People

Zuckerberg's college buddy is leading Facebook's coronavirus response

As the company works to contain coronavirus misinformation, Facebook's head of health steps into the spotlight.

A face mask

The question is whether Kang-Xing Jin's team — and all of Facebook — will be able to crack down on the onslaught of coronavirus misinformation already coursing through its platforms.

Photo: Aleksandr Zubkov via Getty Images

About a year and a half ago, Kang-Xing Jin, one of Facebook's oldest employees and a friend of Mark Zuckerberg's from their Harvard days, stepped into the role of head of health for the company without much fanfare — or health experience to speak of. In that role, Jin, better known internally as "KX," has worked on developing health-related products like a blood donation tool and health support groups.

Now, Jin has a new and substantially weightier responsibility: helping Facebook stem the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus on its platforms and figuring out how to push accurate facts about the virus to its more than 2 billion global users.

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Of all of the members of Zuckerberg's inner circle, Jin may be among the least well-known outside the company. Other early Facebookers, like the company's vice president of augmented reality and virtual reality, Andrew "Boz" Bosworth, and its former chief product officer, Chris Cox, have taken on prominent, public-facing roles. Jin, meanwhile, has risen through Facebook's ranks since 2006, working primarily on foundational products like News Feed and ads, without stepping into public view much.

But as the coronavirus crisis mounts, and Facebook properties like WhatsApp are overrun with fake cures and coronavirus conspiracies, that's beginning to change.

When Facebook announced the first steps in its plan to respond to the coronavirus in January, the message came from Jin. Weeks later, at a conference focused on technology and health, Jin appeared on stage to explain how Facebook envisions its role in addressing this crisis. "We need to help get people access to credible information from trusted sources the moment they're seeking it out. That's something we need to do in close partnership with the public sector," he said. "We're not the people who have that information. That actually really shouldn't be us."

Indeed, Jin has no medical background or expertise, a fact he readily admitted on stage. Like Zuckerberg, Jin studied computer science at Harvard and met the soon-to-be Facebook founder on their first day of class. As Zuckerberg told it in a 2016 Facebook post celebrating Jin's 10-year Facebook anniversary, "I had been up coding the night before, and in my exhaustion I walked into class with my shirt on inside out and backwards. KX was the only person who didn't think it was weird," Zuckerberg wrote. "He later told me he didn't even notice."

Jin was there the night Zuckerberg launched Facebook in 2004, and two years later, after graduating from Harvard, he immediately joined the team. "Over the years he's worked on almost everything we've built," Zuckerberg wrote. "He was on the team that built the first version of News Feed. He helped run our business and advertising services."

By 2017, Jin was working on Facebook's post-election 2016 mandate to foster community on the platform by focusing on groups. Through that work, a Facebook spokesperson says, Jin started noticing the way people were using Facebook groups to talk about health issues and even solicit blood donations.

"As somebody who's been working at the company for so long, he saw this trend happening," the Facebook spokesperson said. "It was something that we needed to focus on." Jin became head of health a year and a half ago, though if Facebook made a public announcement about it at the time, it certainly didn't cause much stir, and Protocol hasn't been able to find one. He now reports to Facebook's head of social good, Naomi Gleit, another Facebook lifer, who joined the company a year after it launched.

The Facebook spokesperson stressed that while Jin doesn't have medical experience, by virtue of his tenure at the company, he does have an intimate knowledge of the various teams working within Facebook that will be required to tackle this issue. "The purpose of the role isn't intended to be a health expert," the spokesperson said. "It's intended to be managerial, to pull people in and have a vision of how to work within the company."

In a Facebook post this week, Zuckerberg expanded on the company's strategy for dealing with the coronavirus, saying that Facebook is working closely with the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, UNICEF, and various health ministries. That includes giving the WHO unlimited, free access to advertisements on Facebook.

This kind of partnership is key, says Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean of public health practice at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "I wouldn't expect each company to have its own health department, but they need to work closely with the CDC," he said. "Public health officials will know where the misinformation is causing the biggest problem. I think it's more about being willing to defer to the expertise."

Facebook is of course not alone in needing to deal with health information across a large platform. Twitter told Protocol that no one person at the company is heading this up, saying, "This is a company-wide effort and there are a range of teams working together on this that include Product, Trust & Safety, and Public Policy." Google and YouTube didn't respond to a specific question about who's leading their health information response. But Google did say it has health and crisis response teams "that have been working to surface authoritative information from WHO in existing features."

Related:

Facebook has hired some bona fide health experts in recent years. Roni Zeiger, a physician who was Google's chief health strategist for years, joined the company last year and now reports to Jin.

The question is whether Jin's team — and all of Facebook — will be able to crack down on the onslaught of coronavirus misinformation already coursing through its platforms. The company's record on controlling the spread of anti-vaccination propaganda is spotty at best, though Facebook has implemented some new tools to surface reliable information about vaccines over the last year. Still, those efforts have had varying levels of success on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. While a search for "vaccines" on Facebook brings up Facebook Pages for the CDC and WHO, the same search on Instagram still surfaces accounts called vaccines_are_toxic and vaccines_kill_. Instagram does, however, direct users to the CDC website via the coronavirus hashtag.

Already, the company appears to be having similar enforcement issues with regard to the coronavirus. While a search for "coronavirus" on Facebook brings up links from medical schools and the CDC, the same search on Instagram turns up an account with more than 86,000 followers called "coronaviruss," which has shared, among other things, a conspiracy theory about the virus being an extermination plot between the United States and Israel.

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The challenges ahead for Jin and his team are immense. Sharfstein stresses that the consequences of Facebook getting this response wrong are dire. "We know about the damage misinformation can do around vaccination," he says. "If these networks wind up amplifying misinformation, then a lot of people could be harmed or killed."

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