Retailers are selling an abundance of face masks on eBay – many with dubious health claims – tagged with “coronavirus” to push them to the top of search rankings.
The company said it has begun removing listings that make misleading assertions after being contacted by ABC Science.
Meanwhile, searching for “coronavirus” on Amazon offers a book promising to guide readers through the outbreak, now officially named COVID-19.
The author, who does not claim to have medical qualifications, is also selling unauthorised biographies of Riverdale actor Cole Sprouse and US presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
And on Google’s shopping page, you can find a “stop the coronavirus” T-shirt for around $26.
Online marketplaces have long been reactive to a public crisis, and can often feel largely lawless.
Their appeal is that almost anyone can become a retailer, but the danger is anyone can.
That’s how you end up with a prominent eBay listing for 50 Russian-made face masks that will protect “against coronovirus [sic], flu and other airborne diseases”. (Reader, they cannot).
For those not on the front line of the outbreak, the novel coronavirus has largely been experienced online.
On social media, messages from health authorities may sit right next to conspiracy theories.
The World Health Organisation calls it an “infodemic”.
There is too much information, it argues, which “makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.
Online marketplaces are a particular challenge: On the street, we know a pharmacy is more likely to be a reliable source of health advice than a corner store.
But on the internet, those shopfronts are presented as indistinguishable search results.
“All sorts of claims are mixed up together,” said Professor Jeannie Paterson, a consumer law specialist at Melbourne Law School.
A quick glance at Amazon’s top results for “coronavirus” this week, for the most part, are not promising.
Some of the ebooks for sale appear to repurpose general information about flu-like diseases – information that is available for free on government health websites.
But others take a more troubling turn.
One ebook, which the ABC has chosen not to name, discusses the possibility the novel coronavirus was caused by biohazard research that escaped the lab – a conspiracy theory not substantiated by any public health authority.
It also claims there is evidence to suggest the virus is engineered and potentially operates similarly to HIV. Amazon declined to comment.
Who is responsible?
eBay says it has updated its filters to block new listings “marketed to treat or cure coronavirus”.
Yet if someone advertises a product in a misleading way – claiming it will protect you from the disease when it won’t, for example – it could be misleading conduct and Australian regulators can take action.
The Therapeutic Goods Administration recently warned penalties could apply to erroneous claims about products that promise to prevent or treat the virus.
The platform or marketplace advertising the product is typically not responsible, however, but the law is not yet settled.
According to Professor Paterson, the platform could be liable if it endorses the product or claim in some way.
“The platforms may be more liable than they realise, and that’s yet to be tested,” she said.
“I would say they have an ethical responsibility to draw the line.”
Beyond misinformation and bogus health claims, the burgeoning industry of coronavirus merchandise strays into what writer Jenny Odell calls “uncanny ecommerce”.
High up on my Google’s shopping listings for “coronavirus” this week were T-shirts sold on the website Spreadshirt.
This marketplace allows retailers to submit designs, which can then be printed for anyone who wants to purchase.
One seller, who the website says is based in Turkey, will sell you a coronavirus mason jar – with a decal that says “#coronavirus” over an image of a world map wearing a Chinese flag face mask.
And instead of five golden stars, the flag shows five yellow viruses.
Eike Adler, Spreadshirt’s press officer, said the company believes the free and open exchange of ideas on products is key to self-expression.
Designs can be rejected if they contain illegal content, hate speech, pornography or glorified violence, but generally almost anything goes.
“Spreadshirt prints almost all submitted designs, whether we as a company or individuals like them or not,” he said.
Of course, a distasteful mason jar does not present the same risk as a badly marketed face mask.
But in search results, they’re likely to be displayed as one and the same.
“Digital platforms have become all consuming, and they’ve become a source of knowledge,” Professor Paterson said.
“We as consumers are less able to sort truthful claims from untruthful claims.”