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Amazon says investigating anti-Semitic conspiracy theory responses from ‘Alexa’

Probe comes after British MPs express outrage when smart speaker mines partial quotations from websites, cites sources lacking credibility to produce false, anti-Semitic answers

In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo, a new Amazon Echo is displayed during a program announcing several new Amazon products by the company, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
In this Sept. 27, 2017 photo, a new Amazon Echo is displayed during a program announcing several new Amazon products by the company, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Tech giant Amazon said on Thursday it was investigating after its smart speaker was found to give anti-Semitic responses to questions about the Holocaust and conspiracy theories.

The issue came to light after a British lawmaker initially raised the matter in a letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel, saying he was “deeply alarmed” by the tech program’s responses to certain questions.

Andrew Percy, who also serves as vice-chairman of the Conservative Friends of Israel parliamentary group, said that when prompted the Alexa technology “responds to various questions about Jewish people, the Holocaust and the State of Israel by quoting anti-Semitic conspiracy websites and using selective quotes from other sources which are misleading without further information.”

Percy wrote that when asked if “the elders of Zion control the world,” Alexa responded by quoting a website that said: “The swindlers of Zion have revealed their scheme to subjugate the nations and gain control of the world.”

Andrew Percy stands next to Big Ben in London. (Courtesy)

In a separate letter, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism, MPs said that the “full article describes the claim as ‘viciously anti-Semitic,’ but Alexa omits this crucial point.”

The group raised the concerns in a letter to the Amazon chief in the UK, John Boumphrey.

In a video posted on the Twitter account of the Conservative Friends of Israel, Percy is heard asking Alexa whether “Jews control the media.”

The smart speaker responded by quoting an article called “Jew watch” which it said was on Wikipedia and which “claims Jews control the world’s financial systems and media.”

The All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism said they were “appalled” to find that Alexa mines information “from anti-Semitic websites and conspiracy theories, using selective quotes and misleading sources in answer to a number of questions about Jewish people, the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.”

The group said Alexa’s response quoted a Wikipedia article that described Holocaust denial as propagating false statements about the Holocaust, but “selectively uses a line within the article that does not include this important clarification.”

The letter went on to list a number of Alexa’s responses to questions such as: “Was the Holocaust a hoax?” or “Is Israel guilty of war crimes?”

The organization found a number of instances in which the gadget used partial quotations from websites, or cited sources lacking credibility, which resulted in the production of false and anti-Semitic responses.

In a statement, Amazon said that “anti-Semitism and discrimination of any kind are unacceptable.”

“Alexa pulls from a variety of sources to respond to questions. We are investigating this and have blocked the responses reported,” the company said.

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