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When Facebook Is More Trustworthy Than the President

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“Pandemic does not mean panic-demic,” he said Friday afternoon. He was seated cross-legged on a black leather sofa., trying out lines. “Do you like that? Or is that corny?” He decided it was good and corny.

Dr. Varshavski delivers solid health information to young people, much of it through videos of him reacting to memes and TV shows. When the coronavirus crisis began, he responded. And because YouTube’s system now favors authoritative voices, videos like his “The Truth About the Coronavirus” rank high in recommendations. It has drawn more than five million views.

Mr. Varshavski also debunks misinformation from many directions. One of his targets Friday was an influencer who talks to deer. Another is the TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz, who has been recommending zinc tablets and elderberry syrup. (A spokesman for Dr. Oz said the products have been shown to be helpful with the common cold.) Then, of course, there’s President Trump.

Responsible voices like Dr. Varshavski’s and a whole generation of researchers, reporters, and even tech company employees seem, at least right now, to be breaking through. Mr. Zuckerberg, the industry’s most committed optimist, says the power of social media will be viewed “as a bigger part of the story if we do our job well over the coming weeks.”

When I talked to Mr. Zuckerberg and other social media executives last week, I kept returning to the same point: Will the flow of responsible information last beyond this crisis? Could it extend into our upcoming presidential campaign?

“I hope so,’’ Twitter’s Mr. Dorsey wrote. “Up to all of us.”

Mr. Zuckerberg was less sanguine. Right now, Facebook is tackling “misinformation that has imminent risk of danger, telling people if they have certain symptoms, don’t bother going getting treated …. things like ‘you can cure this by drinking bleach.’ I mean, that’s just in a different class.”

That black and white clarity cannot easily be extended back into the grays of political battles, he said. While social media may be mirroring the solidarity of the moment, it’s hard to see how it would prolong it.

“It’s perhaps a positive sign that, despite how polarized people are worried that society is, people can pull together and try to get things done and support each other and recognize people who are heroes on the front lines fighting this stuff,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. Given that the pandemic is likely to go on for a while, he said: “It’s hard to predict exactly how it plays out beyond that. And that’s not really my job, anyway.”


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