Facebook fights fake coronavirus news, wants to build trust with public sector

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Facebook's head of health Kang-Xing Jin (center) speaks at Devex’s “Prescription for Progress” event on technology for health in San Francisco. Photo by: Devex

SAN FRANCISCO — With its power to influence global health information, Facebook is now helping fight fake coronavirus news.

Following the emergence of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, and the proliferation of bad information about it, the social media giant has already begun removing bogus information about cures and prevention methods. Facebook is also looking to partnerships with the public sector to replace this misinformation with helpful, credible alternatives, said Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook's head of health, who spoke at Devex’s “Prescription for Progress” event on technology for health in San Francisco, California, earlier this month.

“We need to help get people access to credible information from trusted sources in the moments that they’re seeking it out.”

— Kang-Xing Jin, head of health, Facebook

“We’re working really closely with organizations like the [World Health Organization], as well as a variety of local ministries of health, to help them meet people where they are searching,” Jin said.

When people search for “coronavirus” or other related terms, Facebook will direct them to credible information at the top of the results with links to the WHO’s website or other relevant sources, Jin said.

“Misinformation really thrives when there’s a void or an absence of accurate information or trusted information,” he said.

The efforts to tackle bad information about COVID-19 are building on similar collaborations aimed at pushing back on misinformation about vaccines and stemming the rise of vaccine hesitancy, which WHO declared one of the 10 biggest threats to health last year, Jin said.

“We have work to do on removing and reducing harmful information, but just as importantly, we need to help get people access to credible information from trusted sources in the moments that they’re seeking it out,” he said.

“That’s something that I think we really need to do in close partnership with the public sector, because again, we’re not the people who have that information. That actually really shouldn’t be us. But we need to work closely to connect people in that way,” he added.

In addition to improving the public’s response to these emerging health threats, collaboration between Facebook and public organizations might offer a pathway to establishing — or rebuilding — trust between communities that have found themselves at odds over questions related to misinformation, privacy, and responsibility.

“Trusted relationships between us and the public sector and the people we work with are incredibly important. Even in the last year that’s gotten better. It just takes time. You have to work together. You have to learn each other’s language, and you have to honestly work through some difficult issues together,” said Jin, who was one of Facebook’s earliest employees, and who met Mark Zuckerberg on their first day of classes at Harvard.

For the global health community, Facebook offers unprecedented reach to individuals with access to the social media platform — for better, or for worse.

Facebook's head of health Kang-Xing Jin speaks about Facebook’s partnership with the public sector at Devex’s “Prescription for Progress” event on technology for health in San Francisco. Via YouTube

The positive potential of the company’s global footprint stands out in initiatives like Facebook’s blood donation tool, which matches blood banks in need with people who sign up to be notified as potential donors. So far, 60 million people have registered as donors on Facebook, Jin said, adding that 40 million of those are in India, one of the first countries where it launched the tool.

“Donating blood is fundamentally an altruistic thing, and it’s pretty amazing that this many people are willing to do it when presented with the right opportunity and the right information,” he said.

That volume and speed of uptake — the tool has only been available for two years — suggests the global health community has still not fully realized the potential mobile phone platforms offer.

“That’s kind of like the first thing that I’d love to realize over the next 10 years, to be able to realize this at scale and with the associated causal impact measurements so we can really understand what’s working and what’s not,” he said.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.