It is safe to argue that Covid-19 is just about the biggest disruption, probably only comparable to the World Wars. Thanks to it, we are together but separated by social distance, we now work and meet loved ones virtually while we discover new passions and talents as we adjust to the new world order.
The necessity of social media, especially at these moments of limited mobility, cannot be gain-said, as a medium to connect, socialise and pursue a common agenda. Social media’s importance as a source of information has been reinforced, even though its soft-underbelly as a purveyor of misinformation has also been exposed.
A study by NewsGuard, an organisation that sorts websites by credibility, indicates that sites publishing coronavirus misinformation had received “more than 142 times the engagement” of WHO and the CDC, but shockingly, most of these engagements were for posts that had nothing to do with the virus.
Facebook built a Covid-19 information centre within its app that houses authoritative information from health officials and governments. The centre, which is now accessible in more than 30 countries in Africa, exists at the top of everyone’s Facebook app and so far more than two billion people have been directed to it.
With the rising cases of misinformation, it was necessary for Facebook to put in place measures to limit the spread of falsehoods around the pandemic. Facebook does not allow content that puts people’s lives at risk of physical harm. Any hoaxes like those that encouraged the consumption of disinfectants as a cure for Covid-19 have automatically been taken down.
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With the help of independent local fact-checkers, Facebook has been able to limit this kind of misinformation. To date, more than 4,000 pieces of content related to Covid-19 which is false have been marked, resulting in more than 40 million warning labels being seen across Facebook’s services.
Facebook’s WhatsApp reduced the number of times that highly forwarded messages can be forwarded in a bid to limit the harmful misinformation around Covid-19.
Recent collaborative efforts with regional governments has seen Facebook avail several of its tools on a free-to-use basis to provide the public with access to accurate, trustworthy and up-to-date information about the virus. For instance, the WhatsApp Business API, allows people across several countries to get answers to the most common questions about Covid-19 from local health authorities.
Facebook has also partnered with health agencies and NGOs to share accurate information. WHO and other sources have been moved to the top of search especially on Instagram so people can easily find the most accurate information. Facebook also provided educational pop-ups on top of search results such that a search for coronavirus on Facebook leads one to a pop-up that directs them to the WHO or their local health authority for the latest information.
For the first time ever, there are now more than three billion people actively using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month. That includes 2.6 billion people using Facebook alone, and more than 2.3 billion people using at least one of Facebook’s services every day. In many of the places that have been hardest hit by the virus, messaging volume has increased by more than 50 per cent, and voice and video calling have more than doubled across Messenger and WhatsApp.
Video presence has of late emerged as a critical part of the private social platform with more people seeking to connect via video calling, video rooms and live stream. In response, Facebook recently launched new product improvements in order to enhance social uses of the video presence. As the most popular end-to-end encrypted calling service, WhatsApp doubled the size of its video calls from 4 to 8 so that users can include more of their loved ones, or larger groups together on calls.
Facebook also launched Messenger for Kids, a video-chat and messaging app that helps children connect with friends and family in a fun, parent-controlled space. All in all, these are challenging times that call for concerted efforts to fight and defeat coronavirus and social media users have a big responsibility of playing their part to stay safe and informed.
-The writer is Facebook’s head of Public Policy, East and Horn of Africa