers, "Charl Esang" has a particularly varied set of interests, including weight loss for women, ancient Rome and early ejaculation. And, of course, coronavirus.
Charl Esang is also particularly keen on the books of a "John Leggette MD", who has written 45 e-books including how to apply acrylic nails, making sourdough and his ”joystick enlargement experience”. But John Leggette is also the author of some downright dubious books, including some claiming to ‘’treat” autism with CBD and one advocating for using hydrogen peroxide (i.e. bleach) to treat cancer. He’s also written a book on how to publish e-books on Amazon – probably the only area he has any authority in.
While it’s safe to say many of these e-book "authors" do not exist, I tracked one down. Jerry Abrahamson is the CEO of a Californian company named Curis AI, which makes a guided meditation app. Jerry's LinkedIn page lists a degree from All Saints University School of Medicine, a private university in the Caribbean. On LinkedIn, I asked him why he decided to write the book CoronaVirus COVID19 Survival Handbook: Facts, Symptoms, Modes of Transmission, Prevention & Treatment.
“I wrote the book to counter misinformation spreading about the Coronavirus, even from television networks with wide reach,” he said. I asked him what misinformation he meant. “Wearing masks and the other myths I touched on.” Interesting choice, then, to put a picture of a man in a mask on the front cover.
In fact, Jerry’s book itself gives conflicting information about whether you need a mask or not. In one section, it says “wearing a mask is absolutely unnecessary if you’re not a health worker or caring for a COVID19 patient”. Another says: “the mask is needed only in case of respiratory symptoms like cough; If not, there is no need for the use of a medical mask.” A later section suggests wearing a mask for air travel. He says this is because air travel is particularly dangerous, extreme measures are needed.
So what’s the real advice on masks? “Wearing a standard facemask will not protect you from coronavirus in the general environment,” says Natalie Cookson, an A&E doctor in London. “These masks are difficult to fit tightly to your face and, allowing the virus to pass through holes and gaps.” In fact, she says wearing masks can make people to touch their face more frequently, actually increasing the chance of transmission of the virus from your hands to your mouth.
The most important advice is, if you have any symptoms, stay away from A&E or your GP office, as all you will do is trigger them to pause work to clean the place. “The first thing to do to is check NHS 111 website where up to date advice is published daily,” says Cookson. “You will be directed to the correct healthcare resource, either online or over the phone, depending on your needs.”
“This is everyone’s responsibility,” she says. “We must work together to stop the spread so stockpiling your own hand gel will not prevent the person on the train who hasn’t washed their hands from transmitting the virus to you.”
Amazon has removed some of these books, but at the time of writing all those described above remain on sale, and more keep appearing each day.
“Amazon maintains content guidelines for the books we sell, and we continue to evaluate our catalogue, listening to customer feedback,” an Amazon spokesman says. “We have always required sellers, authors, and publishers to provide accurate information on product detail pages, and we remove those that violate our policies. In addition, at the top of relevant search results pages we are linking to government advice where customers can learn more about the virus and protective measures.”
If you want more information, use official websites like the World Health Organisation and reputable news sources, probably not Amazon e-books. Take sensible precautions and stay safe. And please, pray for my targeted ads.