The WHO and CDC Are All Over Social Media, but Are They Making a Difference?

Platforms and health authorities have taken unprecedented steps, but early misinformation casts doubt on efficacy

Social media icons against a red background next to scientific images of COVID-19
The World Health Organization has grown its social media team from two people to six just to support COVID-19 response efforts. Illustration: ChefBoyRG; Filo/Getty Images
Headshot of Scott Nover

Key insights:

As the coronavirus spreads around the world, it leaves a trail of misinformation in its wake. On social media, where the algorithms reward engaging content regardless of its veracity, platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube carry the hefty burden of cleaning up harmful rumors from innocent users, bogus claims from profiteers and disinformation campaigns from bad actors. 

But if you’ve logged onto a social platform recently, you’ve probably seen something different. Platforms are giving banners, landing pages and free ads to the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies around the world. The idea is that, while cleaning up false or misleading content is vital, promoting authoritative information is helpful for users who don’t know where to turn.

The CDC did not respond to a request for comment.

“As the outbreak is evolving and knowledge is evolving, we are trying to update people with new information and we are trying to expand our presence to more platforms,” said WHO social media officer Aleksandra Kuzmanovic. “The main strategy is to reach as many people with reliable and accurate information.” 

Kuzmanovic said the organization has active partnerships with Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tencent and TikTok, but managing all of this is no easy task. Since the outbreak started a few months ago, WHO has grown its social media team from two people to six just to support COVID-19 response efforts. 

In addition to urging social distancing, hand-washing and other best practices, Kuzmanovic said her team tracks falsehoods spreading online in order to dispel them, like a rumor that said garlic could prevent COVID-19 infection.

This level of collaboration between platforms and public health authorities is “unprecedented,” according to Cuihua (Cindy) Shen, an associate professor of communication at the University of California, Davis, precisely because one of the biggest challenges is combating misinformation around COVID-19. 

“That means true information could become misinformation after a few days or a few weeks,” Shen said. “And vice versa: Misinformation could become true information.”

On Jan. 14, for example, the WHO tweeted, “Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission of the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV) identified in #Wuhan, #China.”

Only 10 days later, China put 36 million citizens on lockdown. In the United States, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., called for a congressional inquiry into WHO for “willfully parrot[ing] propaganda” from the Chinese government.

Misinformation like this may leave a lasting mark, even if the authority changes its tune over time.

“Even if a piece of information is found to be false, that information lingers,” Shen said. “That original impression doesn’t erase itself just because you’re exposed to fact-checking information.”

But does promoting authoritative information make up for the flurry of misinformation on the platform? That’s one question that the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public—namely the center’s director Jevin West, computer science professor Franziska Roesner and Ph.D. student Christine Geeng—are looking into. 

“What this crisis has done is demonstrated that all these big tech companies can do something,” West said. “There’s clearly more that they can do, but they’re certainly doing more than they’ve done in prior discussions about misinformation and disinformation.”

Facebook and Instagram have “directed more than 1 billion people to resources from health authorities including the WHO, more than 100 million of whom clicked through to learn more,” company spokesperson Andrea Vallone said. In a blog post, Nick Clegg, vp of global affairs and communications, said that the coronavirus resource page, which is only active in a few countries right now, will be available globally soon.

The University of Washington researchers conducted a survey of Facebook users to see if banners, fact-checked labels and promoted posts changed user behavior and perceptions of misinformation. 

“One thing we found is that more post-specific, the ‘This is false’ labels are more effective in the moment,” Roesner said. “People rank them as more helpful and they change their mind because of them.”

But what we don’t know enough about yet, she said, are the peripheral effects of these platform features. “People say the banners aren’t helpful and didn’t click on them, but that doesn’t assess whether that’s more subtly changing how they’re consuming information,” she said.

This story first appeared in the April 6, 2020, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@ScottNover Scott Nover is a platforms reporter at Adweek, covering social media companies and their influence.