Google and Karnataka: Copyright: miluxian / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: miluxian / 123RF

Running in parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic has been an ‘infodemic’. The spread of misinformation related to the novel coronavirus and vaccines, particularly online, has alarmed many commentators. To address this, Google has announced a US$3 million fund to back fact-checking initiatives in order to counter fake news about COVID-19 vaccines.

The California-based tech giant said its COVID-19 Vaccine Counter-Misinformation Open Fund will support “projects that aim to broaden the audience of fact checks.” A blog post by the company read “the uncertainty and developing nature of the coronavirus pandemic continues to generate related misinformation. Fact-checkers have been hard at work debunking falsehoods online, with nearly 10,000 fact checks about the pandemic currently showing up across our products.”

Google said its fund “is global and open to news organisations of every size that have a proven track record in fact-checking and debunking activities, or partner with an organisation with such recognition. We will prioritise collaborative projects with an interdisciplinary team and clear ways to measure success. For example, eligible applications might include a partnership between an established fact-checking project and a media outlet with deep roots in a specific community, or a collaborative technology platform for journalists and doctors to jointly source misinformation and publish fact checks.”

Of especial focus for Google is reaching “specific populations” targeted by misinformation. “While the COVID-19 infodemic has been global in nature, misinformation has also been used to target specific populations,” the company said. “Some of the available research also suggests that the audiences coming across misinformation and those seeking fact checks don’t necessarily overlap. 

“For this reason, the Open Fund is accepting applications from projects that aim to broaden the audience of fact checks, particularly with those who may be disproportionately affected by misinformation in mind.” 

The infodemic has been an issue throughout the COVID-19 outbreak. Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) convened its inaugural infodemiology conference to tackle misinformation. The spread of misinformation has been expedited by the advent of social media – with India far from immune. As Health Issues India commented at the time

“In India, the widespread use of social media tools such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and more has enabled myths surrounding public health and claims of dubious cures for any number of conditions to diffuse into the public consciousness. As Statista pointed out…“multiple surveys and studies in recent years found that an overwhelming majority of people in the country access news primarily through social media where information rarely gets checked for validity and authenticity.” This has manifested during the COVID-19 pandemic, with India being a large progenitor of fake news about COVID-19 shared on WhatsApp and social media feeds being replete with unverified cures for the novel coronavirus and myths about its origins.” 

Combating fake news is a public health necessity. Such was the case before the onset of COVID-19. Vaccine hesitancy fuelled by misinformation spread online is a prime example. Going forward, it is incumbent upon those in authority – be it in terms of media or politics or other aspects of society – to take a stand.