The Covid-19 crisis evidenced once more that disinformation stands as one of the major plagues of the Information Age. In the past decades, many national and international institutions started to implement a plethora of strategies to tackle this issue1 and mitigate its effects. Still, the mechanisms underlying the role and phenomenology of disinformation are largely unclear.

It is only in recent times that the complex ecosystem of information has massively attracted the interest of the scientific community2. Disinformation went under investigation3, from its very definition4 to its psychological mechanisms5,6, and its spreading and exposure dynamics7,8. Detection and forecast of disinformation were also among the relevant topics explored by the scientific community9. These studies raised questions about how to identify statistical markers in the news content10 or about diffusion mechanisms11. Another important debate in the literature revolves around the contrast to common narratives about disinformation, such as those concerning its fast-spreading pattern12, its link with partisanship6 or the most suitable sharing-prevention strategies13.

A meaningful part of the research effort focused on the impact of disinformation on diverse fields of human activities, such as consumers’ behaviour14, political elections15, sustainability16 or health17. Particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic, the effect of disinformation on social behaviours became so compelling that the term ‘Infodemic’ made a comeback from the SARS epidemic of 200318. Infodemic refers to the spreading of many pieces of information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus, some correct others false, to the extent that it overwhelms people and hinders their understanding of the phenomenon. The consequences were disastrous19 and led to dangerous behaviours that further aggravated the pandemic crisis.

While disinformation is always under the spotlight, the complex ecosystem of information, which is the substrate for disinformation, attracted much less interest. It is important to stress that the infosphere relies on the subtle interplay of two types of actors: news producers on the one hand and news consumers on the other. In this structure, information supply and demand stand in a market-like relationship. The study of their interplay is essential to unveil the mechanisms of information dynamics. It also provides a broader view in which disinformation can be contextualized and analysed.

The news supply can be identified with the overall news production, mainly consisting of officially recognized newspapers. As such, the extensive literature concerning journalism and media information is investigated: news linguistics20,21; journalism economics22; information coverage23,24, often focusing on particular countries or topics25; content of news26, its quality assessment27 and delivery28, considering different media sources29. Other works investigated the impacts of news and its consumption on, for example, reading behaviour30, finance31 and political opinions32.

Similarly, news demand has also been studied deeply and from several angles, covering, for example: demographic groups of audience33 and their behaviour34; consumer needs35 and assessment of news36; the interplay between news consumption and production37, and the adaptation of media to news consumer behaviours enabled by technology38,39,40; the drivers for consumption of news41 and misinformation42.

However, news demand is more difficult to pinpoint methodologically than news supply. In the literature, surveys and lab studies are usual procedures of investigation29,30,43,44, but unlike general news production, they cannot scale up to the population level. Thus, different solutions must be adopted. The tracking of reading behaviours, for example, had been used to study the demands and interests of readers45. However, such a methodology is biased by the very existence of news since the interest for topics not covered by news cannot be recorded.

An independent way to track people’s interests that gained popularity in the scientific community is the Google Trends service ( It provides an index proportional to the number of searches made with the Google Search engine, enabling the quantitative comparison of searched queries. As Google’s algorithm aims at delivering the information that best relates with the input query47, Google Trends has been mainly used in the past decade as a marker of people’s behaviours in different contexts, such as finance48,49, epidemiology50,51,52 or socio-economic indicators53,54. Interestingly, its intrinsic value as a proxy for people’s demand for information was considered55, but not extensively.

Intents underlying the queries could be categorized into: informational, to seek for information; navigational, to reach a certain website; and transactional, to perform a web-mediated activity such as shopping56. In particular, these motivations have been differentiated using the query itself by assuming that searches of keywords that are newsworthy are made to demand information57. While the limitations of Google’s searches were considered, evidencing diversity of interaction among users and even misuse of the platform58,59, we also found that in the context of news, the Google Trends index has been adopted for forecasting60 and acknowledged by information media as a source of attention for news61.

Given the plethora of research on the supply of news on one side and on the demand for information on the other, we focused on the relations between the two. In this sense, the news ecosystem dynamics can be studied as a single complex system, and we could leverage this comprehension to deepen our understanding of related phenomena, such as the production of news from questionable sources. Through its results and methodology, this paper aims to pave the way for such a discussion.

Here we investigate, using a unified framework, the supply and demand for information and analyse their dynamical interplay, with the final goal of understanding the main mechanisms of the information ecosystem dynamics and extracting hints about the determinants of questionable sources production during the COVID-19 outbreak. To this end, we focused on the general production of news in Italy, from early December 2019 to the end of August 2020, as the reference for the news supply. For the same period and country, the Google Trend index served as a proxy for the general public’s information demand.

