For Facebook, Coronavirus Is an Important Test on Multiple Fronts

For Facebook, the pandemic is a challenge to its engineering prowess, content moderation systems and overall workforce -- not to mention the company's own business model.
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The world’s largest social network is battling coronavirus on several important fronts.

With the pandemic spreading in the U.S. and elsewhere, Facebook is tasked with tamping down misinformation, accommodating spikes in usage, and keeping its employees safe and happy -- not to mention shoring up its own business. Shares of Facebook  (FB) - Get Report closed 4.56% higher on Thursday to $163.34.

Earlier this week, Facebook said it will offer up to a month of paid sick leave to employees caring for family members affected by the coronavirus. It’s also offering a $1,000 bonus to full-time employees working from home, as well as an automatic "exceeds" performance rating for the first six months of the year, which would entitle them to bonuses. Facebook has about 45,000 employees around the world.

“During these unprecedented times, employers are facing a difficult task of empowering an entirely remote workforce; meanwhile employees are trying to adjust to an entirely new way of working on top of household and family duties like caring for children and family," said Amelia Green-Vamos of Glassdoor, which recently surveyed workers on their companies' response to the coronavirus. 

Facebook, among the wealthiest tech firms in the world, has an unusually large amount of resources to help support employees adjusting to remote work: By comparison, only 16% of all employees overall reported that their employers offered additional sick leave tied to the coronavirus, according to Glassdoor. 

But Facebook also has a unique set of challenges to overcome during the pandemic. 

One is aggressively tamping down false information about the pandemic, while also accommodating a major spike in usage across all of Facebook's products. 

The company recently reported a 50% increase in usage of messaging products in countries hard-hit by the virus, as well as usage spikes on video calling, Instagram and core Facebook. 

Meanwhile, it's scrambled to moderate content under uniquely difficult circumstances. Those efforts include banning exploitative coronavirus-related ads, limiting misinformation and creating a virus information hub within core Facebook -- all while shifting much of its standard moderation duties away from contractors to full-time employees. 

On a call with reporters this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that a shift away from contractors who typically handle routine content moderation could translate into more mistakes in the near term. 

"We basically shifted out work, so that it’s more full-time work force...which inherently is going to create a trade-off against some other types of content that may not have as imminent physical risks for people," he said. Outside of coronavirus-related content, Facebook typically bans content related to terrorism, child harm and other illegal activity. 

Even addressing software bugs, normally a routine hurdle for a major tech firm, is made more difficult with engineers working from home.

The NYTimes reported this week that a Facebook bug, which incorrectly marked legitimate posts as spam, took an unusual amount of time to repair because of communication difficulties. The company had initially asked employees to use videoconferencing app BlueJeans for video calls, but experienced problems on the app and switched over to Apple's  (AAPL) - Get Report FaceTime, Zoom  (ZM) - Get Report and other conferencing products. 

And then there's another matter entirely: Facebook's own financial results, which look all but certain to take a hit lasting several months. 

Facebook told investors on Tuesday that its first quarter revenue will be "adversely affected" by the spread of coronavirus worldwide, as marketers of many sizes sharply pull back spending on a range of advertising platforms, including Facebook. 

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who leads Facebook's monetization efforts, announced recently that the company will offer $100 million worth of grants and credits to small businesses impacted by the virus.

For Facebook, boosting small businesses likely amounts to more than just altruism: SMBs also make up a meaningful chunk of Facebook advertiser base, and are a primary constituency for emerging monetization efforts on WhatsApp and Instagram. 

Needham analyst Laura Martin wrote in a note on Wednesday that the economic impacts of coronavirus could impact Facebook’s earnings into next year. 

Around 30% of Facebook’s revenue comes from “at-risk” categories likely to spend much less, Martin wrote, and include travel and movie-related advertisers as well as smaller advertisers dealing with coronavirus-related economic uncertainty. 

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