How Google's New Search Warnings Could Fight Misinformation

The new approach to breaking news could boost media literacy

Key Takeaways

  • After a year filled with confusing messaging and rampant misinformation, trust in the media fell to an all-time low in January.
  • Tech companies, often blamed for the spread of misinformation, have experimented with an array of solutions ranging from fact-checking to misinformation labels to banning public figures.
  • Google will now warn users when search results could be inaccurate due to rapidly evolving situations.
Closeup of someone searching on a laptop with a search bar overlaid on the image.

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After a tumultuous year marked by unreliable messaging and the rapid spread of misinformation about a range of topics, Google’s new efforts to inform consumers about rapidly changing news might be a change we all needed.

Google is introducing new notifications to alert users when their search results might be inaccurate due to rapidly developing situations—a move experts say could help thwart misinformation and boost media literacy.

As part of a larger effort by Big Tech to counter online misinformation, the tech giant announced in a blog post that it has trained its systems to detect when there isn’t enough information about an evolving situation online to provide reliable results.

"We’ll now show a notice indicating that it may be best to check back later when more information from a wider range of sources might be available," the company said on its blog.

Adding Context

According to Pew Research, 89% of Americans get their news online. Because of that, accuracy matters—even in search results, which many consumers rely on to find credible news outlets and reliable information about current events.

"I think this just makes it clear that Google has some sort of accountability or responsibility," Baybars Örsek, director of the International Fact-Checking Network and international programming at the Poynter Institute, told Lifewire by phone.

"People look to different places for news, and they make decisions on which outlets to follow based on integrity, reliability, dependability, and fairness."

One of the main benefits Örsek saw for consumers in Google’s new search notifications was the context it would add for readers who might not understand how information changes as developing situations evolve.

"It’s a little different than what Facebook has with their [fact-checking] program rating content individually," Örsek said. "Here, Google is following a different approach by basically going after the topic and letting users know that the topic does not have enough credible sources yet."

While Örsek said Google’s efforts are a good start, he expressed concerns about the misinformation surrounding COVID-19 last year and said he would like to see changes made to the search engine’s algorithm to prioritize reliable information once it’s been established.

Rebuilding Trust

Matthew Hall, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and editorial and opinion director for The San Diego Union-Tribune, agreed that Google’s effort to label developing news is a good start, though he expressed reservations about future algorithmic changes.

Hall said that the practice of labeling breaking news isn’t new in the world of journalism—it’s used regularly to prevent misinforming readers.

"I think it’s important to let consumers know when a story is evolving," Hall told Lifewire by phone. "Journalists know that information, early on during breaking news events, is inaccurate. That’s why the best ones have notations at the bottoms of their stories that say when a story has been updated."

Coseup of a human eye, wearing glasses with a Search button reflecting on the lens.

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Hall stressed that media literacy and journalism training are both important for rebuilding trust in the media after it dropped to an all-time low earlier this year in national polls. 

"People look to different places for news, and they make decisions on which outlets to follow based on integrity, reliability, dependability, and fairness," Hall said. "To the extent that we can foster all of those things by admitting that we’re trying to do the best job we can as information evolves, but acknowledging that it will change and that we may make mistakes, but we’re going to correct them—all of that is super important."

Although Hall said he appreciates Google’s efforts to increase awareness about developing news, he expressed concerns about what the future could hold as tech companies continue looking for solutions to misinformation.

"There could be an issue if they start defining what a reliable source is or looks like, or if they’re picking one outlet’s version over another beyond the way their algorithm has always done," Hall said. "I do think this is an appropriate step as they’ve laid it out, but if it started to get into how to define what’s reliable or which [outlets] are reliable, it could start to become problematic."

Still, Hall said he welcomed the current changes from Google.

"We all need to know how these things operate and how they can help. But with great power comes great responsibility—and the tech companies need to make changes like this to explain things too," he said.

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