During the pandemic, it’s important to stay informed. Ever Googled “COVID-19”? Of course you have. But for those that haven’t, Google takes you to a special COVID-19 page with maps and an information box on the right that looks like this:
But where does Google get this data? Below it has an About this data link that tells you: “It comes from Wikipedia & other authoritative sources”.
But if you look closely, there’s something suspicious about the numbers that it was displaying this morning… 1,676 deaths? I don’t remember the death toll in Australia being that high!
I checked the history of the Wikipedia table it was sourced from, and found this in the edit history:
Aus typo, 176 not 1676
The fix had already been made in Wikipedia (within a couple of hours of the initial typo), but obviously Google had sourced it at the wrong moment and was now distributing the misinformation to the world.
But it doesn’t stop there. Journalists (should) know better than to copy information from Wikipedia, but how about the Google branded COVID-19 information?
I did a recent news search for the phrase “1,676 deaths” to inspect the damage.
The first article I found was from dmarge.com, a “men’s style publication” based in Australia, that claimed:
Australia has ‘only’ recorded 15,582 cases and 1,676 deaths from COVID-19
I reached out to the author via LinkedIn, and within 30 minutes got a reply back:
Appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I just took the stats from Google's COVID tracker - thought the 1.6k figure seemed high; should have done more research.
I'll update the article now.
The second article I found was behind a subscription paywall, and duplicated across multiple sites (mostly tabloids). It claimed:
Nationally there have been 15,582 virus cases recorded and 1676 deaths
I emailed the author, a senior journalist at News Corp Australia, to explain what had happened. 40 minutes later I got a reply back:
Here’s the thing though, “1,676” seems very specific. What is the chance that both News Corp and Wikipedia would make the exact same typo? 5 minutes later I got a further response…
I checked the Queensland Government health statistics page, but it doesn’t (currently) seem to report the national statistics. I’ve asked for additional clarification, and will update this post if I ever get another response back…
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