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Humans Behind Search: Meet Matt

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Matt Cooke, who heads up the Google News Lab, talks about how his team’s keeping it real in news and search.

First, can you tell us about the Google News Initiative and the work that your team does?

The Google News Initiative is the part of Google that works with journalists and entrepreneurs to drive innovation in news — from surfacing factual information to helping local publishers to digitize their content.

As part of that, the News Lab offers partnerships and training in 70 countries around the world to bring Google technology to journalists and news publishers. We want to help strengthen digital skills to help journalists verify sources, fact check and explore different forms of storytelling for audiences searching for accurate information.

Tell us about your background and what led to working at Google.

I worked for a number of years at BBC in various roles, including reporting from the East London multimedia newsroom in the build-up to the 2012 Olympic Games. We gave members of the audience access to small cameras, which got me thinking about the potential of digital storytelling. So when the opportunity came along at Google, I seized it! I’m coming up to my 10th anniversary here.

What tips can you give readers searching for credible news and information?

News comes to us in so many different ways and formats these days so it can sometimes be hard to tell what's authoritative and accurate. But there are tools available to help, and there are five things I would recommend when it comes to checking authenticity:

  1. If you’ve stumbled across something surprising, check the source. The About This Result feature provides details about a website before you visit it, including its description, when it was first indexed and whether your connection to the site is secure.
  2. If an image looks suspicious you can go to Google Images and do a reverse image search by clicking on the camera icon and dragging in your picture. An example of an obvious fake, that many will have seen and that recurs, is the shark swimming up a flooded street.
  3. Again if a story is surprising, look at other news sources to see if they’re covering it too. If they’re not, that could give you some pause for thought. Stories on Google news have the option for ‘full coverage,’ which means you can see how others are reporting the same story.
  4. We have something called the Fact Check Explorer which allows you to type in a search term and then it shows you counterclaims and debunks of that theory by fact checking organisations.
  5. Google Maps, Google Earth and Street View can all help you verify whether an image that you are seeing is from the reported location. This can be done by checking for shadows of, for example, mountains or nearby buildings on Street View, and by matching them up with Google Earth.

There are some amazing and painstaking examples of work from BBC Africa Eye with video verification. It shows that by combining digital tools with great journalism, you can get to the heart of what’s really going on.

How are you tackling deep fakes?

Technology evolves fast, but our engineering teams and trust and safety teams are working hard to make sure that our technology stays ahead of emerging threats, and we’re working closely with industry partners too to understand how they’re engaging with verification and misinformation. It’s an industry-wide effort.

Progress is being made, for example YouTube has something called Content ID which allows organisations to detect their IP copyright and content.

How does Google make sure that organisations don’t game the algorithm?

We update the search algorithm thousands of times a year and work hard to make sure that the information people find is the most accurate, authoritative and relevant to what they’re looking for. We have policies in place to prevent spam and any deceptive practices — there’s more information here about how Search works. And I’d also add that we place a lot of importance on people finding good quality local news from reliable sources as well.

How do you make sure that search literacy isn’t confined to the few and privileged?

Over the last few years we’ve spent a lot of time with media literacy experts to provide newsroom style lessons for primary and secondary school students across the UK, a good example is Be Internet Legends which has reached over 70% of primary schools in England.

And there’s more that can be done outside the classroom. Last year, we contributed €25 million to the European Media and Information Fund, which supports funding for publishers, academics and researchers to research and implement media literacy.

What excites you about Search?

One of the things that my team works with is a tool called Google Trends, which shows you anonymised, indexed data on what people are searching for across a given location or a given time.

We collaborate with broadcasters, journalists, academics and non-profits to see what emerging patterns and trends in search reveal. What’s really interesting is how changing questions reveal changing attitudes across time. It’s useful for journalists, or indeed anybody who’s interested, to see what preoccupations people have around major news events.

For example, if you're looking for the latest design trends, we can see that Search interest for 'japandi interior design' has increased by 973% in the last 12 months. Similarly, if you're wondering what people in the UK are reading, we can share that between 2017 and 2021, Search interest for books on neurodiversity has increased by 1280%.

What’s your most loved search feature that everybody should know about?

Some of the more Advanced Search features can really save time. So if you’re searching for information about an institution or a public figure, often you’ll have to wade through lots of information. If you want to delve deeper you can start to remove repetitive information, simply by putting a minus symbol in front of a word. For example, I travel a lot for work so if you’re looking for information about UK airports but you don’t want to focus on Heathrow you can type in ‘UK airports -Heathrow.’ It is simple, but saves lots of time!

On Google Street View, my favourite desktop tool is the little clock at the top of the screen. This allows you to go back in time so you can see how things have changed. For example, when Britain was getting ready to host the 2012 Olympic Games, you can see all the flags and banners up in central London. And where cities change fast, for example East London, you can see how new developments have taken the place of old buildings. Take a look!

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