From Inform to Persuade: How Can Tech Step Up for Humanity?
Estimated reading time: 8 mins
We are in an emergency. This article is a call to action for major tech platforms to get more aggressive about saving lives.
- What can social media platforms do RIGHT NOW to massively flatten the curve of the exponentially spreading covid-19?
- What if they used their global position to PERSUADE, not just INFORM users?
While platforms like Facebook offer 21st century advertising tools that harness advanced A.I. to target ads, they’ve used 20th century PSAs methods against coronavirus.
Here’s what Facebook had been showing about Covid-19 until recently:
Given the exponential challenge we’re up against, passive and generic links to CDC and WHO information and videos are woefully insufficient to saving lives. Too many people are still uninformed or not fully appraising the threat we face — that will result in hundreds of thousands of lives being lost unnecessarily.
This article is about the power technology has to change that.
Consider that as of Thursday, March 26:
- Only 66 percent of Americans are living under “shelter in place” orders, our most powerful way of slowing the spread of the virus.
- Teenagers are still hosting parties in violation of clear “shelter in place” orders.
- Citizens still hoard N95 masks, despite hospitals screaming about a vast shortage
- In the US, only 20 percent of Republicans are “extremely concerned” about Covid-19.
- Only 35 percent of independents and 58 percent of Democrats are “extremely concerned” about Covid-19.
Meanwhile, Covid-19 is doubling infections every few days. Our brains are already bad at seeing exponential curves. Covid-19 spreads exponentially, so a trickle of cases are turning into torrents of millions within three months. The virus already decimated Italy’s health care system, one of the best in the world.
If Italy’s top-rated hospitals are already being forced to give up on patients over 60, picture the horror that may soon overwhelm the limited health care systems in Lagos or Mexico City or New Delhi, where millions more reside.
These gruesome futures are no longer on than the horizon… they are nearly here. Yet we can still avoid losing millions of lives depending on what immediate choices billions of people make — in the next hours and days, not weeks.
We need solutions that “skate to where the puck is going to be,” and the puck is moving exponentially faster every day. 🏒
We technologists have a responsibility. Our products are uniquely capable of leaping past the exponential curve to reach 3 billion people before the virus can.
How? By re-purposing the tools and product teams honed for
📈 Growth Hacking Virality→ 📉 Anti-Growth Hacking Covid-19
It’s time for us to abandon the fiction of “neutral metrics” and “neutral engagement” that selected for the worst aspects of human nature, and transition into a new era of technology that consciously understands its role as the public information infrastructure for the world.
We need technology that acts more like a thoughtful journalist, doctor or other fiduciary agent that cares about the ethics of their choices.
Doing so means moving from a stance of offering information, towards thoughtfully choosing what lens and framing will empower and support people in the kinds of choices that will avoid lost lives.
Until we have a covid-19 vaccine, our best hope is delivering a persuasive injection of cultural antibodies for 3 billion people.
So what could be done? The following are some examples, intentionally meant to provoke — not boast being the right answer.
Introduction: To Persuade or to Inform?
To persuade and frame goes a step beyond mere information.
Recently, WhatsApp launched a W.H.O. chatbot to its 2 billion users. While that’s great — the problem is that no one is going to use it if they have to know to text “hi” to an obscure number. (To get it to work, WhatsApp users have to save the number +41 79 893 1892 to their phone contacts, then text the word ‘Hi’ in a WhatsApp message to begin).
Moreover, waiting for users to send a message to the W.H.O. bot on their own simply won’t save millions of lives.
Instead, WhatsApp should proactively send a message to users in the highest risk and most dense urban areas and cities to reach them before the virus does. This is especially important for reaching the 2 billion people in the Global South, whose fragile healthcare systems are more vulnerable to surges, and whom WhatsApp is uniquely positioned to reach.
Here’s how that could look:
What else could platforms do to move beyond inform to persuade?
Let’s look at five other persuasion principles that tech platforms could use to accelerate life-saving choices:
- 👯 Social Proof (we do what others do)
- 🔭 Make the future feelable
- 🙋🏻♀️ Make it personal
- ✅ Make it concrete
- 👀 Social comparison (we compare ourselves to others)
Principle #1: 👯 Social Proof
We act as we see others acting. Facebook showed in 2010, that by displaying one message one time (“23 of your freinds voted”) about which of our friends voted, it increased U.S. vote turnout by 340,000 people (as measured by public voting data sets).
But in a pandemic, it’s exactly those who are doing the right thing who are least visible to our eyes — we can’t see those making the biggest sacrifices, whether it’s the frontline health-care workers or those in quarantine.
