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“Is COVID-19 a hoax?”: auditing the quality of COVID-19 conspiracy-related information and misinformation in Google search results in four languages

Shakked Dabran-Zivan (Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel)
Ayelet Baram-Tsabari (Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel)
Roni Shapira (Technion Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel)
Miri Yitshaki (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel)
Daria Dvorzhitskaia (Science Communication Researcher, Zurich, Switzerland)
Nir Grinberg (Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, Israel)

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 12 July 2023

Issue publication date: 20 November 2023

185

Abstract

Purpose

Accurate information is the basis for well-informed decision-making, which is particularly challenging in the dynamic reality of a pandemic. Search engines are a major gateway for obtaining information, yet little is known about the quality and scientific accuracy of information answering conspiracy-related queries about COVID-19, especially outside of English-speaking countries and languages.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors conducted an algorithmic audit of Google Search, emulating search queries about COVID-19 conspiracy theories in 10 different locations and four languages (English, Arabic, Russian, and Hebrew) and used content analysis by native language speakers to examine the quality of the available information.

Findings

Searching the same conspiracies in different languages led to fundamentally different results. English had the largest share of 52% high-quality scientific information. The average quality score of the English-language results was significantly higher than in Russian and Arabic. Non-English languages had a considerably higher percentage of conspiracy-supporting content. In Russian, nearly 40% of the results supported conspiracies compared to 18% in English.

Originality/value

This study’s findings highlight structural differences that significantly limit access to high-quality, balanced, and accurate information about the pandemic, despite its existence on the Internet in another language. Addressing these gaps has the potential to improve individual decision-making collective outcomes for non-English societies.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

Earlier versions of these findings were presented at the PCST Conference: Creating Common Ground in April 2023. The presentation was titled “The disparity in access to reliable online information regarding COVID-19 conspiracies across four languages.” Additionally, the findings were presented at the ECREA Online Pre-Conference: Science and Environment Communication Section in October 2022. The presentation was titled “‘Is COVID-19 a Hoax?’: auditing the veracity, quality, and accessibility of Google search results for COVID-19 conspiracies in four languages”.

Citation

Dabran-Zivan, S., Baram-Tsabari, A., Shapira, R., Yitshaki, M., Dvorzhitskaia, D. and Grinberg, N. (2023), "“Is COVID-19 a hoax?”: auditing the quality of COVID-19 conspiracy-related information and misinformation in Google search results in four languages", Internet Research, Vol. 33 No. 5, pp. 1774-1801. https://doi.org/10.1108/INTR-07-2022-0560

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2023, Emerald Publishing Limited

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