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Social media giants like Facebook have gone 'out of their way' to make more information available': MIT Professor

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Sinan Aral, David Austin Professor of Management at MIT and Author of ‘The Hype Machine’ joins Yahoo Finance’s On The Move panel to highlight how social media is handling information amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: Sinan Aral, David Austin professor of management at MIT, a founding partner at Manifest Capital, and author of the upcoming book "The Hype Machine" joins us now. And there's so much to get to with social media. One of the issues, we heard from Sheryl Sandberg just yesterday about responsibility. Let me play that sound bite and then get your reactions, Sinan.

SHERYL SANDBERG: So we know what we need to do. What we need to take our responsibilities seriously for people to get the right information on Facebook. We want to keep providing our products across our platforms where people can connect. And then we want to support our partners. We want to support small business, support news organizations around the world. And we're going to keep doing that.

I think we also have to realize how quickly the situation is evolving. If you had asked me six weeks ago or even four weeks ago, would we all be home. I don't know if I would've said yes, but here we are. I don't know when I would have said yes. But we don't know what will happen next. And that means we need to be really nimble. We need to be focused on keeping our services up and making sure people get the right information.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How are they doing?

SINAN ARAL: Well, you know what, she's putting her money where her mouth is. They are actually being much more nimble and cutting through the red tape. When COVID hit, I redirected my whole 30 person lab to think about how we could contribute to data analytics and other types of projects that would help prevent coronavirus spread. And also analyze, for instance, whether social distancing measures were working.

Facebook has gone out of their way to make data available to researchers and to governments in order to analyze and get a handle on what's going on in those areas. So for example, they are providing disease prevention maps in 30 countries that are looking, for instance, at aggregated mobile app user data, location density, movement, network connectivity.

They're adding a movement range map layer on top of that. That looks at differences between before and after the pandemic outbreak as to the population density in about a half kilometer tiles in all the regions of the world. These types of data can help us understand whether or not social distancing is actually getting people to socially distance. Where it's working, where it's not working. That can inform government officials. That can inform, you know, academics, but also the public as well about what's going on in their region.

And my lab is working-- MIT has a data license to get this data directly from them. And they are moving quickly to provide this kind of data to researchers like us in order to analyze it more quickly. We're also working with WhatsApp and the [? Breakout ?] Foundation on providing direct information over WhatsApp to populations about COVID and new information.

So this is a program called COVID Connect, which was created by the [? Breakout ?] Foundation in South Africa, with whom I have a very long standing relationship. There are currently 15 million users of COVID Connect in two weeks, 15 million new sign ups. They are the official partner for the World Health Organization Global, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia. They're launching in 10 more countries in Africa and Southeast Asia this week.

These are all examples of efforts to provide information. We're working directly with them, for example, to root out misinformation on WhatsApp, which is incredibly difficult because it's encrypted. So it's not something public that you can see. So we need proactive measures for providing information that is true from organizations like the World Health Organization, and public health departments, national public health departments of these countries.

ADAM SHAPIRO: It's crucial.

SINAN ARAL: It's crucial. And debunking fake news without being able to see where it's spreading. So we're working on all of those things directly.

JULIE HYMAN: So Sinan, obviously you've got a very full plate from what it sounds like. And there are a lot of other organizations that are doing efforts like this as well. I was also struck yesterday, there was a Michael Lewis column where he talked about an organization called SniffOutCOVID.org. Where one of the symptoms of coronavirus is a loss of smell. So they're trying to map all the people that's happened to.

What has struck me throughout this is how sort of a fragmented all of these efforts are. Right, there's not sort of a nationally led effort on all of this stuff. So when you talk about all these individuals logging on to that COVID Connect site you mentioned, or all of these research efforts, how effective can they be when there's not sort of essentially led effort to coordinate all this stuff. When it's just all of these individual researchers, even if they're working together on all of this.

SINAN ARAL: Well, I mean, I think that some national public health organizations, as well as some international organizations, some country leadership are out in front of this. So for instance, if you look at Singapore, other countries in south-east Asia. If you look at South Korea. If you look at some of the countries I mentioned that are working with COVID Connect. These are national governments that are working directly with the appropriate digital providers to provide timely information, to root out misinformation.

Unfortunately, there's no such effort happening in this country. There is zero sort of national WhatsApp automated information line for the United States. There's zero connection between the CDC and COVID Connect or any other partner that is rooting out misinformation on WhatsApp and/or you providing timely information to citizens in an organized way. And that's a huge miss.

I have no idea why we-- the United States was rated the number one most prepared country for a pandemic just two years ago. And yet, we cannot seem to get our act together on things that we are the world leader in, like digital information provision. It is really shocking. And it's just another example of how far behind we really are currently on.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Sinan, we wrap up, the book is coming out soon, "The Hype Machine." Are you going to maybe add a chapter based on what you're now learning through this crisis?

SINAN ARAL: Yeah. Thank you, Adam. The entire forward is dedicated to the fact that, you know, overnight, the entire planet scurried off the streets, into their homes, onto their laptops, and went online. The demand for social media skyrocketed. It is breaking records. I don't know if you noticed, but the head of engineering and analytics at Facebook said that they're experiencing new records and usage every day. And Mark Zuckerberg was even a little bit blunter. He said, we're just trying to keep the lights on over here.

So if you remember, almost like a distant memory. Six weeks ago, Facebook and social media were a pariah. It was the sort of, you know, the worst possible thing that exists. And now it is our salvation for mental sanity, for connecting with our loved ones, for getting information, for having an idea of what's going on in our neighborhoods. And now we realize how reliant we are on it. So yes, the foreword to the book opens with what this pandemic means for social media and its place in our world.