Facebook, Amazon, Google and more met with WHO to figure out how to stop coronavirus misinformation

Key Points
  • The World Health Organization hosted a meeting at Facebook with some of the largest tech companies to discuss how to tamp down on misinformation about the coronavirus. 
  • About a dozen tech companies attended, including Google, Amazon and YouTube. 
  • The group is planning to meet every few months. 
A man wearing a protective mask looks on as he walks in front of a portrait of late communist leader Mao Zedong (not pictured) at Tiananmen Gate in Beijing on January 23, 2020.
Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Image

At Facebook on Thursday, the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a daylong meeting with some of the largest tech leaders, including Amazon and Google, to discuss setting aside their differences to work together on solutions to the coronavirus outbreak.

The meeting was organized by WHO and hosted at Facebook's Menlo Park campus, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed to CNBC.

At the meeting, WHO shared information with the group about its response to the coronavirus and attendees detailed their own ideas to address the outbreak. Each company was given a few minutes to present. They all agreed not to share each other's internal efforts publicly because many of them are competitors.

Other companies at the meeting, according to two people familiar with the matter, included representatives from Facebook, Amazon, Twilio, Dropbox, Alphabet's Google, Verizon, Salesforce, Twitter and YouTube. Private companies including Airbnb, Kinsa and Mapbox also attended. Apple, Lyft and Uber were invited but did not attend, the people said.

The major topic of discussion was how the companies are working down to tamp down the spread of misinformation. WHO's Andy Pattison, who flew to Silicon Valley for the event, said the "tone is changing," as Big Tech is now starting to step up to combat fake news about the coronavirus. Pattison said he offered at the meeting to help the companies fact check information they or their users post, rather than relying on third parties.

As people continue to seek out information about the coronavirus, bad actors have taken advantage of the curiosity and see a money-making opportunity. Books have popped up on Amazon that stoke fear about the virus, and fake news stories are continuing to spread on Facebook and other social media platforms. Vitamin C also pops up via searches on the largest retailers, including Amazon, because of false reports that it can cure the coronavirus.

"Twitter and YouTube and other social media sites are still awash with misinformation," said Pattison, who refers to the problem as an "infodemic."

The meeting also included room for discussion about disaster preparedness, and ways to spread accurate information to consumers. More than 64,000 people have contracted the coronavirus in recent weeks, as the epidemic continues to evolve. There are still unanswered questions about how soon the virus will peak, as the pathogen is still not yet well understood.

Some of the priorities that tech companies have outlined in recent weeks include efforts to work with third-party fact checkers and public health organizations. Facebook has been staffing up its own internal efforts, recently bringing on Praveen Raja as its head of health and partnerships from the global health non-profit PATH. Raja helped organize the event behind-the-scenes.

WHO's Pattison said some of the companies were further along than others in helping with information about the coronavirus. Some of the companies acknowledged they haven't done much yet except to communicate to their own staff to stay safe, but a lot of the companies had projects well underway.

"The purpose of that was to plant seeds of ideas, and it worked well," said Pattison. "I encouraged collaboration and innovation. During a crisis, it's a good time for that."

The companies agreed by the end of the day of meetings to work on collaborative tools, better content and a call center where people can ask questions or get advice.

"One of the reasons why there's a lot of fake information is because there's a content gap," said Pattison.

Several of the companies like Facebook and Amazon offered to share ad space or provide volunteers to help quell the spread of misinformation, said Pattison. A few of the ideas were implemented by the time his plane landed on the way back from Europe, including an online space and joint mailing group. The group of tech companies decided to meet in person every few months until the coronavirus is under control.

Already, the outbreak has impacted the largest tech firms. Facebook last Friday warned that production of its Oculus virtual-reality headsets would be impacted by the coronavirus, while Apple acknowledged a temporary closure of its retail stores in China due to the outbreak.

Here's how Big Tech companies are combating coronavirus misinformation
Here's how Big Tech companies are combating coronavirus misinformation