We adopted Vector Auto-Regression (VAR) models to study the interplay between news demand and supply, evidencing different causal relationships for distinct subjects. We presented an improved modelling scheme that allows for a quantitative description of the dependencies in the time-series evolution for information demand and supply.

The framework also permitted the study and comparison of the supply of sources identified as questionable by professional fact-checkers within the general information system during the COVID-19 upsurge, highlighting behavioural differences in reactivity and modelling efficacy for COVID-19-related news from general and unreliable media. Furthermore, we observed that for the same period, the semantic misalignment between COVID-19-related information demand and supply from all sources is higher than the misalignment between COVID-19-related information demand and supply from questionable sources.

These discrepancies could be exploited to aggregate a questionable sources activity indicator independent from annotations. We contend that this index could provide a reliable and independent assessment tool for the news supply’s health status.


Dynamics of news supply and demand

Information systems feature two main drivers: news supply and news demand. As a reference for the news supply, we looked at the whole Italian production of information from every single news outlet, termed News from All Sources or NAS, from early December 2019 to the end of August 2020. For the same period, the Google Trend index served as a proxy for the news demand from the Italian general public, here termed Searches or S (see Methods for details).

To investigate the nature of the relation between supply and demand of news about a certain subject, six keywords referring to the most searched subjects in Italy over the entire observation period were selected: ‘coronavirus’, ‘regionali’, ‘playstation’, ‘papa francesco’, ‘eurovision’ and ‘sondaggi’ (Supplementary Fig. 1). The time series for NAS and S for ‘coronavirus’ are reported in Fig. 1. For each keyword, the time series of the daily appearances in News from All Sources and the daily volume of queries in the Searches were simultaneously fitted by VAR linear modelling62. VAR models with different lag parameters that encapsulate the system’s memory were considered, and the best parameters were identified via the Akaike criterion63 (see Methods). For all keywords, best-fitting lags ranged between 2 and 4, suggesting a typical, short-memory timescale in the system (Supplementary Fig. 2).

Fig. 1: Temporal behaviour of the fractions of Searches and News from All Sources in Italy.
figure 1

The Searches (red, left y axis) and News from All Sources (blue, right y axis) for the keyword ‘coronavirus’ were recorded from 6 December 2019 to 31 August 2020. Searches are reported as a percentage of the maximum observed in the monitored period. News from All Sources is represented by the daily fraction of articles containing at least three keyword occurrences (see Methods). The improved model (black line) leverages the past News from All Sources and Searches, together with present Searches, to infer the dynamics of News from All Sources.

Within the VAR framework, we performed the test for Granger-causality62 to illustrate which time series, between NAS and S, contributed more to the prediction of the other, and whether any contribution was significant. For the majority of keywords (that is, ‘coronavirus’, ‘regionali’, ‘playstation’, ‘papa francesco’), the contribution of past Searches to present News from All Sources was most significant (see Supplementary Fig. 2). We could safely assume that S anticipates NAS and use this assumption to improve the model of the temporal behaviour of the latter. We modified the VAR equation for the evolution of News from All Sources by inserting Searches’ role. More precisely, we let S(t) and NAS(t) be the respective values of Searches and News from All Sources at day t, and the new equation for the evolution of NAS(t) reads:

$${N}_{\mathrm{AS}}(t)=\mathop{\sum }\limits_{i=1}^{d}({\alpha }_{i}{N}_{\mathrm{AS}}(t-i)+{\beta }_{i}S(t-i))+{\beta }_{0}S(t),$$

where the coefficients αi, β0 and βi were fitted, while the Akaike criterion provides the optimal lag d. This ‘improved model’ closely reproduced the data, particularly in correspondence with the peaks (Fig. 1 for ‘coronavirus’ and Supplementary Fig. 3).

The model’s parameters also provided a quantitative insight on the interplay between NAS and S (Table 1):

  • α1 was always significantly positive, indicating a strong dependence of News from All Sources on the previous day’s activity. This evidence is a sign of an inertial behaviour of the news supply.

  • β0, the weight of present Searches, was always significantly non-zero, supporting the assumption of the role of present Searches for the improved model.

  • the last β parameters for two keywords (β1 for ‘coronavirus’ and β2 for ‘regionali’) were significantly negative. This result suggests that NAS might depend on the different quotient of Searches, together with the volume of Searches itself.

Of note, a direct comparison between α and β parameters was not possible, as S and NAS were scaled differently (Google Trends does not disclose the absolute scale of the queries volume).

