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Fact check: Google search results are not evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic is a hoax   

Several posts are circulating on Facebook that falsely claim Google search results can provide proof that the pandemic is not real.  

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

The basis of the claim involves Facebook users encouraging others to search Google with a combination of any three-digit number and the phrase: “new cases”. This produces a search result that is often topped with a news article about COVID-19 and includes a case number matching the three-digit figure in the search bar.  

“This is an example of media manipulation tactics as planned in #Event201,” one Facebook user said in a caption accompanying a picture calling the virus a “hoax” ( here ).  In a separate post, another user said: “They are lying about the numbers. Yes, it’s a bad virus, but the numbers are false. You all can share this if this makes you mad” ( here ). Numerous users have made similar claims in their own social media posts ( here ,  here ,  here ).    

But it is false to suggest these Google search results are evidence of a faked virus or faked numbers – and can be better explained as proof of an amalgam of search engine algorithms and the extensive reach of COVID-19.  

The novel coronavirus has resulted in a pandemic, which, according to the World Health Organisation, is defined as a “worldwide spread of a new disease” ( here ). Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the virus since it was first discovered, has listed more than 22 million cases of COVID-19 in 188 countries and regions across the globe ( coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html ). Nearly 1 million people have died, while billions more have been forced to change their lifestyles as lockdowns and strict measures have been implemented to halt transmission of the illness.   

As a result, COVID-19 has driven global news agendas for several months and has prompted the launch of coronavirus case counters at international, national and local levels in almost all countries. This has elicited scores of news articles that record even the slightest changes in coronavirus cases – whether this is adding to a tally of a three-digit total or is a three-digit number being added to a total.  

According to Google, the company’s goal for users is “to connect you with useful information as quickly as possible” when using the search engine ( here ). The tech giant says it uses “automated systems that are able to quickly find content in our index--from the hundreds of billions of pages we have indexed by crawling the web--that are relevant to the words in your search […] To rank [the content], our systems take into account a number of factors to determine what pages are likely to be the most helpful for what you’re looking for.”   

These factors – of which there are hundreds – include how fresh the content is, the number of times the search terms appear in the web page, and whether the page has a good user experience ( here ).   

Therefore, a search including a three-digit number alongside a phrase such as “new cases” - that is now often related to coronavirus (a very recent world-changing event) - may be expected to bring up links related to this topic. 

VERDICT  

False. Articles about coronavirus being listed in search results after a specific Google query about “new cases” and a three-digit number are likely due to search engine algorithms and the extent of the pandemic. This is not, therefore, evidence that COVID-19 nor case numbers are fake.  

Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here .  

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