The Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist has become an outspoken figure on the United States’ lack of preparation handling the pandemic, while his foundation has taken a leading role in areas like testing and vaccine research. I mention the latter because, despite the fact that Gates isn’t a medical doctor, he has devoted the much of his life to researching, supporting, and funding public health initiatives.
Now, in an interview with the Fast Company Impact Council, Gates shared one of the reasons we aren’t further along in fighting the spread of the coronavirus.
“A lot of it comes in the form of conspiracy… It is a bit scary when you want to be driven toward the facts in a crisis like this.” Gates said. Pointing out that is likely “part of the reason why the mask compliance is lower here than in other countries.”
Of course, there have been plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19, as well as general misinformation and resistance to the facts, much of which plays out on social networks, Twitter and Facebook in particular. Gates himself has been the subject of many of those conspiracy theories, accusing him of everything from inventing the virus, to using vaccines as a tool to microchip Americans.
“Can the social media companies be more helpful on these issues?” asked Gates. “Sadly, the digital tools probably have been a net contributor to spreading what I consider crazy ideas.”
How exactly can social media companies like Facebook be “more helpful?” To answer that, you need to understand the competing interests at play.
Obviously, we all have an interest in not allowing false information to float around about a global pandemic. There is never a more important time to be clear on the facts and eliminate confusion than when people’s lives are literally at stake.
Social media companies, as well as Google, were relatively quick to highlight content from public health sources to try and make it easier for users to find reliable information. That’s a lot different, however, from eliminating bad information.
At the same time, sensational theories about where the coronavirus came from naturally attract attention. Humans are drawn to the sensational. That’s why this type of content spreads so quickly. That engagement further feeds the algorithms that platforms like Facebook use to expand the reach of content that may otherwise never be seen.
The more a post from one of your friends is liked or commented on or shared, the more likely you are to see it. The more you engage with those posts, the more opportunities Facebook has to target you with ads. For Facebook, engagement leads to monetization.
Those competing interests are indicative of the challenge Facebook faces. It certainly does not mean to be the fountain of bad information or conspiracies, but its system is set up to amplify exactly those types of posts as the natural result of the way engagement contributes to its algorithm.
Gates did suggest tools that will help us get “back to normal,” whatever that looks like down the road, including scaled-up testing, therapeutic treatments, and a vaccine. The latter of which he says they are “rushing those as fast as we can.”
Yet, according to Gates, the simplest way that businesses and communities could start to get back to normal is one of the things most divisive on social media: Each of us wearing a mask.
“Not wearing masks is hard to understand. It’s not that bothersome, it’s not expensive, and yet, some people feel it’s a sign of freedom despite the risk of infecting other people,” said Gates. “Increased leadership on behavioral issues will help us particularly in the fall where the seasonality of this which we now understand is quite significant will push the course of infection up.”
Gates’s point could be summed up as if you want to get back to normal, encourage people to take common-sense measures like wearing a mask. And the best way to get people to do that is to stop amplifying of anti-science messages on Facebook. If only there was a company that could help with that.
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