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Internet searches on fake news, misinformation and disinformation peak during COVID-19

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Google Search Trends indicate greater public interest in understanding and reporting misinformation amidst COVID-19 “infodemic”

By Anuja Venkatachalam

“We’re not just fighting a pandemic; we’re fighting an infodemic”. This statement made by Tedros Adhanom, the Director-General of the World Health Organization is not a hyperbole but a grim reality. Misinformation about coronavirus has claimed hundreds of lives, if not more world over.

The first public case of mass deaths owing to COVID-19-related misinformation was reported in Iran. Similar cases have been reported in other countries that have resulted in injury or persecution if not fatality. Recently, 16 deaths were reported in Andhra Pradesh from consuming alcohol with hand sanitizer. In Uttar Pradesh, a COVID-19-positive patient was reported as being in critical condition after drinking sanitizer.

An analysis of social media content from 87 countries, found that misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic was highly prevalent on the internet, largely in the form of rumors (89{b35c63bac5fac9ed648f97d4700fe9ffe9c190bec929f61ce1f7fc4e68d68241}) which included unverified claims about the nature of the virus, interventions to prevent infection, cures and self-diagnosis. They estimated that at least 800 people succumbed to misinformation globally.

Have these deaths brought about greater public awareness about fake news and misinformation? Internet search trends suggest they have.

a screenshot of a cell phone

© Health Analytics

The topics Fake News, Misinformation and Disinformation peaked in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such enormous interest in these topics has never been recorded before.

Google Trends data shows that “Fake News” was last popular in October 2018 when there were reports of the Brazilian elections being positioned by fake WhatsApp forward, and prior to that in awards. However, not to the magnitude that it is being searched about during the ongoing January 2016, when US President Donald Trump attacked the US media with his fake news pandemic.

Searches on COVID-19 misinformation range from people wanting to know about the common myths about COVID-19 with popular searches being “myths and facts of coronavirus”, “coronavirus fake news” and “WHO myths and facts about coronavirus”, to broader issues on misinformation spread by politicians and the media, and legal action against coronavirus misinformation.

In India, individual users filed requests to Google for more information on how citizens can take action against misinformation. Questions from users included, “If a reporter reports fake news, what Act does it fall under?”, “How do I take action against a TV channel that telecasts fake news?” and “How do I make people aware about fake news?”.

Governments and organizations across the globe have launched formal efforts to educate people about misinformation.

The WHO has published a guide on how to report misinformation about coronavirus on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Linkedin, TikTok, and Instagram.

In the UK, the government launched the “Stop the Spread” campaign in association with WHO to proactively identify and report potentially wrong or misleading information about coronavirus.

Google has tied up with news organizations across the world to train journalists and public health professionals who are at the frontlines of battling coronavirus-related misinformation on fact-checking.

Greater public awareness about misinformation, public interest in proactively tackling misinformation, and efforts by global organizations and newsrooms to educate the public on misinformation are potentially some of the positive outcomes of the pandemic.

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