Table 1 The parameters and statistics from the improved model of equation (1) for the 4 selected keywords

The different behaviours of questionable sources

The improved model (Table 2) quantifies the information supply dynamics and enables the comparison between News from All Sources and questionable news suppliers’ production. We applied this methodology to the topic ‘coronavirus’ since it dominated the landscape of information (Supplementary Fig. 1) and due to the direct impact of disinformation on the response to the 2020 pandemic. To this end, we extended our analysis to news items that were produced by sources annotated as questionable by professional fact-checkers (see Methods). We named the production of this subset of outlets as News from Questionable Sources or NQS. Such a supply is very scarce for keywords other than ‘coronavirus’, as reported in Table 3, these scarce keywords not being analysed with this methodology. In the following, we refer specifically to ‘coronavirus’-related S, NAS and NQS.

Table 2 The parameters and statistics from the improved model of equation (1) fitting NAS, NQS and News from Online Sources NOS having at least one occurrence of the keyword ‘coronavirus’ (see Methods)
Table 3 The exact sample size (n) for each keyword, given as a discrete number for both NAS data and NQS data

We exploited the improved model in equation (1) to compare NAS and NQS through their best-fitting coefficients α and β. To this end, we paralleled the variable NAS(t), the daily proportion of ‘coronavirus’-related News from All Sources at day t, and NQS(t), the daily proportion of ‘coronavirus’-related News from Questionable Sources at day t (Table 4).

Table 4 Cross-model coefficients comparison from improved model fitting of NAS, NQS and NOS having at least one occurrence of the keyword ‘coronavirus’ (see Methods and, for the number of observations, Table 3)

Compared with News from All Sources, ‘coronavirus’-related News from Questionable Sources shows a lower inertia term, α1. This difference is meaningful when compared with the confidence intervals and has been further validated through a bootstrap analysis with replacement (see Methods). It is worth noting that this difference is not due to the online nature of the unreliable suppliers. Our analysis shows that online suppliers, named News from Online Sources or NOS, present a significantly different inertial behaviour than News from Questionable Sources. The results from both tests are reported in Table 4. Unreliable supply also shows a non-significant β1, indicating a greater reactivity to S(t). These pieces of evidence and the lower prediction score (adjusted R2) suggest that unreliable supply presents a different behaviour than NAS to the point that it distorts the dynamics of the news ecosystem and leads to impaired modelling performance.

Another difference in the behaviour of NAS and NQS emerged at a semantic level. We focused on the most queried keywords searched together with ‘coronavirus’ in Google Search (see Methods). Each of these related queries provided a time series of news demand about a subdomain that co-occurs with, and therefore is semantically linked to, ‘coronavirus’. We quantified the co-occurrence of these terms with the ‘coronavirus’ keyword also in the news items for both NAS and NQS. In this way, we defined S(t), NAS(t), NQS(t) as the daily semantic vectors for ‘coronavirus’-related Searches, News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources, respectively. Each vector has 17 entries, one per subdomain (see Methods for details).

We calculated Stot = ∑tS(t) and sorted its components to rank the different subdomains by the total news demand over the period considered (Fig. 2). To assess the difference between general and questionable suppliers with respect to the matching of news demand for different subdomains, we challenged the components’ rankings of \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{AS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}={\sum }_{t}{{{{N}}}}_{{{{\mathrm{AS}}}}}(t)\) and \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{QS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}={\sum }_{t}{{{{N}}}}_{{{{\mathrm{QS}}}}}(t)\) against the corresponding ones of Stot (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The ranked components of Stot, representing ‘coronavirus’ subdomains sorted by total news demand over the observed time.
figure 2

Middle: Stot, red text. On the sides of each keyword, a tag indicates the rank in \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{AS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}\) for News from All Sources (left), and in \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{QS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}\) for News from Questionable Sources (right). Tags are distanced from the centre by the amount of rank mismatch to Searches ranks. Tags are coloured to highlight the rank closest to the Searches rank: blue for News from All Sources and green for News from Questionable Sources.

Given the ‘coronavirus’-related keywords ranked from the Searches as a reference, News from Questionable Sources ranking shows fewer and minor mismatches compared with News from All Sources. We quantified this difference in behaviour through Spearman’s correlation (Supplementary Fig. 4). Stot and \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{AS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}\) components were positively correlated (r = 0.52, two-tailed P value < 0.031 with 17 observations), but Stot and \({{{{N}}}}_{{{{{\mathrm{QS}}}}}_{\mathrm{tot}}}\) were more correlated (r = 0.67, two-tailed P value < 0.003 with 17 observations).

