Let’s Weaponize Social Media Against COVID-19

A woman wearing a face mask leans over a laptop.

More than three years into their war against online misinformation, technology companies are losing the battle against the spread of coronavirus-related falsehoods on social media platforms. Merchants of mistruth, from state-level actors (like China, Russia, and Iran) to individual conspiracy theorists, are hampering public health efforts by flooding online platforms with disinformation and misinformation. Technology companies are making some efforts to staunch this infodemic, but they have been stymied by shelter-in-place orders that have idled the vast armies of content moderators that usually police their platforms.

It’s time for a different approach to dealing with the scourge of coronavirus-related misinformation—one that leverages the most powerful and dangerous features of online platforms to advance the cause of public health. At this time of crisis, we should harness the very behavioral advertising techniques that have been so widely misused in recent years to help us combat the coronavirus.

Instead of simply taking down false and misleading content once it has been posted, technology companies could also offer up their best and brightest to help public health authorities deploy microtargeted ad campaigns to promote compliance with measures to combat the transmission of COVID-19. With the help of digital marketers who know a thing or two about crafting convincing messages, health officials can develop ads about coronavirus-related health measures that are designed to appeal to different target demographics. The very location-aware features developed by companies such as Google and Facebook that are so controversial for their privacy impacts could then be used to assess the effectiveness of these messages in promoting measures such as social distancing. This data, in turn, could be used to redouble our efforts to disseminate public health messages that meet their audiences where they are.

Closing the partisan gap in the wearing of masks in public places is one among a range of potential targets for such ad campaigns. Since mid-April, the CDC has been recommending the use of masks or other face coverings in public settings where social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as at grocery stories. Yet according to a recent poll conducted by political scientists at Syracuse University and the University of California–Irvine, only 53 percent of Republicans report wearing a face mask in public, as compared with 75 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of others. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in mask wearing is widest at the middle of the income distribution but narrows at the bottom and the top.

To be clear, rates of mask use are much too low across the political spectrum. In the right hands, however, this information about partisan and other demographic patterns in mask use could be leveraged to devise a series of ad campaigns that are designed to appeal to Republicans, Democrats, and independents across the income spectrum. Just as political parties and candidates create different microtargeted ad campaigns to appeal to different demographic slices of the electorate, so too can these techniques of persuasion be used to promote compliance with public health measures during the current pandemic.

In recent years, many politicians, advocates, and others have urged regulation of the behavioral advertising–based business model that undergirds Big Tech generally and social media specifically. That discussion is premised on the notion that these techniques are dangerous because they are effective. For years, large technology companies have been tracking our every move online, using the data we give them when we access their “free” online services to power tools that let advertisers barrage us with ads that are precisely targeted to appeal to us. These behavioral advertising tools are not only implicated in Russia’s campaign to interfere with the 2016 election, but they have been used by landlords and employers to engage in prohibited discrimination by targeting their ads at people of certain races or genders, while excluding others. If indeed these tools are so effective at influencing our behavior that they can swing elections, then what better time than the middle of a pandemic to use these powerful tools in the service of the public good?

Using these techniques to combat the coronavirus might seem unsavory, but it is a useful complement to methods such as contact tracing that are needed to protect against new COVID-19 spikes as stay-at-home orders are lifted. While contact tracing (whether analog or digital) seeks to reduce the spread of a disease by identifying all those who have come in contact with an infected person so that they can be treated or isolated, effective targeted advertisements can stop the spread by convincing people who wouldn’t otherwise follow public health guidance to get with the program. In so doing, such campaigns would redeploy the existing machinery of “surveillance capitalism” against COVID-19 and thereby reduce the need to create new systems of surveillance to combat the current pandemic.

At some future date when COVID-19 no longer completely dominates the political discourse, we may well decide through our legislative processes that the harms caused by the ad-supported business model that predominates on the internet today are so grave that we must regulate it out of existence. That is a conversation that we should have in due course, but it is not one that we are capable of having in the midst of the current pandemic. Until that time comes, we have little to lose in using tools that our adversaries continue to use against us to defeat the threat posed by the coronavirus to our health and the vitality of our society.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.