Mark Zuckerberg has outlined some of the steps that Facebook and his family’s non-profit, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, are taking to respond to the spread of both the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 and viral misinformation about the illness, in a statement posted earlier this evening.
Facebook’s response focuses on three areas: providing accurate information; stopping misinformation; and providing data for research (which is not creepy at all coming from Facebook).
To provide accurate information, Facebook is directing users who search for information on the coronavirus on its platform to the World Health Organization or local health authority through an automatic pop-up. That notification on information is also automatically populated into the news feed for everyone who is in a country where the World Health Organization has reported a case of person-to-person transmission.
“Given the developing situation, we’re working with national ministries of health and organizations like the WHO, CDC and UNICEF to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus,” Zuckerberg wrote. “We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response along with other in-kind support. We’ll also give support and millions more in ad credits to other organizations too and we’ll be working closely with global health experts to provide additional help if needed.”
To stop the spread of misinformation on the platform, Zuckerberg wrote that Facebook was removing false claims and conspiracy theories flagged by global health organizations and the company is blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the fears of the public by pitching snake oil cures.
Finally, and perhaps most problematically, Facebook is “looking at how people can use our services to help contribute to broader efforts to contain the outbreak,” Zuckerberg wrote. “Researchers are already using aggregated and anonymized Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to better understand how the virus is spreading.”
There are open questions around what controls Facebook has put in place to restrict who has access to the anonymized data and what users might be able to do with that data — or how long they can maintain access once the threat from the virus abates. Facebook had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Technology from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is also helping with the medical efforts to halt the spread of the disease. Working with the Gates Foundation, researchers financed by the two organizations were able to fully sequence the genome of the virus that causes COVID-19 in a matter of days, making it easier for people infected with the virus to be identified.
That same team created a public version of the IDSeq tool so scientists could study the full genome in the context of other pathogens, Zuckerberg wrote.
Chan-Zuckerberg’s Biohub has also been working to develop a cell atlas, which maps different cell types in the body. Some researchers are using that atlas to try and assess how the coronavirus damages the lungs and identify potential treatments that could limit lung damage caused by the virus.
“There’s more we can do to help people feel less isolated and help one another and we’re working on some ideas we’ll share in the next few weeks, but for now the focus is on slowing the spread of the outbreak itself,” Zuckerberg wrote. “This is a difficult time for a lot of people and I’m thinking of everyone affected by this — the people who are sick or quarantined, their friends and family and of course the healthcare workers who are always on the frontlines of any outbreak. We’ll share more updates soon.”