The semantic difference in the behaviour of News from Questionable Sources and News from All Sources holds not only at the aggregated level but also at a daily level. This was measured through the cosine distance d(  ,  ) on their daily vectors S(t), NAS(t) and NQS(t) (see Methods). Again, Searches were taken as reference and we calculated its cosine distance from News from All Sources, d(S(t), NAS(t)), and from News from Questionable Sources, d(S(t), NQS(t)). The daily relative difference between these distances


resulted in negative values in most days t (Supplementary Fig. 5). In fact, both the mean (−0.13) and median (−0.15) were negative, indicating that the cosine distance of ‘Searches-News from Questionable Sources’ is generally smaller than that of ‘Searches-News from All Sources’. This result shows how News from Questionable Sources meets news demand better than News from All Sources.

Independent detection of questionable sources concentration

The observed differences between NAS and NQS dynamics can be exploited to assess the production of ‘coronavirus’-related news items from unreliable suppliers.

The difference in modelling NQS and NAS suggests that when the concentration of News from Questionable Sources on a topic increases, the NAS dynamics, which includes NQS, becomes perturbed. We hypothesize that this perturbation impairs the modelling performance of News from All Sources. To test this hypothesis, the improved model was fitted to NAS locally on a time window of 14 d, sliding over the entire data time range (see Methods). For each window, centred in t, we computed the local modelling error defined as:

$$E(t)=(1-{R}^{2}(t)) \langle {N}_{\mathrm{AS}}\rangle (t),$$

where R2(t), the R2 score for the model fitted to the window, is weighted by 〈NAS〉(t), the average share of News from All Sources produced in that time window.

Although formulated without exploiting fact-checkers’ annotations, E(t) significantly correlates with the concentration of News from Questionable Sources on the ‘coronavirus’ subject, NQS(t)/NAS(t) (Spearman’s r = 0.47, two-tailed P value < 0.001 with 217 observations, see Methods). This result supports the hypothesis that loss of predictability from the NAS dynamics co-occurs with NQS spikes. As a consequence, E could be a very promising proxy for the concentration of News from Questionable Sources production about the topic ‘coronavirus’.

The semantic difference between News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources suggests that unreliable suppliers might react not only to the news demand but, in particular, to the ‘semantically unsatisfied’ news demand. We hypothesized that as NAS becomes more semantically distant from S, NQS would fill that gap. This hypothesis was tested over the entire time range by measuring the daily cosine distance between the semantic vectors of Searches and News from All Sources K(t) = d(S(t), NAS(t)). We then checked the correlation of K(t) with the daily concentration of News from Questionable Sources, NQS(t)/NAS(t), about ‘coronavirus’. The correlation turns out to be positive and significant (Spearman’s r = 0.58, two-tailed P value < 0.001 with 223 observations), supporting the hypothesis. This result allows us to adopt K as a second independent indicator for the concentration of News from Questionable Sources.

To test the effectiveness of our indicators E and K in assessing the concentration of news from unreliable sources on COVID-19, we merged them in a ‘combined index’ (see Methods) that could be considered as a questionable sources activity indicator. We fitted them linearly on a training set composed of approximately the first 25% of data from the time series providing the best linear combination of the two (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The combined index and the normalized time series of news whose sources were annotated as questionable (NQS).
figure 3

The time series of NQS was normalized using the total number of ‘coronavirus’-related News compared with the combined index. The combined index is defined as a linear combination of the weighted modelling error for the local fitting of NAS within the improved Vector Auto-Regression model and the cosine distance between the semantic vectors of Searches and News from All Sources. The parameters of the combination were fitted in the training set and then tested in the validation set. Green background represents the training set while pink background represents the validation set.

The combined index was then tested against the validation set, achieving substantial accuracy (reduced chi-squared statistic of 0.945). All these findings suggest that the combined index provides a valuable measure for assessing the concentration of news from unreliable sources on COVID-19.

In principle, the methodology could also be applied to different topics to assess the health status of the news ecosystem at a more general level. Unfortunately, mainly due to the scarcity of fact-checkers’ annotation for the other keywords (reported in Table 3), we could not perform the same analysis. However, to test whether the methodology can be, to some extent, generalized, we considered the set of the 4 keywords modelled. We aggregated them to create a synthetic macro-topic, for which they individually represented analogues of the related queries we have seen before. We judged the adoption of the first indicator, that is, the weighted modelling error for the local fitting, to be pointless since the macro-subject dynamics is largely dominated by the topic ‘coronavirus’. This would have resulted in an indicator similar to the modelling of the ‘coronavirus’ component alone. We thus focused only on the second indicator, that is, the cosine distance between the semantic vectors of Searches and News, where the components of the vectors are now the values of News from All Sources, News from Questionable Sources, and Searches for the 4 keywords. The daily value of cosine distance between News from All Sources and Searches of the synthetic subject correlates positively and meaningfully with the concentration of News from Questionable Sources on the synthetic subject (Spearman’s r = 0.44, two-tailed P value < 0.001 with 215 observations). Although the generalizability of the previous measurements must be tested for different topics as well as for different languages and different timeframes, this last result supports the plausibility of the application of our methodology in wider contexts.


