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

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.

On April 2, Sandberg announced the company’s $100 million small business loan program: “The COVID-19 pandemic has hit small businesses everywhere. Suddenly and, through no fault of their own, many simply can’t do business, and for others it has become much, much harder because customers are doing the right thing and staying at home. Facebook is committed to helping them. That’s why we recently announced our $100 million global small business grant program and why we are providing more details today about how businesses can apply.”

New/Modified Products and Offerings

Facebook’s COVID-19 response has included a number of modifications to its service, especially regarding pop-ups and informational content. The company has incorporated educational pop-ups on top of search results to connect Facebook users with local, national and international health organizations.

COVID-focused modifications have also been applied to Instagram:

  • More educational resources in Instagram Search.
  • New stickers promoting accurate information sharing; donation sticker rolling out in more countries and search tools to help users identify relevant nonprofits to support.
  • COVID-19 related content removed from recommendations, other than that posted by approved health organizations.
  • A browsing option in video chat.

Facebook has partnered with a number of health organizations to develop integrated apps and products to support dissemination of accurate, reliable and up-to-date information:

  • A CDC curriculum in its learning units tool, in which group admins can share useful information on avoiding infection and preventing the spread.
  • An interactive experience on Facebook Messenger to provide accurate and timely information about the coronavirus outbreak. Users message the World Health Organization directly with questions about COVID-19.
  • WHO Health Alert on WhatsApp, which answers common questions about COVID-19.

Facebook has also been highly active modifying its offerings to include greater resources and tools for small businesses:

Adapting Marketing Strategy

With COVID-19 disrupting economic and social activity, Facebook has published an updated guide for advertisers, focusing on performance impact and adaptation of content marketing and advertising amid the pandemic: “As businesses seek to navigate this difficult time, adapt media strategies and determine which marketing activities are most worthwhile, gaining an accurate understanding of ad performance is more important than ever. However, a key issue marketers and strategists face when making these adjustments is that many current behaviors depart from the norm.”

Facebook has also released its own content marketing and messaging in response to COVID-19. On April 1, the company released a video spot, “We’re Never Lost If We Can Find Each Other,” featuring an uplifting voiceover overlaying images portraying both ordinary life and COVID-19 first responders in action. The ability to keep people connected is fundamental to Facebook’s business purpose.

Supporting Communities

Facebook has leveraged its position as the world’s dominant social network to produce a report and interactive maps (updated daily) using aggregate data from Carnegie Mellon’s U.S. symptoms survey. This is in keeping with Facebook’s corporate purpose, and reflects Zuckerberg’s and Sandberg’s ongoing public leadership with regard to finding data-driven solutions to the pandemic.

Facebook has also pledged a lot of money to the cause, and has announced a range of financial donations and grants in support of communities and businesses that have been impacted by COVID-19:

Facebook has also committed to helping through online communities and data sharing:

  • A program to pair developer partners with health organizations to help them connect and deliver critical information to the public.
  • Data for Good tools, which support health researchers and nonprofits, including “Three new types of Disease Prevention Maps to help inform disease forecasting efforts and protective measures, using aggregated data to protect people’s privacy.”
  • Get Digital, a digital literacy program designed to provide “lessons and resources to help young people develop the competencies and skills they need to more safely navigate the internet. These resources are designed to be used by educators and families both in the classroom and at home, but they’ve become even more important as young people spend more time on their devices while at home during the COVID-19 outbreak.”
  • Community Help, an online space “for people to request or offer help to neighbors, such as volunteering to deliver groceries or donating to a local food pantry or fundraiser.”
  • Support for the Open COVID Patent Pledge to make patents freely available to support the fight against COVID-19

Protecting Employees

To protect its employees and maintain social distancing, Facebook has closed much of its office capacity and is facilitating work-from-home wherever possible. On March 12, Facebook spokesperson Anthony Harrison discussed the decision with CNN, which reported that “Facebook is extending work from home guidance to all employees globally whose jobs allow them to do so.”

After some delays, for which it was receiving increasing criticism, Facebook also temporarily sent content reviewers home, while full-time employees have been tasked with carrying some of the burden and are reviewing content related to real-world harm. This reinforces Facebook’s purpose brand as an online community, committed to ensuring that potentially harmful content is removed swiftly, even in a time of crisis, as well as the corporate culture of collaboration and teamwork.

Serving Customers

Facebook’s core operational business function, providing stable access to its social network websites and apps, has faced pressure from spikes in user demand amidst the lockdown. The company has shared data on how it is managing data demand and load spikes, keeping customers informed through updates and blogs: “Our apps were built to withstand spikes, but the usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry. We’re monitoring usage patterns carefully, making our systems more efficient and adding capacity when needed, and we’re doing everything we can to keep our apps stable and reliable during this time.”

Facebook is also serving customers through a number of programs and policies that it hopes will improve public awareness and mitigate risks of exploitation or misinformation:

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