COVID-19 on Facebook Ads: Competing Agendas around a Public Health Crisis
Abstract: In the age of social media, disasters and epidemics usher not only a devastation and affliction in the physical world, but also prompt a deluge of information, opinions, prognoses and advice to billions of internet users. The coronavirus epidemic of 2019-2020, or COVID-19, is no exception, with the World Health Organization warning of a possible ‘infodemic’ of fake news. In this study, we examine the alternative narratives around the coronavirus outbreak through advertisements promoted on Facebook, the largest social media platform in the US. Using the new Facebook Ads Library, we discover advertisers from public health and non-profit sectors, alongside those from news media, politics, and business, incorporating coronavirus into their messaging and agenda. We find the virus used in political attacks, donation solicitations, business promotion, stock market advice, and animal rights campaigning. Among these, we find several instances of possible misinformation, ranging from bioweapons conspiracy theories, to unverifiable claims by politicians, to the sale of face masks which may not necessarily protect the wearer. As we make the dataset available to the community, we hope advertising domain will become an important part of quality control for public health communication, and public discourse in general.