The COVID-19 pandemic is now surging around the world, and each hour brings more developments than a full day seemed to bring just a few weeks ago. On Wednesday morning, Facebook held a call with CEO Mark Zuckerberg to update the press on the steps the company has taken in response to the crisis to date. (Here’s the transcript.) Afterward, I spoke briefly with Zuckerberg about how the company is shifting its content moderation teams to handle the disruption, which I wrote about here yesterday.
Both on the press call and in talking with me, Zuckerberg emphasized his concern about a looming mental health crisis as people around the world are forced to stay apart from their friends and loved ones. And whether you are building social products or using them to stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s a concern worth taking seriously.
The call started with a couple of announcements, which I covered at The Verge:
Facebook will put a coronavirus information center at the top of the News Feed in the United States and other countries around the world, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today. In a call with reporters, Zuckerberg said that a collection of information from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control would begin appearing on top of the feed over the next day.
The introduction of the information center comes after Facebook had been promoting links to the WHO and CDC inside the News Feed itself, as well as on Instagram. Facebook has also linked to the organizations in search results when people run queries on “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.”
Facebook will also make its Workplace product free for the government and for emergency services.
These are good and useful steps, but the most interesting part of the discussion came later. A reporter asked how Facebook planned to conduct its normal content moderation operations now that the vast majority of its contractors have been sent home. Zuckerberg noted that one reason Facebook is shifting to use full-time employees for moderation is that working on disturbing content, such as posts dealing with self-harm or suicide threats, take a significant mental-health tool on the workers. Outside their offices, Zuckerberg said, Facebook couldn’t provide them with the mental-health services programs that they normally get through Accenture and the other vendors Facebook hires to run the programs.
And that’s when Zuckerberg shared what he described as one of his chief concerns during this time.
I’m personally quite worried that the isolation from people being at home could potentially lead to more depression or mental health issues, and we want to make sure that we are ahead of that in supporting our community by having more people during this time work on things that are on suicide and self-injury prevention, not less.
Human beings are social creatures, but now being social in person brings with it the risk of death and disease. Cities like San Francisco have begun to order citizens to remain indoors for all but making essential purchases, doctor’s visits, and solitary exercise. The initial order has been for three weeks, but there are already hints it could extend longer. California, for example, has said that schools may be shut through the summer break.
One immediate effect of the forced isolation, as you may suspect, has been a surge in the use of Facebook products. Zuckerberg said on the call that calls on WhatsApp were at double their normal volume, and well past their traditional annual peak: New Year’s Eve. A spokeswoman told me that call volume had more than doubled for Messenger as well. And that’s before the pandemic has completed its spread around the world, Zuckerberg noted — some countries remain relatively unaffected. He said the company is now scrambling to shore up its infrastructure before demand causes servers to melt down.
But as much fun as it is to video chat with friends and family — and it really is! Do it tonight! — it can’t replace in-person contact. And for people already struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, an extended period of isolation could exacerbate their conditions.
“This is the area I’m most worried about,” Zuckerberg told me after the press call. It’s why he had shifted reports of self-harm on Facebook services to full-time employees, bringing in additional staff in anticipation of a spike in cases. “I view the work in this area as akin to the same kind of first-responder work that other health workers or police have to do in order to make sure we’re helping people quickly.”
In the short term, he said, a focus on imminent harm among the user base might mean that Facebook’s performance declines in some categories. (Facebook self-reports data publicly on this subject in its regular transparency reports.) If you have fewer human beings monitoring for spam, for example, you might see more spam on Facebook.
At the same time, he said, moderators who are now working from home have been enlisted in training machine-learning classifiers to automate more aspects of moderation. Zuckerberg predicted that even if some moderation efforts fell short in the near term, the extra attention to building classifiers in this moment could improve it in the long term.
It’s perhaps an obvious point, but it bears saying: moderating posts about self-harm is necessary, but mitigating self-harm in the first place would be much better. That’s not a burden that should fall entirely, or even primarily, on a social network. But I continue to believe social networks can work creatively to find new ways to make us feel less isolated in this time, and any advancements they make there could do a lot of good.
Facebook should be commended for sharing this information with the public in real time. In a moment when so much seems to be coming apart, the big tech platforms — for better and for worse — have become vital infrastructure for our new disaster-age lives. We expect regular briefings from elected officials and public-health agencies — and we ought to expect regular briefings from tech infrastructure as well. Google, Twitter, Amazon — this means you.
Everyone has a role to play in what lies ahead. And Facebook, which has the largest social platform in the world, can play a large and possibly even heroic role in getting us all through the weeks and months to come.
In the meantime, I understand why Zuckerberg is worried about the loneliness and depression to come. By the time I got off the phone with him, I was worried too.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔽 Trending down: Despite Facebook’s ban on medical face masks, ads for overpriced N95 masks are still showing up on the platform. Many lead to web stores hosted on the e-commerce platform Shopify.
