While platforms like Facebook offer 21st-century advertising tools that harness advanced computation to target ads and change behavior, they are only using 20th-century PSAs against coronavirus.
Given the exponential challenge we’re up against, passive links to Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization information and videos are woefully insufficient to keep the curve flattened. Too many people are still uninformed, not fully appraising, or unmotivated to action by the threat we face—it will result in millions of lives being lost around the world, their last days without breath and in isolation from loved ones. As summer nears and social distancing extends, our collective will may wane. Technology has the power to change that.
Aza Raskin (@aza) is a cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology.
Consider that on April 9, nearly a month into the pandemic, 25 percent of the US population misunderstood whether they were subject to a shelter-in-place order. And in some states, more than 50 percent didn’t know or incorrectly answered the question “Do you live in an area that is currently under a stay-at-home order due to the pandemic?” On May 4, the city of Miami Beach had to close a park where over 7,300 people showed up without masks. It’s been over a month since the CDC officially adopted mask use as necessary to halt the spread of the disease. Similarly, only 60 percent of Americans knew that you can’t actually kill the coronavirus by drinking water to flush it into your stomach acid; only 44 percent had worn a mask in public. One report found that 100 pieces of false Covid-19 content were shared on Facebook 1.7 million times and had 117 million views.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 was doubling infections every few days. In New York City, a steady flow of refrigerator trucks docked at hospitals to carry away the dead bodies. The number of Americans killed is now more than 25 times the number of people killed in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Seventy thousand Americans are dead, 20 percent more than were killed in the Vietnam war. That horror will soon overwhelm the limited health care systems in Lagos and Mexico City and New Delhi, where millions more reside.
We technologists have a responsibility. Our products are uniquely capable of leaping past the exponential curve to reach 3 billion people–everyone on the social platforms–before the virus can.
Inside every major social media platform there are groups known as “growth teams,” whose sole purpose is to virally grow user numbers. They’ve pioneered the features and techniques that have fueled the exponential growth of Facebook, TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and every other social platform. They understand and play to fundamental human psychology that works across language, country, and culture.
What if every growth team became a Covid-19 anti-growth team?
Using these kinds of techniques pose all sorts of ethical considerations. Crises pit dearly held values against other dearly held values. That ethical complexity, however, is no different than the ethics of previous design choices and automated ranking algorithms for news feeds. In addition, they require no new mass surveillance.
To change behavior at scale goes a step beyond mere information.
Recently, WhatsApp launched a WHO chatbot to its 2 billion users. While that’s great, to get it to work, a user has to save the number +41 79 893 1892 to their phone contacts, then text "Hi" in a WhatsApp message. Few will use it if they must text “hi” to an obscure number to initiate the bot.
Moreover, waiting for users to send a message to a bot on their own simply won’t save millions of lives. Poor design has real-world consequences.
Instead, WhatsApp should proactively send a message to users in the highest-risk and most dense urban areas and cities to reach them before the virus does. This is especially important for reaching the 2 billion people in the Global South, whose fragile health care systems are more vulnerable to surges, and whom WhatsApp is uniquely positioned to reach.
Here’s how that could look:
Tech platforms should also follow these principles to accelerate life-saving choices:
👯 Social Proof
We act as we see others acting. Facebook showed in 2010 that by displaying one message one time (“23 of your friends voted”) about which of our friends voted, it increased US vote turnout by 340,000 people (as measured by public voting data sets). A single message armed with social proof got a third of a million people to physically get out of their seats and to a polling station. A handful of carefully crafted bits can change a lot of atoms.
In a pandemic, it’s exactly those who are doing the right thing who are least visible to our eyes—we can’t see those making the biggest sacrifices, whether it’s the frontline health care workers or those in quarantine.
What if platforms highlighted the people who are taking those heroic actions and made them more visible, and at the same time made it personal and concrete?
If a user clicked “I can’t stay home” they could immediately be offered options for Mutual Aid, or a badge to request more support from the community.
For example, health care workers could gain a special badge (“We Save Lives at the Hospital, You Save Lives at Home”) and make it easier for others to cheer them on, offer child support, or other aid. An elderly person who needs groceries could be shown friends, and friends of friends, who’ve precommitted to help elders in their neighborhood.
Now imagine if the people who committed to these actions were more visible in our Mutual Friends. How much good could technology platforms coordinate?
🔭 Make the Future Feelable
Exponential growth curves and the future are hard to "fee" and see. How could technology platforms get better at making exponential growth curves more concrete, along with the collective outcomes of our individual choices?
Here’s a wonderful example:
What if platforms personalized these consequences by showing the actual faces and photos of our own friends impacted downstream by our habits and choices, making our impact on friends’ lives more real?
Users could be offered targeted invitations to inform others of risks:
👀 Social Comparison
As social animals, we are hard-wired to compare ourselves with others. It is one of the most powerful tools social platforms use to motivate human behavior. It is why Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat publicly display the number of followers, likes, and watches–so that we compare and compete with each other for their ends. It’s such a powerful technique that in 2017, 55 percent of plastic surgeons reported seeing patients who asked to look like their selfie filter. How can that power be repurposed to fight coronavirus?
What if instead of addictively unhealthy Snapchat streaks, we had addictively healthy Stay-at-Home streaks?
What if social media platforms built in personal quizzes, surveys, and challenges about our corona hygiene to #MakeHealthGoViral?
The virus spreads in the shadows of ambiguity. These kinds of techniques make best practices concrete. Even better, as those best practices are updated–like the CDC changing its stance to promote the wearing of masks by all–this would allow for targeting messaging to exactly the people who need to be updated.
Technology is not neutral. There are some signs that platforms are beginning to acknowledge the responsibility they already have. They’ve taken the active step to remove a head of state's harmful misinformation, as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter did with posts shared by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
Technology companies can do more than they have been doing to save lives whilst not further tipping the scales towards surveillance authoritarianism.
We need technology that acts more like a thoughtful journalist, doctor, or other fiduciary agent who cares about the ethics of their choices. We need the best design minds and product teams using the full power of their platforms to enhance our collective intelligence and action.
Doing so means moving from a stance of offering information towards thoughtfully choosing what framing will empower and support people in the kinds of choices that will avoid lost lives.
Until we have a Covid-19 vaccine and the ability to rapidly scale testing capacity, our fastest hope to flatten the curve is delivering a persuasive injection of cultural antibodies to 3 billion people.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at email@example.com.
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