Information quality is a fundamental challenge for the Information Age, especially during a pandemic. Studying the general news system and comparing it with the subset of news produced by sources labelled as questionable, we found that ‘coronavirus’-related News from Questionable Sources production seems more reactive and precise than News from All Sources in addressing people’s news demand. We exploited such a difference to develop an index for the vulnerability of specific topics to unreliable supplier takeover.

The analysis of Searches and News from All Sources for ‘coronavirus’ and a set of other ‘coronavirus’-unrelated highly queried keywords exposed the interplay between news supply and demand: (1) a linear modelling scheme was effective in almost all cases; (2) the memory of the process seems to be very short (2–4 d) in all cases; (3) causality was more commonly directed from Searches to News from All Sources (for example, for ‘coronavirus’). Due to these considerations, we developed an improved descriptive model to better describe the relationship between supply and demand for information. This modelling framework allowed us to discern how the inertia of news suppliers is one of the main traits of the dynamics for all the studied keywords. Also, the negative dependence on previous days’ Searches observed in some cases suggests a dynamics where the trend of the interest is more important to news producers than the interest itself.

The comparison of ‘coronavirus’-related News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources, through the improved linear model’s lens, exposed that News from Questionable Sources feature lower inertia and a different dependence on Searches, quantifying their more reactive behaviour. We can speculate that this behavioural difference could be a consequence of the different production environments of general suppliers and unreliable outlets. News from Questionable Sources are mainly produced by a large and well-established community of professional journalists, while News from Questionable Sources are the outcome of a scattered multitude of small, unorganized actors. The community size effect might be responsible for the different inertial behaviour observed. For example, a large community of mutually influencing journalists might take some time to reach a consensus on a new topic. In contrast, unreliable suppliers could freely publish just according to the most ‘trending topics’ without worrying about community codes of conduct.

The semantic analysis revealed another key difference between the production dynamics of News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources. Looking at the shares of the most queried keywords co-occurring with ‘coronavirus’, we discovered that News from Questionable Sources is better aligned to Searches than News from All Sources, not only at a cumulative level but also daily over the entire observation period. This result suggests that people’s interests are matched more precisely by unreliable suppliers than by general news producers. This difference might be explained by considering the different aims of the two communities. While they are both interested in answering people’s demand for information, general news producers also strive for complete coverage of topics. In contrast, News from Questionable Sources focus on chasing people’s attention.

We exploited the modelling and the semantic mismatch between News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources to introduce two indexes to detect bursts of news production on ‘coronavirus’ from unreliable sources. It is worth mentioning how these indexes do not rely, in their definition, on any information about News from Questionable Sources. They are based instead only on the time series of News from All Sources and Searches. The first index is based on the modelling of News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources, and exploits the goodness of fit of the modelling scheme. Since News from All Sources includes News from Questionable Sources, a higher presence of the latter could be revealed by a worse performance of the modelling scheme, quantified through the local weighted modelling error. A higher value of this indicator means that the normal relations between News from All Sources and Searches have been altered, presumably by the presence of News from Questionable Sources. The second index exploits the daily semantic misalignment between News from All Sources and Searches. In this case, a higher value of this indicator signals that semantic imprecision of News from All Sources leaves readers’ interests unsatisfied, possibly fostering the production by unreliable sources.

The positive and meaningful correlation of both indicators with the concentration of News from Questionable Sources on ‘coronavirus’ supports two hypotheses. The first is that unreliable suppliers perturb the normal interplay between News from All Sources and Searches. The second is that unreliable suppliers are fuelled by the semantic misalignment between News from All Sources and Searches.

The two indices discussed above blend into a single combined index to assess the concentration of News from Questionable Sources on ‘coronavirus’. We adopted a training set for its definition and a validation set to test its performance. The combined index is a good proxy for the activity of questionable sources and, although not a direct assessment of misinformation at the single news level, it can provide valuable insights to fight misinformation. Owing to its independence of annotations of News from Questionable Sources and its potential generalization to other topics, the combined index can be a powerful tool for journalists and editors on the one hand, and news monitoring authorities on the other, to detect, in real time, vulnerabilities to unreliable outlet production. Our results also suggest, as a possible strategy to tackle these vulnerabilities, a timely refocus of news supply to better meet the information demand of the public.

