After announcing a range of new measures to help ensure that users are getting accurate information related to the coronavirus outbreak across both Facebook and Instagram, The Social Network has now taken the extraordinary step of banning all ads and commerce listings for medical face masks on its platforms for the time being.
As explained by Facebook:
"We are temporarily banning advertisements and commerce listings, like those on Marketplace, that sell medical face masks. We’ll begin to enforce this change over the next few days. We already prohibit people from making health or medical claims related to the coronavirus in product listings on commerce surfaces, including those listings that guarantee a product will prevent someone from contracting it. Our teams are monitoring the COVID-19 situation closely and will make necessary updates to our policies if we see people trying to exploit this public health emergency."
Instagram chief Adam Mosseri provided some additional context for the decision via tweet:
"Supplies are short, prices are up, and we’re against people exploiting this public health emergency."
As noted by Facebook, it's already implemented bans on ads like this which seek to capitalize on coronavirus concerns.
A quick look on Marketplace reveals the sort of price gouging Facebook's now looking to address - take a look at the prices listed along the bottom row here.
That one on the bottom right is $500 for a box of 50 face masks. I found a listing for the exact same product, exact same brand online, for $4.95. That's literally a 100x mark-up.
Head to any retailer, however, and you'll find that face masks are in short supply. That's lead to opportunistic sellers boosting their prices, which has now lead to Facebook implementing a total ban on such. And it makes sense - not only does Facebook want to avoid facilitating exploitative practices, but also, as many health officials have noted, wearing a face mask won't necessarily protect you from contracting coronavirus either way.
The US Surgeon General has even gone a step further, actively urging Americans not to buy face masks.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
Given the advice from health officials, and the hugely jacked up prices being posted, Facebook seems justified in its action - though it is a significant stance for The Social Network to take.
Really, the coronavirus outbreak is the first major test of Facebook's advanced systems that it's implemented to respond to evolving issues like this, which the platform has been developing since the US Presidential Election in 2016. In some ways, the election of Donald Trump served as a key inflection point where Facebook's influence became real, where people started to question just how significant the platform had become, and how it could be used to influence billions of people. Before that, it feels like Facebook was seen as significant, but not a big deal - people used it, but it wasn't serious.
Now, there's greater awareness of the platform's impact, and not only externally, but internally as well. That's why Facebook is now working to address concerns as they rise, and protect users from misinformation and exploitation as a result of rising concerns.
So far, Facebook seems to be meeting the challenge, but with the rate of infection growing, we still have a long way to go. And aside from that, the US Presidential Election race is also rolling on, which will present no doubt present similar challenges of its own.
There's a reason why Facebook's staff headcount has increased 26% year-over-year, with more employees needed to moderate and improve its measures in this respect. We're now seeing the results of those measures.