Social media platforms like Facebook seem to spend as much time censoring content as they do providing a seamless service, which provides plenty of opportunities to get it wrong.
One such example was just seen when Facebook opted to block grassroots efforts to make do-it-yourself face masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic — though it resulted in a rare apology from the social media giant.
With personal protection equipment inventory levels running low, and medical grade masks and respirators scarce, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended citizens wear “non-medical, cloth masks” to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC said in a statement.
(The CDC had previously recommended only those showing symptoms wear masks.)
The recommendation prompted an online effort to produce homemade masks to be donated. Facebook intervened to shut down the campaign, only to later apologize for the heavy-handed approach, according to the New York Times.
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But those efforts were hampered by Facebook’s automated content moderation systems over the past week, according to sewing organizers who have used the social network to coordinate donation campaigns.
Facebook’s systems threatened to ban the organizers of hand-sewn masks from posting or commenting, they said, landing them in what is colloquially known as “Facebook Jail.” They said it also threatened to delete the groups. The issue has affected do-it-yourself mask makers in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and California, they said.
In a statement, the popular social media platform explained the “error” occurred in an attempt to prevent the sale of much-needed medical masks.
“The automated systems we set up to prevent the sale of medical masks needed by health workers have inadvertently blocked some efforts to donate supplies,” Facebook said in the release. “We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward. We don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people doing a good thing.”
The newspaper reported Facebook has been working “to clamp down on potentially harmful coronavirus content,” noting that teams have been created for this purpose and certain types of posts specifically related to the virus have been banned.
Ads for masks and hand sanitizer are at the top of the list. Intent on preventing people from using Facebook to profit from the sale of safety equipment, the company banned these ads last month, according to the Times.
On Sunday, first lady Melania Trump urged Americans to take seriously the request to wear masks and engage in social distancing.
“I ask that everyone take social distancing & wearing a mask/face covering seriously. #COVID19 is a virus that can spread to anyone,” Mrs. Trump tweeted.
— Melania Trump (@FLOTUS) April 5, 2020
President Trump was criticized after being asked at Friday’s White House briefing if he would be wearing a mask.
The president suggested he would not wear one, but his full response about how this would prove to be awkward in official settings was not widely shared.
“I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” Trump stated. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.”
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