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Google and YouTube aren’t entrusting COVID-19 to an algorithm

In a time of medical crisis, the platforms are giving searchers hand-picked information from reliable sources.

Google and YouTube aren’t entrusting COVID-19 to an algorithm
[Photo: Philipp Katzenberger/Unsplash; Fusion Medical Animation/Unsplash; Michael Dziedzic/Unsplash]

Search for “coronavirus” or “COVID-19” on Google or YouTube, and you’ll probably notice some unusual results.

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On Google, you’re greeted with a bright red “SOS” banner, followed by updates from major news sources such as the New York Times and a list of information pages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization. On YouTube, the results page has a link to the CDC’s website at the top and a “Top News” heading underneath with videos from reputable news sources. Links to the CDC website also appear directly underneath certain YouTube videos.

What you’re seeing, in essence, is a state of emergency for search results, in which Google demotes its regular algorithms in favor of good old-fashioned human vetting. Although Google says it’s also building more protections into its ranking algorithms, promoting hand-picked information is a simple but obvious way to reduce the spread of fake news during a crisis.

Google’s SOS alerts

In Google Search, the results you’re seeing now are part of an initiative called SOS Alerts, which Google describes as an effort to “make emergency information more accessible during a natural or human-caused crisis.”

Google started putting out these alerts in 2017 in response to floods, earthquakes, and other emergencies, and it launched one for COVID-19 on January 30. The company says this is the first time it has used the SOS Alerts feature for a public health emergency.

Google’s coronavirus search results avoid a lot of potential trouble spots.

The most notable aspect of these alerts is that they’re curated by humans. “We have teams around the world who source content from government agencies, first responders, trusted media outlets, and NGOs,” Google’s SOS Alert documentation says. “We also aggregate information from other Google products and services, such as Google News, Google Maps, Waze, and more.”

By comparison, the “featured snippets” and “knowledge panels” that Google displays for ordinary searches are generated automatically—sometimes with unpleasant results. After the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, in which a gunman killed 58 people and injured 413 others, Google’s search results were gamed by trolls on 4chan, who managed to get conspiracy theories into the “top stories” module for certain searches. A year later, Google falsely linked the gunman in a Texas church shooting to antifa by featuring posts from Twitter.

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In the past, Google has also answered affirmatively that former President Barack Obama was planning a coup, has listed Nazism as an ideology of the California Republican Party, and wrongly claimed that several former presidents were Ku Klux Klan members.

Note that Google’s coronavirus search results avoid a lot of these potential trouble spots. There are no results from Twitter, no featured snippets, and no links to YouTube videos. With websites attempting to spread fake news during the coronavirus pandemic, promoting hand-picked information over algorithmically selected snippets or links is a powerful way to reduce exposure to misinformation.

YouTube’s Top News

Conspiracy theories have been an even bigger problem for YouTube, whose recommendation algorithms have spread misinformation about emergency situations in the past. One video suggesting that the Las Vegas gunman was a government agent appeared prominently in search results in 2017, and a conspiracy video claiming that survivors of the Parkland high school shooting in 2018 were actors was at one point the number one trending video on YouTube.

YouTube has since overhauled its algorithms to reduce its chances of serving up conspiracy theories. With the coronavirus in particular, it has suspended ad revenue-sharing for coronavirus videos from sources that haven’t certified that they meet YouTube’s advertiser-friendly guidelines, thereby reducing incentives to post sketchy content.

But in the same way that Google has altered its typical search results, it has also been showing “Top News” from only vetted sources for any searches related to the coronavirus. These searches also include a link to the CDC’s website at the top of the results. Google says that YouTube’s Top News results only come from publishers that have submitted their YouTube channels to Google News and adhere to Google News’ content policies.

While these efforts alone won’t wipe misinformation from tech companies’ platforms, at the very least they send a message: Get your information from official and reputable sources first. That might even be a useful lesson as tech platforms figure out how to deal with other critical subjects beyond matters of public health.

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