How Facebook is preparing for a surge in depressed and anxious users
The COVID-19 pandemic is now surging around the world, and each hour brings more developments than a full day seemed to bring just a few weeks ago. On Wednesday morning, Facebook held a call with CEO Mark Zuckerberg to update the press on the steps the company has taken in response to the crisis to date. (Here’s the transcript.)
Zuckerberg emphasized his concern about a looming mental health crisis as people around the world are forced to stay apart from their friends and loved ones. And whether you are building social products or using them to stay in touch with the people you care about, it’s a concern worth taking seriously.
The call started with a couple of announcements:
"Facebook will put a coronavirus information center at the top of the News Feed in the United States and other countries around the world, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said today. In a call with reporters, Zuckerberg said that a collection of information from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control would begin appearing on top of the feed over the next day.
The introduction of the information center comes after Facebook had been promoting links to the WHO and CDC inside the News Feed itself, as well as on Instagram. Facebook has also linked to the organizations in search results when people run queries on “coronavirus” or “COVID-19.”
Facebook will also make its Workplace product free for the government and for emergency services.
These are good and useful steps, but the most interesting part of the discussion came later. A reporter asked how Facebook planned to conduct its normal content moderation operations now that the vast majority of its contractors have been sent home. Zuckerberg noted that one reason Facebook is shifting to use full-time employees for moderation is that working on disturbing content, such as posts dealing with self-harm or suicide threats, take a significant mental-health tool on the workers. Outside their offices, Zuckerberg said, Facebook couldn’t provide them with the mental-health services programs that they normally get through Accenture and the other vendors Facebook hires to run the programs.
And that’s when Zuckerberg shared what he described as one of his chief concerns during this time.
"I’m personally quite worried that the isolation from people being at home could potentially lead to more depression or mental health issues, and we want to make sure that we are ahead of that in supporting our community by having more people during this time work on things that are on suicide and self-injury prevention, not less."
Human beings are social creatures, but now being social in person brings with it the risk of death and disease. Cities like San Francisco have begun to order citizens to remain indoors for all but making essential purchases, doctor’s visits, and solitary exercise. The initial order has been for three weeks, but there are already hints it could extend longer. California, for example, has said that schools may be shut through the summer break.
One immediate effect of the forced isolation, as you may suspect, has been a surge in the use of Facebook products. Zuckerberg said on the call that calls on WhatsApp were at double their normal volume, and well past their traditional annual peak: New Year’s Eve. A spokeswoman told me that call volume had more than doubled for Messenger as well. And that’s before the pandemic has completed its spread around the world, Zuckerberg noted — some countries remain relatively unaffected. He said the company is now scrambling to shore up its infrastructure before demand causes servers to melt down.
But as much fun as it is to video chat with friends and family — and it really is! Do it tonight! — it can’t replace in-person contact. And for people already struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, an extended period of isolation could exacerbate their conditions.
“This is the area I’m most worried about,” Zuckerberg told me after the press call. It’s why he had shifted reports of self-harm on Facebook services to full-time employees, bringing in additional staff in anticipation of a spike in cases. “I view the work in this area as akin to the same kind of first-responder work that other health workers or police have to do in order to make sure we’re helping people quickly.”
In the short term, he said, a focus on imminent harm among the user base might mean that Facebook’s performance declines in some categories. (Facebook self-reports data publicly on this subject in its regular transparency reports.) If you have fewer human beings monitoring for spam, for example, you might see more spam on Facebook.
At the same time, he said, moderators who are now working from home have been enlisted in training machine-learning classifiers to automate more aspects of moderation. Zuckerberg predicted that even if some moderation efforts fell short in the near term, the extra attention to building classifiers in this moment could improve it in the long term.
It’s perhaps an obvious point, but it bears saying: moderating posts about self-harm is necessary, but mitigating self-harm in the first place would be much better. That’s not a burden that should fall entirely, or even primarily, on a social network. But I continue to believe social networks can work creatively to find new ways to make us feel less isolated in this time, and any advancements they make there could do a lot of good.
Facebook should be commended for sharing this information with the public in real time. In a moment when so much seems to be coming apart, the big tech platforms — for better and for worse — have become vital infrastructure for our new disaster-age lives. We expect regular briefings from elected officials and public-health agencies — and we ought to expect regular briefings from tech infrastructure as well. Google, Twitter, Amazon — this means you.
Everyone has a role to play in what lies ahead. And Facebook, which has the largest social platform in the world, can play a large and possibly even heroic role in getting us all through the weeks and months to come.