The US government is in active talks with Facebook and Google about using smart phone location data to combat the novel coronavirus. If it moves forward, the effort could include tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak. (Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg / The Washington Post)
Google is delaying employee performance reviews and promotions due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company plans to promote twice as many people in November 2020 instead, and backdate raises to August 1st. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
As many Americans flee their offices to avoid any contact with the coronavirus, many low-wage janitors are still being asked to come in. The new cleaning solutions they are being asked to use to kill the virus could endanger their own health. (John Eligon and Nellie Bowles / The New York Times)
The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the fragile livelihoods of gig economy workers. Many lack protections like guaranteed wages, sick pay, and health care, which are benefits that are critical in a crisis. (Kate Conger, Adam Satariano and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
In China, the coronavirus is exposing a digital divide between students who have access to resources and technology that allows them to learn remotely, and those who don’t. Other countries are about to start experiencing the same. Like, uh, this one. (Raymond Zhong / The New York Times)
The coronavirus community on Reddit has become the third-most active subreddit on the platform, with 1.2 million members. It has a team of 60 volunteer content moderators tracking the more than 50,000 daily comments posted by the community. (Olivia Solon and April Glaser / NBC)
The coronavirus is forcing us to use the internet as it was always meant to be used — to connect with one another, share information and resources, and come up with collective solutions to urgent problems. I appreciated this column from Kevin — I’ve felt much the same over the past week, and tried to reflect that in the newsletter. (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
Google postponed the online version of its Cloud Next conference indefinitely. The event was originally supposed to take place April 6th through 8th. Then the company moved it online. Now that has also been pushed back. (Frederic Lardinois / TechCrunch)
⭐ Bernie Sanders is pioneering the virtual campaign rally. The coronavirus has made a strong online presence more important than ever before — and highlighted how far ahead Sanders is in this arena. Here’s Makena Kelly at The Verge:
Both Sanders and Biden have held virtual campaign events over the past week, but their approaches couldn’t be more different. Even before the pandemic hit, Sanders was campaigning through nontraditional means, using a mix of social media platforms, Twitch live shows, and podcast appearances. Now, all of Sanders’ campaign events, including Monday night’s live-streamed rally or Friday’s tele-town hall, are taking place online. Biden’s team is leaning into the former vice president’s rapport with supporters, putting him on Zoom calls so he can speak one-on-one with them. But they’re playing catch up to Sanders, who has been working these platforms since the beginning.
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign currently has no active Facebook ads, the morning after another disappointing finish in a series of primary contests. A pause in digital advertising spend on Facebook has been one indicator that a candidate is planning to drop out of the 2020 race. Sanders says he isn’t quitting. (Alexi McCammond / Axios)
⭐TikTok unveiled a group of outside advisers with expertise in child safety, hate speech, and misinformation to help guide the company on its content moderation policies. It’s an important step forward for a company facing intense scrutiny over its content moderation practices. Margaret Harding McGill at Axios has the story:
The Content Advisory Council will discuss existing and potential future policies against misinformation and election interference at its first meeting later this month, TikTok U.S. general manager Vanessa Pappas wrote in a blog post.
Dawn Nunziato, a George Washington University Law School professor and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project who specializes in online free speech issues, will chair the council. Other members include: Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami Law School professor and critic of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act [...] and Rob Atkinson, the president of the tech policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
Facebook-owned social media tracking tool CrowdTangle launched a new search feature to let users search memes, see social trends over time and access page transparency data across Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit. Going to be playing with this today. (Andrew Hutchinson / Social Media Today)
Facebook once developed an internal facial recognition app that let users scan peoples’ faces and identify them. Now you can see what the app looked like. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Slack just got its biggest redesign to date. It’s beginning to roll out today with better sidebar customization, a new compose button, a top navigation bar, and many other tweaks that make the app easier to use. (Tom Warren / The Verge)
As more social engagements move online, trolls are using Zoom’s screensharing feature to blast other viewers with disgusting images. So as you may know, my friend Hunter Walk and I have been doing a regular Zoom happy hour at 5P PT on weekdays. Yesterday we learned the hard way that you should disable screensharing! Thanks to Josh for writing this up. Somehow Reuters did too? Slow news day I guess! (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
A new video chatting tool allows people to chat remotely without taking over the whole screen. The software, from a company called Around, crops participants down to just circles that float on the screen to allow people space for other apps. Something to consider if the screensharing trolls on Zoom get you down! (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
A new Chinese-owned video sharing app called Likee is looking to expand in the United States. It’s already caught on in Russia and India, and could have an easier time contending with US regulators than TikTok since it’s operated by a company in Singapore. (Zheping Huang / Bloomberg)
New high-resolution satellites, AIs, and data tools are going to let us study Earth, and ourselves, in greater detail than ever before. That’s going to come with “unthinkable” problems related to privacy, this piece argues. (Becky Ferreira / Vice)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Watch Netflix with your friends, virtually. A new tool called Netflix Party synchronizes video playbacks and adds group chats to your Netflix shows so you can talk about what is wrong with the people on Love Is Blind in real time.
Go to a live concert online. NPR compiled a list of shows happening virtually, organized by date and genre.
Do you have enough toilet paper to get through the quarantine? This handy new tool will tell you.