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3 things Facebook is doing to counter criticism of its coronavirus response

March 18, 2020, 9:19 PM UTC

Facebook promised to do more to combat misleading information on its service about the coronavirus outbreak amid a deluge of false cures and claims that the virus is a hoax.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Wednesday that the company would roll out a new section on the Facebook news feed providing coronavirus information from trusted sources. The company also said it will better police posts with misinformation about the virus. He also pledged that Facebook wouldn’t share users’ personal data with the government without permission, a big privacy concern for many users.

“It’s clearly a very difficult and stressful time for people,” Zuckerberg said during a call with reporters on Wednesday. “We want to make sure we’re doing what we can to help the public health response.”

In recent weeks, Facebook has faced intense criticism for allowing on its service misleading posts about the epidemic. The posts have undermined efforts by the government and health officials to provide information to the public about the health crisis, such as precautions they should take.

Here are some highlights from Zuckerberg’s call on Wednesday:

Guiding all users to trusted information

Facebook plans to introduce a new coronavirus information center aimed at giving people access to authoritative information. The center will appear at the top of Facebook and Instagram users’ news feeds and will include trusted health information, visual materials from academics and health experts, and content from celebrities and politicians that encourage behaviors to prevent the spread of the virus. It is expected to debut in the U.S., Italy, Germany, Spain, and France in the next 24 hours and then to more countries soon.

“It’s not necessarily that people haven’t heard the message,” Zuckerberg said. “People need to be convinced it’s important for them and know how to do it.”

Bolstering content moderation—on some posts

Facebook will better police misinformation about the coronavirus and will remove content that could cause “imminent harm,” Zuckerberg said. For example, one hoax suggested that people who caught the coronavirus could be cured by drinking bleach—advice that could lead to people poisoning themselves. 

Most Facebook employees, including contractors, are working from home in recent days. As a result, Facebook said it expects content moderators to be less effective at removing misleading information. 

To help bolster the policing of certain content, including such subjects as suicide, self-injury, child exploitation, and terrorism, Facebook is shifting the responsibility of those categories from contractors to its full-time employees, Zuckerberg said.

But categories that are “less extreme” may get less attention than usual, Zuckerberg said. While he didn’t specifically list any such categories, they could include harassment or adult nudity, for example.

“The overall force will be less on the human side,” Zuckerberg said about content moderation. “It will be compounded that we’re shifting focus to suicide and self-harm so other categories will get less focus than before.” 

Protecting users’ privacy

Zuckerberg said that Facebook won’t work with the federal government to provide location information about its users to help combat the spread of the coronavirus. The message contradicts recent media reports that said the company and others were talking about working with the government to provide personal information to track the spread of the outbreak.

Zuckerberg called the media reports “largely overstated.” The company does provide disease prevention maps, which show where people are moving based on publicly available data like Census numbers. A group of Facebook’s health partners also get access to more specific maps that provide anonymized Facebook user data. But with regard to personal data, “We’re not aware of any convos or asks from the U.S. or governments asking for that data,” Zuckerberg said.

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