In the battle to stop the spread of COVID-19 across the globe, and limit its impacts as much as possible, information accuracy is key, as people need to know and understand the way in which the virus is transmitted, and what they can, and should do to avoid infection and spread.
And while this seems like an aspect that we would all be united on, for the greater good of global society, a lot of COVID-19 misinformation is circulating online. Claims, for example, that the coronavirus can be killed by ingesting colloidal silver, that washing your hands is propaganda for soap companies, that reading the Quran will make a person immune to COVID-19. These are just a few of the untruths that are being circulated, and gaining broader reach through digital platforms.
That's why this new initiative from Google is so important - this week, Google has pledged $6.5 million in funding to support fact-checkers and nonprofit organizations that are combating misinformation around the world, with an immediate focus on coronavirus.
As per Google:
"Health authorities have warned that an overabundance of information can make it 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."
Google's funding pledge will be allocated to a range of organizations, including The International Fact-Checking Network, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and First Draft, which provides training for reporters covering COVID-19 around the world.
The funding will focus on both boosting the capacity of fact-checkers and amplifying authoritative voices, improving the flow of accurate messaging, which should help to clarify what people need to do, and how we, as a global society, need to respond in order to reduce the imminent threat of COVID-19.
As noted, the mixed and confused messaging around the pandemic has the potential to cause major damage. If even one group of people thinks that they're immune, for example, they could be going out in public, ignoring social distancing rules, and spreading the virus unwittingly, essentially undoing the efforts of those who've correctly self-isolated and sacrificed to play their part.
Add to this the fact that some world leaders are still downplaying the impacts - even urging citizens to ignore the health warnings entirely - and the scope of risk becomes even more clear. COVID-19 has accelerated from less than a thousand global cases in late January to more than a million today, and that rate is now doubling every few days. 50,0000 people have died, thus far, as a result of the spread. It's worse than the flu, it's not like other health issues that occur, day-to-day. COVID-19 is more infectious, and more dangerous, and without unified action to stop it, the consequences will be significant.
The flow of accurate information has also become a key point of contention in tracing the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic. This week, US Intelligence Officials have reported that Chinese authorities deliberately underreported the amount of COVID-19 cases in China, while Chinese officials have also been questioned over their failure to fully disclose several key elements, including asymptomatic transmission. The lack of transparency on both fronts may have exacerbated the virus' spread - some have argued, for example, that if more focus were put on asymptomatic transmission earlier, more regions would have called on their citizens to wear masks in public, which research has shown can significantly limit person-to-person transmission. Worth noting that, just this week, the mayor of Los Angeles has urged all LA residents to wear masks in order to limit the spread.
Again, it's research like this that needs to be amplified, and we need a united information front to ensure that people are accurately informed of the risks, and are therefore working together to limit the spread. Google's latest funding pledge will add to this - while it also adds to the more than $800 million in donations that Google has already made to broader efforts to combat COVID-19.
While fact-checking has been a key point of focus for digital platforms in recent times, it's never been more important than right now. And maybe, by improving our systems on this front, it'll also drive more support for more robust fact-checking processes at all times, and temper the ongoing criticism of trusted media outlets, which we rely on to provide us with these critical updates.
Labeling news organizations as 'fake news' if you don't agree with them is not helpful - we trust news organizations to provide us with research-backed, accurate reportage, in order to keep the world informed, and to help keep us safe.
Maybe, the COVID-19 pandemic will reiterate our need to hold news organizations and digital platforms more accountable for the claims that they make and distribute respectively, which could eventually help to improve the flow of information overall.