Information vulnerabilities are a major risk factor for our societies and they directly impact individuals in their behaviours and choices. For example, the solution to the coronavirus crisis heavily depends on individuals’ behaviours, which in turn are directly affected by the news. The approach presented here, far from being conclusive, seeks to encourage a debate towards the understanding of the phenomenology of misinformation production as part of the information ecosystem’s general dynamics. Additional studies will be needed to test the conclusions further and to generalize the results to different countries, languages, domains and time periods. Moreover, the diffusion layer should be added to the analysis of the dynamics of the infosphere, with particular attention to social media spreading of news. In our opinion, a paradigm shift in facing misinformation production is no longer an option. Instead, it is a pressing need, and we contend that the work we presented could contribute to the shift in scientific research towards a more concrete view, aiming to provide policymakers with knowledge and tools to prevent and fight misinformation supply.


Searches data

The information demand about a specific subject was obtained from Google Trends, a platform providing access to an anonymous sample of actual search requests made in the Google Search engine, from a selected location and time interval.

For each given keyword, Google Search returns a time series with values proportional to the number of times the keyword was searched each day. Since Google Search does not disclose the actual number of searches, the time-series values are rendered as percentages of the maximum number returned. As a result, data consist of integers within the interval 0–100. The time series of one keyword was referred to as the ‘Searches’ for that keyword and provided a measure of the interest it received.

The use of the ‘pytrends’ library for Python ( enabled interaction with the Google Trends platform. The terms from Supplementary Fig. 1 were requested separately for the time ranging from 6 December 2019 to 31 August 2020 in Italy. These terms were ‘coronavirus’, ‘regionali’ (regional elections), ‘playstation’, ‘papa francesco’ (Pope Francesco), ‘eurovision’ (the European music contest) and ‘sondaggi’ (polls).

Google Trends also provided information about queries most searched with a specific keyword. In particular, the most popular queries related to the keyword ‘coronavirus’ (for example, ‘coronavirus’ news) were gathered. Such list is capped by Google Trends at a maximum of 25 related keywords, ordered by most searched to least, and denoted q1(t), …, q25(t), respectively, with t indicating the time and q0(t) being the time series of ‘coronavirus’ searches.

To compare the searches of a given keyword with its related keywords, it is necessary to put them on the same scale. To this end, searched items were queried in pairs. In this way, Google Trends normalized the two resulting time series to the highest of the maximums of the two. Given the two time series per request (qi−1(t), qi(t)), with i = 1, …, 25, a coefficient αi = maxt(qi−1(t))/maxt(qi(t)) was calculated. Thus, all the time series qi could be set on the same scale of q0, multiplying by \(\mathop{\prod }\nolimits_{j = 1}^{i}{\alpha }_{j}\). This procedure was needed so as not to lose resolution on keywords with a small number of queries. Having queried for pairs (q0(t), qi(t)) would have resulted in a rounding at 0 performed by Google Trends.

‘Coronavirus’-related queries were then aggregated by summing up their time series. Thus, ‘coronavirus oggi’ (coronavirus today), ‘coronavirus notizie’ (coronavirus news), ‘coronavirus ultime’ (coronavirus latest), ‘coronavirus ultime notizie’ (coronavirus latest news) and ‘coronavirus news’, were all aggregated into ‘coronavirus news’. Subsequently, we removed all queries that returned the same search results as another query. These were ‘coronavirus contagi’ (coronavirus infections) and ‘coronavirus in italia’ (coronavirus in Italy), which are duplicates of ‘contagi coronavirus’ (coronavirus infections) and ‘coronavirus italia’ (coronavirus Italy), respectively. Also, the query ‘corona’ was excluded because it has other meanings in Italian, namely ‘crown’, and it is also a famous brand of beer. Finally, the list of queries associated with ‘coronavirus’, ordered by the amount of searches, was: ‘news’, ‘italia’ (Italy), ‘lombardia’ (Lombardy), ‘sintomi’ (symptoms), ‘contagi’ (infections), ‘casi’ (cases), ‘morti’ (deaths), ‘bollettino’ (bulletin), ‘roma’ (Rome), ‘dati’ (data), ‘mondo’ (world), ‘mappa’ (map), ‘sicilia’ (Sicily), ‘veneto’, ‘campania’, ‘decreto’ (decree), ‘milano’ (Milan) and ‘piemonte’ (Piedmont).

News data

To analyse the news supply, we investigated the data provided by AGCOM, the Italian Authority for Communications Guarantees, which granted us access to the content of a vast number of Italian news sources published online and offline from 6 December 2019 to 31 August 2020 in Italy. These data included articles from printed and digital newspapers and information agencies, TV, radio sites and scientific sources.

