Google is fighting misinformation surrounding the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak by increasing funding to organizations that fact-check news articles and debunk myths. The company plans to contribute $6.5 million to fact-checkers, news organizations, and nonprofits around the world in order to help them track and report on coronavirus misinformation. This is in addition to the donations and free ads for coronavirus-related organizations the company announced last month.
“Helping the world make sense of this information requires a broad response, involving scientists, journalists, public figures, technology platforms and many others,” Alexios Mantzarlis, head of news and information credibility at Google’s News Lab, wrote in a blog announcing the funding.
Information voids get filled one way or another — There has been a lot of uncertainty about the particulars of COVID-19 as understanding of the virus has evolved, and that void has been filled by a lot of poor — and sometimes dangerous — information. Twitter, for example, recently deleted tweets from former Milwaukee Sheriff David Clark Jr. downplaying the severity of the coronavirus and called on local businesses to remain open in contravention of ordinances aimed at slowing its spread. Nearly 7,000 people in the U.S. alone have now died due to coronavirus.
Facebook, meanwhile, went as far as deleting posts by the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, about the coronavirus which it deemed false and dangerous. In a less dangerous example, Tito's Handmade Vodka had to take to Twitter itself and warn the public against using its product as a replacement for hand sanitizer.
As part of the funding from Google, PolitiFact and Kaiser Health News will be staffing up to combat misinformation, while LatamChequea will work to coordinate the efforts of Spanish-language fact-checking groups. New fellowships at Stanford University will be dedicated to funding reporters covering the pandemic, and there will also be funds allocated to help journalists access research around the virus. Google will additionally work to elevate reputable, fact-checked articles about coronavirus higher in search results.
Tracking the trends — Google also wants to help train reporters to use its Trends product to identify which coronavirus-related terms people are searching for in the first place so they can understand what areas need more reputable coverage before they get filled by opportunists. For instance, if a lot of people are searching for information on whether masks are necessary, journalists might want to focus attention on producing more content that provides legitimate guidance on that issue.
“Today's announcement is one of several efforts we’re working on to support those covering this pandemic,” Mantzarlis wrote. “We look forward to sharing more soon.”
Google's other COVID-19 efforts — While the $6.5 million donation is pocket change for Google, every bit helps, and the company has made other moves to address the pandemic. Last month it banned coronavirus-related ads entirely, including ads for face masks out of fear that bad actors would try to price-gouge consumers. It also committed to donating more than $800 million to international agencies fighting the virus. On YouTube, it reduced the default video quality to 480p in order to alleviate internet networks strained by the growing number of people sequestered at home.
Facebook announced on Wednesday that it will invest $100 million in the news industry as an effort to support journalism as COVID-19 causes severe economic turmoil for news outlets around the world. $25 Million of that will go to local news companies, while the rest will go towards buying advertising in international news outlets who've seen significant drops in advertising revenue. Of course, between them Google and Facebook are the two biggest culprits for declining advertising revenue for media companies, but that's besides the point. As the chief sources of information for the public, both need to do what they can to ensure the messages they convey are appropriate and responsible ones.