Google scrubs fake virus info on search, YouTube

Bloomberg March 10 | Updated on March 10, 2020

On February 28, questions about the coronavirus swirled around Google’s offices. The company was being criticised for YouTube’s handling of hoax videos, a major company conference was cancelled and an employee in Zurich tested positive.

In the midst of this, Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai sent a memo reminding thousands of his workers about Google’s important role as a provider of timely and accurate information in uncertain times. “You’ve heard me talk about helpfulness in the context of moments big and small. This is one of those big moments,” he wrote.

Since the outbreak, Google has aggressively intervened in some of its most popular online services to limit the spread of misinformation. This is a departure for a company that has relied heavily on software and automation to index and rank information throughout its 22-year existence.

Google searches related to the virus now trigger an SOS Alert, with news from mainstream publications including National Public Radio, followed by information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization displayed prominently. In contrast, a recent search for flu season showed the website at the top, while another search for flu produced tweets, including one from US President Donald Trump comparing coronavirus to the common flu.

Online platforms have been inundated with rumors and misinformed concerns about the pathogen as it spread west from Asia, particularly in floods of messages on Twitter, said Carl Bergstrom, a professor at the University of Washington. Google is swept up in this because it has a deal with Twitter to show tweets in search results, especially for queries about live and recent events. “It’s really just a churning mess right now,” said Bergstrom.

On YouTube, the company is trying to quickly remove videos claiming to prevent the virus in place of seeking medical treatment. Some apps related to the virus have been banned from the Google Play app store, prompting complaints from developers who say they just want to help.

The company is also giving up revenue. Pichai said in another recent memo that Google has blocked tens of thousands of ads capitalising on the virus. It has also pulled ads from YouTube videos that discuss Covid-19, while giving governments and NGOs free ad space on the video service.

Published on March 10, 2020

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