Moreover, the data had a specific annotation on questionable sources. AGCOM compiled a list of these outlets by merging the lists from independent fact-checking organizations such as,, and

The protocols of these organizations for checking individual news consist of addressing only verifiable facts or numbers, comparing versions from different sources and tracking the history of the contents (for example, reverse searching pictures to check for possible misuse). More details on their procedures can be found on their websites ( or and on the Code of Principles they subscribe to (

For the classification of the sources, specific taxonomies have been developed. A source can be classified as questionable for different reasons. The most common are: (1) being a ‘fake’ version of an actual newspaper, such as the source ‘Il Fatto Quotidaino’ faking ‘Il Fatto Quotidiano’ by switching the letters in its domain; (2) supporting well-known conspiracy theories, such as ‘Autismo Vaccini’ (translated as autism vaccines); and (3) click-baiting websites, with fabricated news and exaggerated titles. More details can be found on the organizations’ websites, where the lists of labelled sources are continuously updated ( or

The Authority verified the fact-checking organizations’ methodologies and legitimacy through the recognition of international organizations such as the International Fact-checkers Organizations, the Duke Reporters’ Lab or the European Digital Media Observatory. The Authority released the list of unreliable sources to its scientific partners only after it was used by independent scientific studies11,64,65,66,67. Also, the list provided by the Authority in 2020 was already adopted in one other study68.

All the sources annotated as questionable in our dataset are listed in Supplementary List 1. The source-based methodology is well-known and well-established in the current literature on disinformation8,69,70,71. We followed the same approach, which is particularly well-suited to studying the behaviour of unreliable suppliers, as in the present study. As a sanity check, albeit without being comprehensive, we manually inspected only a small randomly chosen sample of the almost 40,000 news items available.

However, the source-based approach implies some limitations. Sources annotated as questionable might not publish just questionable news, and news from the annotated sources might be misinformation of different degrees. In our approach, the sources annotated as questionable are assumed to be questionable to the same extent and static for the observed period. In principle, the percentage of questionable news items might vary from one source to another and over time. Future studies will address these limitations. For the present work, we assumed that the source annotations are reliable enough to represent the questionable supply, at least at the aggregated level we considered.

We pre-processed the data for duplicates and incomplete logs elimination. In particular, we excluded items from Facebook and Twitter sources since our purpose is to monitor the direct production of news and social media usually copy contents created elsewhere. Also, an outlier was found in the pieces of news coming from a source called ‘Non siamo soli’, which were reported for only a few days and therefore excluded. After the cleaning, the News from All Sources data consisted of 6,806,881 items from 554 different news sources, while the News from Questionable Sources data consisted of 134,793 items. Each data entry has a unique ID and contains, among other information, the title and the content of the piece of news, its date, its source and the annotation of belonging to the questionable sources list.

Needing to imitate the rationale underlying Google Trends data, where daily search counts refer to the query of specific keywords, we sought to find counts of daily keywords also in the news data. To do so, given a keyword (for example, ‘coronavirus’), we defined three different metrics: the piece of news containing the keyword at least once, those having the keyword at least three times, and finally, all the occurrences of a specific keyword. These three metrics were then normalized to the total number of news sources per day to level the press activity during weekends. For each model, we chose the metric with the best modelling performance. For the improved version of the VAR model described in equation (1) from the Results, the metric with at least three occurrences was selected, even if the other two showed similar performances. Instead, the most inclusive metric (at least one occurrence) was adopted when dealing with unreliable sources. This procedure was necessary to enhance the signal, given the low number of sources of News from Questionable Sources encountered. For consistency, News from All Sources was considered with the same metric (at least one occurrence) when comparing it with the News from Questionable Sources time series. The exact sample size (n) for each keyword is available in Table 3 as a discrete number for both sources of News from All Sources data and News from Questionable Sources data.

Following the same rationale, we adopted the first metric to filter for the keywords related to the ‘coronavirus’ subject described in the previous subsection. To do so, we selected the piece of news containing the keyword ‘coronavirus’ at least once and, in this subset, we counted the ones featuring the desired related keyword at least once. The values found were normalized to the total number of news pieces featuring the keyword ‘coronavirus’ at least once per day. We did this to get a proxy for the share of ‘coronavirus’ piece of information focused on the related keyword subdomain. We repeated this analysis for the subset of news mentioning the keyword ‘coronavirus’ at least once, coming from sources annotated as questionable. We then used the values extracted from this analysis to investigate the questionable supply in the ‘coronavirus’ context. The exact sample size (n) for each ‘coronavirus’-related keyword is available in Table 5 as a discrete number for both News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources.

