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This article was published on April 7, 2020

Facebook apologizes after AI blocks posts about DIY coronavirus masks

An algorithm thought the posts were breaking price gouging rules

Facebook apologizes after AI blocks posts about DIY coronavirus masks Image by: Anthony Quintano

Facebook’s AI moderators claimed another innocent victim this week when an algorithm blocked content on DIY coronavirus masks.

The system threatened to ban mask makers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California, The New York Times reports.

These groups were set up to fill a gap in protective gear that has forced hospital staff to don ski goggles and Halloween masks as shields against infection. But their efforts were caught in the crossfire of Facebook’s battle against coronavirus profiteers.

“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 admitted in a statement.

[Read: How Facebook’s new AI system has deactivated billions of fake accounts]

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“We apologize for this error and are working to update our systems to avoid mistakes like this going forward.”

Changing rules on DIY coronavirus masks

More than half the news consumed on Facebook in the US is now about the coronavirus, but the company is struggling to ensure the reports are true.

Facebook’s notorious issues with misinformation have been exacerbated by staff being forced to work from home, where a lot of moderation work can’t be done due to safety, privacy, and legal reasons.

As a result, Facebook is now relying more on AI moderation — even though the company admits this will lead to more content being unfairly removed.

Face masks have been another contentious issue for Facebook. Earlier this month, Facebook banned ads for medical masks to stop retailers from profiting from the pandemic. But shifting health advice has created evolving rules that are tough for AI to keep up with.

Last week, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advised citizens to wear “cloth face coverings” in places where social distancing is difficult, after previously only recommending masks for people with COVID-19 symptoms.

“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC suggests on its website. That’ll be hard advice to follow if Facebook’s algorithms keep blocking tips on how to make masks at home.

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