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New Found Danger in Amazon Alexa’s Responses

Jillian Shweky

Opinion Editor


Many acknowledge that modern technology has a mind of its own, but have you ever thought it has political views as well? While doing research for a school project, I discovered a troubling response from my Amazon Alexa. I asked her where Israel was located and she replied by saying, “sorry, I don’t know that.” Then out of curiosity, I asked where Palestine was and Alexa responded,“Palestine is a state in the Middle East and Western Asia.” I decided to ask the identical question about other countries and only Israel was not recognized. Alexa even knew both pronunciations for Qatar (“Cutter” and “Kah-tar”). Conversely, Siri noted that Israel was a country in the Middle East and gave no political commentary. This sent me down a rabbit hole trying to understand whether or not Alexa could possibly be anti-Zionist. Whether or not one supports Israel or Palestine, this issue is more about the idea that Alexa is in a position to espouse factually incorrect information that can impart political opinion to its 71.6 million users.

Looking into Alexa’s algorithm, I learned that for it to find the information, it “converts the spoken word into a language the device can use to search online databases” according to Ritholtz.com. Typically, Alexa uses reliable sources, but Alexa has been caught employing information from unreliable and questionable political websites. As an example, according to the Times of Israel, Amazon Alexa has been caught giving anti-Semitic responses to questions about the Holocaust and reinforcing Jewish stereotypes. In 2020, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism (APPG), made up of British Members of Parliament, claimed in a letter to Amazon that Alexa’s responses to many questions about Jews and the State of Israel were disturbing and must be addressed. When asked if Jews control the media, Alexa answered that according to her source, “Jews control the world’s financial systems and media.” When asked if the “Elders of Zion control the world,” referencing a fabricated antisemitic text from the early 1900s laying out a plan for Jewish global domination, she responded with a quote from a website affirming,“the swindlers of Zion have revealed their scheme to subjugate the nations and gain control of the world.”

I wondered if Alexa could distinguish political bias from factual information. The Daily Mail reported that, when asked if Alexa believed that black lives matter, she responded by saying “black lives and the Black Lives Matter movement absolutely matter.” Her response addresses the value that lives, and in this case black lives, do matter. However, she also inserts an opinion on Black Lives Matter which has become a political movement.

Alexa and most other technology are introduced to us as tools that will aid and enhance our lives. Alexa does generally note the sources of its information but broadly distributing conspiracy theories and misinformation, even when noting a questionable source, is extremely dangerous. The dissemination of “fake news” can fuel hatred, change the outcome of our elections and alter established history and even proven principles of science. I have often heard the expression “skimmers not divers” to describe how people want information provided to them. Skimmers skim the surface. They take the top level of information provided to them in the most accessible way and don’t dive deeper to determine the source of the information or if there are varying opinions. This is both the beauty of Alexa and the danger. The question is, are we underestimating or even oblivious to the power and influence a little tool like Alexa can have over us, and will anyone do anything about it?

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