In 2015, the name Alexa reached its height of popularity. According to social security records, more than 6,000 American parents gave the name to their babies – little surprise, perhaps, given the now familiar Amazon Echo Dot device, known as Alexa, launched late the previous year.
Alexa is now a household name, with reportedly more than 100 million devices sold to date. Alexa delivers people the weather, traffic news and music playlists. It also, as we found to our horror, tells users that Jewish people control the world’s financial systems and media.
Antisemitic and conspiracy theory websites provide the details for many of Alexa’s answers to questions regarding Jews, with the service using selective quotes and misleading sources to inform, potentially, millions of households. That hate mongering is not restricted to Jews. Asked if Islam is evil, one result returned by Alexa was: “Here’s something I found on the web. According to [a website], Islam is an evil religion.”
The influence of these services is reaching into our private worlds more than ever before. One report indicated that in the US, at least one in five homes is using these or similar devices. Nearly 75 per cent of respondents reported using their device at least once a day, and 57 per cent multiple times a day. Furthermore, there is some suggestion that smart speakers have been proven to change behaviours, with users describing the extent to which they rely on the devices and how integrated these have become in their lives.
We should not underestimate the potential damage of this casual racism being fed into homes across the country. Alexa’s answers are not caveated, they are presented as “the truth”, as authoritative and credible, and there is every possibility that users may accept information presented to them as fact. The voice of good old reliable Amazon. This creates opportunities for spreading online hatred and for the perpetuation of harmful conspiracies. It is as if this form of technology has completely fallen from discussion of digital harms.
There is however another part to this story. Alexa, according to available data, uses the Microsoft Bing search engine for queries; the same is apparently true of Microsoft’s Cortana. Bing reportedly accounts for approximately one quarter to one third of online searches. Searching for whether the Holocaust was a hoax on Bing in November 2020 returns Holocaust denial websites amongst the top results.
We are writing to Bing as we have written to Amazon. We expect immediate action to rectify this situation from both companies. We will be raising the matter with the government and in parliament. The Online Harms Bill will soon be before the House of Commons and while these companies and devices are unlikely to be within the scope of that Bill, we will be talking about them. This situation raises difficult and important questions about the way we live our increasingly overlapping digital and offline lives.
Andrew Percy MP and Catherine McKinnell MP are co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism