The Coronavirus Outbreak

The social network said it had made an “error” in threatening to ban the organizers of hand-sewn masks from posting or commenting on its site.

Kim Collins, co-founder of MommaArts Pregnancy Care Center, sewing masks in her home in South Orange, N.J. She is part of a 365-member Facebook group of sewing volunteers in South Orange and nearby Maplewood.
Kim Collins, co-founder of MommaArts Pregnancy Care Center, sewing masks in her home in South Orange, N.J. She is part of a 365-member Facebook group of sewing volunteers in South Orange and nearby Maplewood.Credit...Elsa/Getty Images
Mike Isaac

SAN FRANCISCO — As health workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic plead for personal protective equipment, volunteer efforts to create hand-sewn masks and deliver them to medical professionals have quickly sprung up across the internet.

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.

Facebook has long struggled to distinguish between innocuous and malicious content on its site. While the Silicon Valley giant has relied on automated systems to flag and remove posts that violate its terms of service, those systems can have trouble spotting nuance and can sometimes be overly aggressive or make mistakes in identifying what may need to be taken down.

In recent weeks, Facebook has worked to clamp down on potentially harmful coronavirus content. It has created teams to deal with the issue and has banned certain types of posts specifically related to the virus.

At the top of its list were ads for masks, hand sanitizer and others looking to profit from the sale of safety equipment. Facebook banned advertising for such equipment last month, and has taken down nearly all posts related to the sale of masks across its Craigslist-like section, called Marketplace.

But as the company ramped up efforts to crack down on scammers and other miscreants, volunteer coordinators may have been caught in the crossfire.

“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 a statement. “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.”

Those who were affected include Nicole Jochym, a student at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, N.J. She recently put out a call on Facebook for people to use household materials to make their own versions of the masks to donate to medical workers.

Her volunteer organization, Sew Face Masks Philadelphia, has grown to thousands of supporters since it became active in early March. More than 3,500 people have subscribed to her group’s Facebook page alone.

“Our platform has become even more of a useful tool for our community members to engage with each other” said Ms. Jochym, 33.

But over the past few days, Ms. Jochym said Facebook’s systems flagged some of the posts from the community, marking them as breaking its guidelines against regulated goods and services.

Those whose posts were flagged or taken down were given a warning, and eventually threatened with being unable to post or comment on the site if other posts were flagged.

Melissa Knapp, a moderator for the Sew Face Masks for Quincy, IL Healthcare Workers Facebook group, said she has received numerous messages threatening to limit her posts. Moderators of similar groups also complained in private Facebook messages that they have received warnings.

Muddled messaging from government agencies on whether people should be using face masks may have compounded the problem. Officials initially warned people not to buy personal protective gear like masks for fear that there would not be enough for health care workers. But last week, the Center for Disease Control advised people to start wearing masks in public.

Moderators said they believed the mixed messaging led to confusion at some of the big tech platforms, including Facebook.

“We support Facebook in their efforts in removing unethical sales” from their platform,” Ms. Jochym said. “But we are hoping that they can update their procedures to protect community organizations such as ours.”

  • Updated April 4, 2020

    • The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.