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Why the coronavirus pandemic is a test Facebook can’t afford to fail

As use of the social media giant’s services surges, it could prove to be a moment of redemption for chief executive Mark Zuckerberg

(Deborah Lee for The Washington Post)

Quarantined at home last week, Mark Zuckerberg sent a 2,000-word letter to his top deputies in an internal private Facebook group, explaining that society was heading toward a much longer period of social isolation than most understood.

The chief executive had spent time quizzing health experts worldwide about the emerging coronavirus pandemic, and he laid out a plan for the social media giant’s empire, including Instagram and WhatsApp, according to people familiar with the memo but not authorized to discuss it on the record. Messaging apps and video-calling services needed to be beefed up as soon as possible to handle a surge in traffic, and employees would be diverted to the products experiencing the biggest surges, such as live-streaming and Messenger.

“People really need to feel connected in times like this,” he wrote.

For most of Facebook’s existence, Zuckerberg has hammered away at the message that the purpose of the social network he built in his college dorm room is to connect the world. Now, company executives, and Zuckerberg in particular, see the pandemic as a chance to prove the service’s value to a wary public after it has been clouded by past mistakes, according to interviews with colleagues and people familiar with the company’s internal deliberations.

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It has become a high-stakes moment for a company that has been plagued for years by a litany of ills, including Russian interference in elections and the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal, and has been criticized for fraying the social fabric as much as it brings people together.

If anything, the stay-at-home orders and isolation imposed by governments have shown that when it comes to social networks, there are very few choices. And there are growing examples of Facebook, which already has 2.89 billion monthly users, being used more rigorously during the crisis.

The Pope has started to broadcast a daily mass using Facebook’s live-streaming service. Public officials, including the World Health Organization and the governor of California, are choosing to hold their news conferences about the virus on Facebook Live. Over the weekend, well-known DJ D-Nice used Instagram to throw Club Quarantine, a dance party attended by more than a hundred thousand people, including celebrities such as Rihanna and former first lady Michelle Obama. (Zuckerberg also made an appearance.)

It’s also being used by yoga teachers to stream classes, cellist Yo-Yo Ma for holding concerts, and everyday people staying in touch with friends and family. Groups such as Physician Moms, created by an emergency-room doctor to share coronavirus information, gained 16,000 members in a week.

The company says that the number of phone calls over WhatsApp and Messenger are double what they were a year ago in localities most impacted by the virus, including the United States. Live-streaming doubled in the week after Italy announced its national quarantine, while video calling increased by 1,000 percent.

But Facebook is simultaneously wading through a minefield of potential problems.

The surge in usage is already testing Facebook’s technical systems. The company’s 45,000 full-time employees are working from home, making it even harder to manage the extra traffic. The company said this week that it would reduce video quality to handle the new demand.

“Just making sure that we can manage [the surges] is the challenge,” Zuckerberg said on a media call last week. “We really need to make sure we’re on top of this from an infrastructure perspective to make sure that things don’t melt down, and we can continue to provide the level of service that people need in a time like this.”

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The company has also sent the majority of its 15,000 content moderators — contract workers who typically work from call centers all over the world — home on paid leave. That means dramatically fewer people are making judgment calls over whether a piece of content is harmful or violates Facebook’s policies.

At the same time, misinformation about the coronavirus is exploding as users tout fake cures such as garlic and bleach, or even false rumors that the virus was cooked up by the Chinese army, the U.S. government and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

Nearly 50 percent of the content on Facebook’s news feed is now about the coronavirus, with a very small number of influential users driving the reading habits and feeds of everyone else, according to an internal report reviewed by The Washington Post. That means that certain individuals have more power to distort the ecosystem and that the company must act quickly if it wants to prevent people from consuming harmful information before its algorithms amplify those posts to even more people. (The memo said the company was considering trying to influence those influencers with more accurate information).

