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Inside WhatsApp, Instagram and TikTok, a race to build COVID-19 tools

WHO teamed up with social platforms that have become the de facto emergency response networks in the face of crisis.

 A member of the Bundestag wears protective gloves as she uses an iPhone during debates at the Bundestag prior to the likely passing of a massive federal financial aid package to shore Germany up against the effects of the coronavirus.

WHO teamed up with social apps like WhatsApp and Instagram to help spread true information.

Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As soon as the coronavirus outbreak began, Aleksandra Kuzmanovic knew tech companies would have an important role to play in stopping the spread of the virus. As the social media manager for the World Health Organization, she'd been in contact with Facebook, Twitter and others over the last year about combatting vaccine misinformation on the platforms.

The global spread of COVID-19, she knew, would pose an even greater challenge.

Over the past two months, the organization has collaborated with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Pinterest, Snapchat and WhatsApp, among other platforms, which have all become de facto emergency response networks in the face of this crisis. Even as surging usage has made it a struggle to "keep the lights on," as Mark Zuckerberg recently put it, employees at major social networks have sprung into action, building tools to weed out misinformation, surface reputable sources, and encourage people to connect in new ways at what is, for many, an acutely lonely time.

In partnership with TikTok, WHO has been posting educational videos, live information sessions and a #SafeHands challenge that encourages people to wash their hands. For the latter, tagged videos have racked up 2.6 billion views and counting. On WhatsApp, WHO's informational chatbot garnered 10 million subscribers in just four days. On Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, WHO has held question-and-answer sessions so users can voice their public health concerns to experts. Since March 1, WHO has gained nearly 1 million additional followers on Twitter, 1.5 million on Instagram and 2 million on Facebook. Kuzmanovic said since January, WHO's average overall engagement is five times what it was last year.

Protocol spoke with employees at TikTok, WhatsApp and Instagram about how all they worked across teams — and continents — to get these tools out into the public.

WhatsApp's bot to counter misinformation

In mid-March, Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and WHO's director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, met to discuss how to stop the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp. That meeting led to a weeklong sprint between employees at WHO and WhatsApp, who worked late nights and through the weekend across multiple time zones to build WHO Health Alert, a chatbot that gives people access to accurate information about COVID-19.

The technology underpinning the chatbot came from an unusual place: a small South African nonprofit called Praekelt.org, which develops mobile technology to address societal issues. Years before, the team at Praekelt launched a program called MomConnect that used WhatsApp to provide users maternal health information on behalf of South Africa's National Health Department.

When coronavirus began to spread across South Africa, the country's health department reached out to Praekelt about using WhatsApp to communicate facts and health tips to the public. That led to a new chat tool, COVID-19 Connect, which launched in mid-March.


WHO and WhatsApp used tech from a South African non-profit called Praekelt.org to make a chatbot to spread reliable information.Screenshot: Courtesy WhatsApp

WHO took notice and worked with WhatsApp and Praekelt to turn the South African tool into WHO Health Alert. Now, users can activate the chatbot by texting a phone number designated for sending out information in one of four languageslanguages. The bot then answers users' questions with travel advice, case statistics, symptoms to look out for, and clarifications on popular rumors.

The bot is useful for people actively seeking out reputable information; less so for stopping the spread of misinformation between people's existing networks. Because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, the company doesn't moderate messages the way it does on Facebook or Instagram. The problem is compounded by the fact that often, users are receiving misinformation forwarded from a friend whom they trust. WhatsApp has taken steps to stop mass-forwarding of fake news in the past, preventing people from forwarding messages to groups of more than five people.

But since the early stages of the pandemic, WhatsApp has sought new answers to this problem, reaching out to dozens of governments to help them more proactively disseminate the facts. Some of those governments have launched chatbots for their own residents (albeit with buggy results). But the WHO chatbot can reach any of WhatsApp's 2 billion users who opt in, no matter where they live.

"It was exhausting but ultimately rewarding," said Nmachi Jidenma, WhatsApp's global channel strategy and development lead, who said she was astonished by demand for the service. Three days after its launch, the WHO Health Alert bot had been used by more than 10 million people.

"There were so many anecdotes from people around the world about how their sister in Argentina or their aunt in London or their friend in India had asked them to check it out," Jidenma said. "It was a remarkable reminder about how impactful a tool like this could be amid a global crisis."

Instagram leverages an election tool

For Facebook's family of apps — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — the push to address the crisis with a suite of new tools had to be balanced against the need to limit the burden on technical infrastructure.

"Everything we do has a server cost," said Karina Newton, Instagram's head of policy. "We're looking to see what we can put out that doesn't drain bandwidth."

