The World Health Organization revealed on Monday that it is working with Google to limit the spread of misinformation related to the coronavirus — by ensuring that online searches about the virus first show information from the WHO.

Sarah Kreps, professor of government at Cornell University, studies artificial intelligence and misinformation. She says that tech firms are highly influential in the spread of information, and that the coronavirus will be a test of their ability to combat fake news.


Kreps says:

“Social media companies, at least unwittingly, have a role to play in public policy, including with the recent coronavirus epidemic. Almost half of Americans get their news online. Fake news travels faster and farther online than true stories. Yet sound public health means minimizing misinformation that can incite panic, prompt counterproductive practices, and even create mob violence. 

“Companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, Instagram, and now Google are engaging in a number of prophylactic measures to prevent and expose misinformation — blocking certain hashtags linked to the virus, including ‘Know the facts’ banners to urge readers to fact check, and taking down false cures.

“Efforts to prevent misinformation about coronavirus are noble but present challenges: a key concern is the needle in a haystack problem of identifying the misinformation amidst terabytes of online information. More fundamentally, tech firms are adjudicating the threshold for ‘evidence-based information’ on a virus that public health officials still know little about, which will test the murky line between free speech and public harm.

“The current spread of news—both fake and real—about the coronavirus will test tech firms’ capacity to make a difference in minimizing misinformation.” 

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