Google CES 2020

Google is putting some much-needed cash in the hands of organizations working overtime to get accurate information to the public around the coronavirus as rumor, hoaxes and false claims abound.

The tech giant’s Google News Initiative is giving $6.5 million to a number of nonprofit, fact-checking outlets in the U.S., Europe and South America, like First Draft, Comprova, Full Fact, Maldita and Correctiv. Others are PolitiFact, Latam Chequea, Kaiser Health News and the International Fact-checking Network. 

All of the organizations have been offering guides for newsrooms and the public to identify false information regarding the spread outside China of the coronavirus and debunking hoaxes and rumors related to the disease that have unsurprisingly flooded social media and e-mail inboxes. From fake “recordings” of political leaders discussing the virus to incendiary e-mail chain letters to rumors the coronavirus is “airborne,” even claims that Vladimir Putin released lions on the streets of Russia to enforce a coronavirus lockdown there, fact-checkers have been busy the last few weeks. And in order for Google — a first stop for billions of people looking for information — to be a reliable resource that trades in fact, it needs authoritative groups to weed out false information on the Internet.  

Alex Mantzarlis, who leads news and information credibility efforts at the Google News Lab, cited the World Health Organization’s warning that, with so much information coming out around the coronavirus on a daily, if not hourly, basis, it’s “harder for people to obtain reliable guidance about the coronavirus pandemic.”

“Helping the world make sense of this information requires a broad response, involving scientists, journalists, public figures, technology platforms and many others,” Mantzarlis wrote in a blogpost. “Collaboration will be a crucial component of journalism’s response to a story as complicated and all-encompassing as COVID-19.

“Uncertainty and fear make us all more susceptible to inaccurate information, so we’re supporting fact-checkers as they address heightened demand for their work,” he added.

Google is also giving some of the money to groups like SciLine that offer reliable scientific experts for news commentary and analysis and it’s supporting the creation by journalism tech nonprofit Meedan of a “database for pandemic communicators.” Another resource Google is helping to fund is a “global data resource” for reporters on reliable COVID-19 information being created by journalism groups at Stanford University. It’s currently being built out.

“The new project will collate data around the virus for countries around the world,” Mantzarlis said. “It will focus on helping journalists use local data for impact in their communities as well as aggregating data for national and global journalism.”

As for its own platform, Google is working to launch in the next few weeks “a dedicated fact-check section” on its news page for the coronavirus in India and the U.S. More countries will be added “based on the availability of relevant fact-checks from authoritative sources,” Mantzarlis said. Google is also making data from Google Trends, a popular tool for newsrooms, readily available for embeds into stories based on local information and tracking.

As of Wednesday, Google searches in the U.S. for “coronavirus money help” are up 3,600 percent over the last month; “do furloughed employees get to keep health insurance?” in the U.S. is up 2,000 percent in the past week, and searches of “are we in a recession yet?” are up 1,400 percent in the past week the world over.

Considering the coronavirus is still very much evolving and yet to hit many countries, as it’s expected to do, Google has a pilot initiative in India and Africa, in partnership with local fact-checkers Boom Live and Africa Check, to surface people’s coronavirus questions, like, “What temperature kills coronavirus?”

Mantzarlis noted that such an effort “can provide useful insights to fact-checkers and health authorities about content they may want to produce.” Boom Live and Africa Check will also be working to train more than 1,000 local journalists in India and Africa in how to identify misinformation.

He added that new efforts to support accurate information is “part of several efforts we’re working on to support those working to cover this pandemic” and more initiatives will be outlined “soon.”

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Media People: Richard Gingras of Google News