One of those features is Instagram's new Stay Home Story, which now appears at the top of the app. It aggregates posts from people who a user follows who have opted to include a Stay Home sticker in their Instagram Stories. Newton said that product, which launched last week, was built on top of technology Instagram uses for its I Voted sticker.

Right before elections, Instagram gives users the option to add the sticker to their Stories, then rounds them up so that users can see those posts all in one place. "We thought about things we have in production, and we'd already built out this functionality for that purpose," Newton said.

Tweaking that product to become the Stay Home sticker turned out to be an easy technical lift with a massive impact. In a Live chat on Tuesday, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said that so many people used the sticker in the first few hours, "it almost took down Instagram."

But not every change has been so easy. Since the outbreak first began in China and spread throughout parts of Asia in January, Facebook has been working with local health officials around the world to develop a directory of credible health organizations, so that it can more effectively surface the content they're sharing across Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Even as that work progressed, though, misinformation about the virus continued to spread widely on those platforms. That's why this week, Instagram committed to removing any coronavirus-related accounts and content from both the Explore tab and Search results, unless they're related to credible health organizations.

Newton admits this is still a work in progress. Searches for "coronavirus" and other related terms on Facebook and Instagram already turn up information from the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. But overhauling Instagram's recommendation algorithm requires looking at the entire spectrum of possible queries related to coronavirus — and the entire spectrum of misspellings of those queries — and weeding out accounts with names and bio information that would ordinarily correspond to those queries. It requires cleaning up so-called "type-ahead" search results that appear before a user is even finished typing their query. And it requires doing all this in 180 different languages.

"We won't be perfect right away, but that's what we're working towards," Newton said. As of this week, Instagram searches for coronavirus still surfaced plenty of accounts that aren't associated with credible health organizations.

The spread of coronavirus has also shuffled Instagram's product roadmap and forced the company to fast-track some existing features that were planned for later in the year. One example of that is Instagram's co-watching feature, which allows people to browse Instagram together, even when they're not physically together. "This is definitely something we've been working on, and it felt like a good time to push it out," Newton said.

TikTok reaches a whole new demographic

In working with TikTok, WHO's top priority was reaching a younger audience than its social following of 25- to 35-year-olds. The video-centric social media platform was lacking credible COVID-19 educational material, Kuzmanovic said, so it partnered with WHO to roll out a landing page with facts and safety tips, informational videos, livestream Q&As with people in more than 70 countries, and a challenge aimed at making hand-washing fun. The #SafeHands challenge has inspired videos by Jimmy Fallon, Kristin Chenoweth, Terry Crews and others.

Like many social media platforms, TikTok's problems with the spread of misinformation — and a lack of transparency around the specifics of its content moderation policy — has incited controversy in the past. Since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak, it's been fighting harder to address that issue by revising its community guidelines to more strictly denounce misleading content, introducing new flagging tools for users to report misinformation, and launching fact-checking efforts through a partnership with the Poynter Institute.

It can be challenging to work on a project that's addressing a real-world problem that we're all going through in real-time. —TikTok's Sean Kim

Sean Kim, head of product for TikTok U.S., said the company's partnership with WHO has helped his team act "globally and comprehensively" to keep users informed and safe. He adds that this work has been a cross-functional effort, bringing together TikTok's product and engineering teams, as well as employees from TikTok's partnerships, safety, policy and operations departments.

The TikTok team had to figure out how to simultaneously ensure that the new features blended in with the app's existing user interface, but still stood out enough to get noticed. They eventually settled on integrating banners in sections of the app people visit regularly, such as the discover tab and hashtag landing pages. Searching "coronavirus," for example, brings up a "learn the facts" banner that links to a landing page listing case statistics from WHO and related videos from credible sources.

Last week, the very first WHO livestream began at 1 p.m. GMT, meaning Los Angeles-based TikTok employees like Kim had to be awake and alert before 5 a.m. to make sure everything went according to plan. "Getting to see the immense response to the livestream, despite it occurring at an inconvenient time … was very inspiring," Kim said.

The organization's TikTok account has so far garnered more than 1 million followers and 4.6 million likes.

Kim said the hardest part of developing these tools hasn't been building the technology itself but doing it at a time when TikTok's own employees are dealing with this crisis, too. "It can be challenging to work on a project that's addressing a real-world problem that we're all going through in real time," he said.


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For her part, Kuzmanovic hopes these collaborations aren't limited to the COVID-19 crisis.

Instead, she hopes this "massive mobilization" of tech companies will lead to using existing tools for future public health challenges. Ideally, the mechanisms are "already in place whenever another emergency or outbreak happens," she said, whether for combating antivaccination propaganda or addressing climate change.

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