What if platforms highlighted the people who are taking the most heroic actions and made them more visible?
If a user clicked “I can’t stay home” they could immediately be offered options for Mutual Aid, or a badge to request more support from the community.
For example, healthcare workers could gain a special badge (“We Save Lives So You Can Stay Home”) and make it easier for others cheer them on, offer child support or other aid. An elderly person who needs groceries could be shown friends, and friends of friends, who’ve pre-committed to help elders in their neighborhood.
Now imagine if those people who committed these actions were more visible in our Mutual Friends. How much good could technology platforms coordinate?
Principle #2: 🔭 Make the future “feelable”
Exponential growth curves and the future are hard to “feel” and “see.” How could technology platforms get better at making exponential growth curves more concrete, and how our individual choices could changes long-term outcomes?
Here’s a wonderful example:
Principle #3: 🙋🏻♀️ Make it personal
What if platforms personalized these consequences by showing the actual faces and photos of our own friends impacted downstream from our habits and choices, making our impact on friends’ lives more real?
Users could be offered targeted invitations to inform others of risks:
Principle #4: ✅ Make it Concrete
Each of us mean different things when we say, “I will isolate at home.”
- Does that mean it’s OK to get groceries?
- Does that mean we can still see our best friends across town?
- Does that mean we can still give our kid to the babysitter?
The virus spreads in the shadows of ambiguity. Platforms could help people get concrete and specific about their habits with clear checklists that turn into ratings — even helping us compare our scores to others. Pandemic-footprint.com does just that, and inspired this idea below.
What if social media platforms built in personal quizzes, surveys, and challenges about our isolation hygiene to make better habits go viral, harnessing the principles of Concreteness and Comparison?
What if instead of ambiguous, unfamiliar terms (“social distancing”) platforms could help us emphasize concrete, specific and familiar terms (“Stay home. Groceries 1x/week. Walk 6 ft apart”) that result in better habits across the board. For example, from Caroline Kealey:
Principle #5: 👀 Social Comparison
Our brains are natively tuned to compare how we’re doing to others. What if that instinct was harnessed towards saving lives?
Platforms could help us see how we are doing — as a family, a community, a city or a State — as far as practicing “distancing” habits that will save others’ lives, and help us compare our locality to other geographic areas? The website Unacast.com brilliantly compares how well each U.S. state and county practices “physical distancing” using publicly available geolocation data. We see “green” positive feedback the better people are at distancing, acting for a shared benefit and as one team.
What if this appeared for every Facebook user directly at the top of their News Feed, so they could compare their state or county’s mitigation practices to others?
Conclusion: We want to see your best ideas and get them into platforms
We know the use of framing and persuasion poses all sorts of ethical considerations. However, that ethical complexity is no different than the ethics of previous design choices and automated ranking algorithms for news feeds that caused so much harm by pretending to be neutral.
Technology is not neutral.
We are writing this to open the aperture of imagination. Technology companies can do more than they have been doing to save lives.
It’s urgent that we explore those possibility now. Here are some ideas to begin with:
- YouTube could make a $10 million dollar fund to pay video makers/influencers to create hyper-creative PSAs that roll before and after videos. (Think the catchy airline safety videos that you can’t help but watch.)
- TikTok to reach its young users who don’t believe they are at risk by emphasizing and reframing what’s at stake and social signals, from “The virus won’t kill me” → “Let’s protect our grandmothers” or “Stay at home to support the frontline health care workers who are risking their lives.”
- Facebook could reach its most vulnerable older users who are most at risk and highlight the posts of their friends in the same age and demographic at risk who were infected by covid-19, or are taking precautions.
- Facebook could highlight posts of frontline healthcare workers who are putting themselves at risk: “We save lives so you can stay home.” as a new version of “Support the Troops!” or highlight survivors of the virus to make the invisible harms more visceral.
- WhatsApp could be the proactive Tsunami Early Warning system for the 2 billion people in high-density cities across developing nations, with much more vulnerable healthcare systems.
- Instagram could promote special video filters that only unlock when a facemask is detected, starting with influencers.
This is an urgent crisis and if you have persuasive design ideas that will save lives, we want to see them.
Send your designs to: email@example.com
We will carefully review them and get the best ones into the hands of platforms.
If you’re part of the Facebook Hackathon 3/26–3/30, share them here too:
See more detail from Aza Raskin here:➡️ https://twitter.com/aza/status/1243228305290973185
Let’s step up for humanity and take responsibility for being the new public infrastructure for society. This is the moment to hit the reset button on Silicon Valley’s legacy.
🙏 We’re all in this together.