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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook Communities Summit 2019 (Facebook).

Purpose Brand Business Tracker: Facebook’s COVID-19 Tech Playbook

Published on October 1, 2020

The pandemic puts Facebook’s free-speech view of content moderation to the test.

Facebook’s early efforts to disseminate and promote accurate information in the escalating COVID-19 contagion were well received. But the 2020 election runup brought close scrutiny to the social media company’s laissez-faire content approach.

A key feature of Facebook’s brand identity and corporate purpose has been its commitment to providing a platform largely free of censorship. When social media platforms’ laissez-faire approach was implicated in the spread of 2016 election disinformation, industry leaders like Twitter admitted their failings and announced sweeping reforms of their content guidelines. Facebook, however, remained firm in its stance not to censor “fake news” and violate its brand purpose as an open forum.

“What I believe is that in a democracy, it’s really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments,” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg told CBS in December, “And, you know, I don’t think that a private company should be censoring politicians or news.”

Falsehoods and Superspreaders

Facebook’s defiant stance on free expression could be seen in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As infection spread and the death toll began to mount, leaders in government and the media accused Facebook of propagating damaging messages. While Zuckerberg has continued to defend Facebook’s approach, the company reversed course in May amid public pressure, changing its policies, protocols and AI algorithms to limit the spread of misinformation about the virus. 

The material threat of a global pandemic made Facebook’s aggressively pro-free speech stance untenable. Facebook is struggling to adapt its brand identity, built on free expression and an open marketplace of ideas, to a reality in which social media platforms spread potentially harmful information. This is one of the hardest challenges a purpose brand can face. Facebook’s actions in the coming months may redefine how its millions of users, and the world at large, view the social media pioneer.

Consumers share widespread optimism that technology is changing life and society for the better, as we found in the extensive survey at the heart of The Purpose Report 2020. Respondents agreed that tech companies, especially social media companies, need to work together to ensure data privacy (84%) and to protect the integrity of public discourse by controlling fake news, fake accounts and factual inaccuracies (81%) on their platforms.

Facebook faced intense political scrutiny as government officials investigated the platform’s use as a tool for spreading disinformation and broader privacy and security concerns in the company’s compiliation of user data. An active role in addressing the pandemic gives Facebook the chance to reclaim its brand purpose as a good corporate citizen.

Leadership Response

Zuckerberg has been highly visible as a private sector leader fighting COVID-19, and has been pivotal to Facebook’s messaging strategy. Since the outset of the crisis, Zuckerberg has used Facebook Live to talk with major players in the COVID-19 response, which has served to both relay useful information and associate Facebook with the response effort:

  • On March 19, Zuckerberg spoke with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, about what everyone can do to help fight the spread of COVID-19 and how governments have responded.
  • On March 30, Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, spoke with Gavin Newsom, governor of California, about the need for more healthcare workers, as well as Facebook’s recent $25 million donation to support frontline healthcare workers.
  • On April 14, Zuckerberg and Chan spoke with Tom Frienden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about containing the spread of the virus, and how best to reopen the economy.

On April 20, Zuckerberg published an op-ed in the Washington Post about the power of data to defeat COVID-19, and the key role Facebook is playing as a social network, reinforcing its purpose brand: “Better data can help governments determine where to send resources such as ventilators and personal protective equipment — and eventually which areas are safe to start opening up again. …But with a community of billions of people globally, Facebook can uniquely help researchers and health authorities get the information they need to respond to the outbreak and start planning for the recovery.”

COO Sheryl Sandberg has also been active in shaping Facebook’s public COVID-19 response. While Zuckerberg has focused more on Facebook’s capabilities as a tool for combating the spread of the virus, Sandberg has aimed her messaging toward supporting small businesses impacted by the lockdown.