“Until Facebook gets rid of algorithmic amplification that is designed to maximize attention, the site will always be overrun by conspiracies,” said Roger McNamee, a former early investor in Facebook and mentor to Zuckerberg who has become a sharp critic of the company. “Whenever Facebook begins a charm offensive, it is important to dig deeply to identify the issue they are trying to distract you from.”

Zuckerberg’s medical community connections helped alert him to the potential crisis early on. The chief executive is the son of a dentist and a psychiatrist, and his wife, physician Priscilla Chan, has encouraged his interest in medical matters, said Kang-Xing Jin, a friend of Zuckerberg’s from his college days who is the company’s head of health. Zuckerberg and Chan’s philanthropic organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, was founded in 2015 and has pledged over $3 billion to eradicate or prevent disease.

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The company’s leadership has faced searing criticism for its role in amplifying disinformation and allowing Russian operatives to abuse the platform during the 2016 election. Zuckerberg has apologized for the lack of oversight that led to the Cambridge Analytica incident, in which tens of millions of accounts were compromised by the Trump-affiliated political consultancy. Many of Zuckerberg’s trusted deputies have resigned since the scandals.

In recent years, Zuckerberg has described himself as a “wartime CEO” who needed to act decisively to fix Facebook’s mounting crises, according to people familiar with the discussions. He created a vast new division of the company focused on combating election interference and spent heavily on thousands of content moderators to police the site.

With a global pandemic rearing its head, Zuckerberg wants to avoid past mistakes, and it is important to show that Facebook can rise to the moment, people who work with him said.

As early as January, Zuckerberg began receiving alarming emails about the potential consequences of the coronavirus from Joe DeRisi, co-president of the Initiative’s Biohub, a medical science research center that is affiliated with California’s top universities. He also heard from former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Tom Frieden, who received $75 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for a public health initiative.

Both men have spent their careers in virus prevention: DeRisi was one of the first people who identified the SARS virus in 2003, and Frieden led the CDC’s response to the Ebola outbreak. The scientists’ emails warned of the impact of the virus and asked what the couple could do to help contain it before it became a pandemic.

At Zuckerberg’s weekly Monday morning meeting in late January, he tasked the product managers in every part of the company to come up with options for Facebook to address the crisis, said Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global policy and communication. Three days later, the company announced the decision to remove any misinformation about the coronavirus — a call made personally by Zuckerberg.

Several weeks before the WHO announced that the coronavirus was officially a pandemic, Frieden sent Zuckerberg and Chan another email arguing that it was too late for containment and that the virus would become a global pandemic and spread to the United States.

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Zuckerberg fired off more memos to his deputies, asking for more ideas. He also told the company’s engineers that they could shift to work on projects related to the pandemic, and he greenlighted a coronavirus information center — which curates information about the virus from authoritative sources and pops up anytime someone searches the term coronavirus on Facebook.

“I’m not entirely sure Mark is sleeping at the moment,” said Clegg. “There have been no weekends to speak of.”

Zuckerberg‘s strategy has included personal outreach to health and government officials, including the head of the World Health Organization, the leader of the European Commission and Anthony S. Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, with whom Zuckerberg held a live stream conversation on the platform last week, according to Clegg.

The company is also working to fight misinformation. But because of its reduced head count, it must rely on software to make more judgment calls. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, said in an interview that the software has an easier time removing content that it is already familiar with, but a harder time recognizing new information as problematic.

Early on, many of the hoaxes the company took down related to false cures. Bickert said her staff was proactively searching every day for new hoaxes, conspiracies and misinformation about the coronavirus and was taking cues from updates posted on the CDC and WHO websites. It’s not always clear-cut, she added.

One tricky case arose when the company found people posting that the British government was going to remove access to essential services such as groceries as a quarantine measure. The company decided to remove the post because, even if it was well-intentioned, Bickert’s staff felt that information could lead to looting or hurt others in a panic.

Clegg said that people would ultimately make up their own minds about whether Facebook’s service was valuable in this period.

“I think we’re all acutely aware, and Mark is acutely aware, that if social media matters to people in normal, everyday life, it is a thousand times more true when people aren’t physically together,” Clegg added.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

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