Table 5 The exact sample size (n) for each keyword, given as a discrete number for both NAS data and NQS data

Time series analysis

Time series of Searches and News from All Sources (from Supplementary Fig. 1) were investigated with the VAR model62, using Python’s ‘statsmodels’ package for time-series analysis72. Data were regularized via x log(1 + x) transformation before fitting. For the VAR modelling, the number of lags d was determined as the parameter that minimized the Akaike information criterion63, with d ranging from 1–14. This modelling strategy was chosen to ensure the interpretability of the fitted model and its regression coefficients.

From the VAR model, we computed Granger-causality62 to test whether the queries’ values provided meaningful information to the prediction of news shares and vice versa. Since two tests were performed on the same data from a given subject (for the null hypotheses, ‘S does not Granger-cause NAS’ and ‘NAS does not Granger-cause S’), resulting P values were corrected by the Holm-Bonferroni method73. Thus, pairs of P values in Supplementary Fig. 2 were multiplied by 2 to control for family-wise error rate and to maintain comparability.

In Fig. 1 and Supplementary Fig. 3, the improved models for regression of the News from All Sources were derived by adjusting the VAR models to include Searches at time t. Lags were re-elaborated through the Akaike criterion as before, with similar results. These models were then compared against a null model that forecasts one day proportionally to the value of the day before to benchmark how beneficial the addition of regressing variables was to NAS prediction (Table 1).

To assess the semantic misalignment between News from All Sources and Searches from Supplementary Fig. 4 over the related queries associated to ‘coronavirus’ at a given time t, the cosine distance was calculated as d(S(t), N(t)) = 1 − S(t) N(t)/S(t)N(t), on the vectors S(t) = (S1(t), …, Sk(t)), N(t) = (N1(t), …, Nk(t)), where Si(t) and Ni(t) represented the searches and news, respectively, at time t for the i-th keyword associated to ‘coronavirus’, with being the dot product and being the Euclidean norm. Cosine distance was suitable for comparing high-dimensional vectors at different scales, and returned values in (0, 1) for vectors with non-negative entries such as S(t) and N(t).

Comparison of improved models’ coefficients

To assess the differences in the coefficients from the improved models of News from All Sources or News from Online Sources, and News from Questionable Sources, we performed a statistical hypothesis test on the basis of bootstrap. First, we created a bootstrap version of the daily values by sampling with replacement from the pool of news from those days that were unlabelled or labelled as questionable. Repeating this procedure many times for every day, we recreated 105 bootstrapped versions of the time series for News from All Sources (or News from Online Sources) and News from Questionable Sources. For each of them, we fitted the improved model and calculated Δ as the difference between the parameters of the model for the News from All Sources (or News from Online Sources) and the same parameters of the model for the News from Questionable Sources. As an example, we report in Supplementary Fig. 6 the distribution of the difference in the inertial term α1 of News from All Sources and News from Questionable Sources, that is, the bootstrap distribution. To challenge the null hypothesis Δ ≤ 0 against the alternative Δ > 0, we calculated the test’s P value as P = Δ ≤ 0/(N + 1), where Δ ≤ 0 is the number of bootstrap repeats where the hypothesis is true and N = 105 is the total number of repeats (note that 1 is added to the denominator to account for the Δ > 0 that is actually observed). The example above describes the left-tailed version of the testing procedure. Following the same rationale, the P value for the right-tailed test is P = Δ ≥ 0/(N + 1). The results for this analysis are reported in Table 4.

Combined index validation

To define and validate the combined index from Fig. 3, we split the daily data from News from Questionable Sources concentration on ‘coronavirus’ into a training set (from 29 January 2020 to 20 March 2020) and a validation set (from 21 March 2020 onwards).

Thus, we defined the combined index as a linear combination of the two starting indices that best fitted the concentration of News from Questionable Sources, using a linear model with Gaussian noise on the training data. The ordinary least squares estimate \(\hat{\sigma }\) for the variance of the Gaussian noise was then calculated as the mean squared error (MSE) divided by the statistical degrees of freedom k (that is, the number of observations minus 2, which is the number of parameters in the model).

To assess the predictive potential of the combined index, we adopted the trained model to forecast the concentration of News from Questionable Sources in the validation set. The goodness of fit of this prediction was tested through the reduced chi-squared statistic, which is calculated as the MSE on the validation set divided by \(\hat{\sigma }\). This statistic is approximately distributed as a χ2 with as many degrees of freedom as the size of the validation set (that is, 51), leading to a P value of about 0.945. As such, the null hypothesis that the concentration of News from Questionable Sources for the keyword ‘coronavirus’ is distributed in agreement with the trained model cannot be rejected.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this article.