While platforms like Facebook offers 21st century advertising tools that use advanced calculations to target ads and change behavior. They only use 20th century PSAs against coronavirus.
Given the exponential challenge we face, passive links to information and video from the Disease Control Centers and the World Health Organization are not enough to keep the curve flat. Too many people are still uninformed, underestimated or not motivated to take action by the threat we face. This will result in millions of lives being lost worldwide, their last days without breath and isolated from their loved ones. As summer approaches and social distance increases, our collective will can wane. Technology can change that.
Consider that on April 9, almost a month after the pandemic started, 25 percent of the US population misunderstood whether they were subject to an on-site placement order. In some states, more than 50 percent knew the question, “Do you live in an area that is currently home due to the pandemic?” Not or answered incorrectly. “On May 4, the city of Miami Beach was forced to close a park where over 7,300 people without a mask appeared. It has been over a month since the CDC officially introduced the use of masks to stop the disease from spreading Only 60 percent of Americans knew that you couldn’t actually kill the coronavirus by drinking water to flush it into your stomach acid, and only 44 percent had worn a mask in public. A report found that 100 false Covid-19s -Contents were shared 1.7 million times on Facebook and had 117 million views.
In the meantime, Covid-19 doubled the infections every few days. In New York City, a steady stream of refrigerated trucks moored in hospitals to carry away the bodies. The number of Americans killed is now more than 25 times the number of people killed in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. 70,000 Americans are dead, 20 percent more than in the Vietnam War. This horror will soon overwhelm the limited health systems in Lagos, Mexico City and New Delhi, where millions more live.
We technologists have one Responsibility. Our products are uniquely able to overcome the exponential curve and reach 3 billion people – all on social platforms – before the virus can.
In every major social media platform, there are groups called “growth teams” whose sole purpose is to virally increase the number of users. They have pioneered the features and techniques that have driven the exponential growth of Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and every other social platform. They understand and play with basic human psychology that works across language, country and culture.
What if each growth team was a Covid 19 anti-growth team?
The use of this type of technique raises all sorts of ethical considerations. Crises contrast high values with other high values. However, this ethical complexity does not differ from the ethics of previous design decisions and automated ranking algorithms for news feeds. Furthermore, they do not require new mass surveillance.
Changing behavior on a scale goes far beyond mere information.
Recently WhatsApp launched a WHO chatbot for its 2 billion users. This is great, but for it to work, a user has to save the number +41 79 893 1892 in their phone contacts and then write “Hello” in a WhatsApp message. Few will use it when they have to send “Hello” to a dark number to start the bot.
In addition, waiting for users to send a message to a bot saves millions of lives. Bad design has real consequences.
Instead, WhatsApp should proactively send a message to users in the most risky and densest urban areas and cities to reach them before the virus does so. This is especially important to reach the 2 billion people in the global south whose fragile health systems are more vulnerable to surges and who are WhatsApp unique positioned to achieve.