Google follows Facebook in face mask ad ban to curb coronavirus scams

Google’s move to ban face mask ads follows similar action by Facebook last week.

Google is temporarily banning ads for medical facial masks amid the continued spread of the coronavirus worldwide in an effort to stop people profiting from disinformation about the health crisis.

"Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily ban all medical face mask ads," said Google's spokeswomen in an email to the Post .

The company said it has an entire team monitoring the situation and evaluating policies "in real time", blocking tens of thousands of ads that were trying to capitalise on the novel coronavirus.

"For example, we're seeing a rise in ads that may not mention coronavirus but are clearly trying to capitalise on it. We're taking action to stop this on our platforms," the spokeswoman said.

Google's move follows similar action by Facebook last week. "Supplies are short, prices are up, and we're against people exploiting this public health emergency," Instagram chief executive Adam Mosseri said in a tweet announcing a ban on ads and commerce listings for medical face masks on Instagram and Facebook.

ALSO READ: Facebook gives WHO free ads in battle with coronavirus misinformation

The coronavirus outbreak, which has caused more than 4,200 deaths worldwide as of Wednesday, has also sparked what the World Health Organisation calls an "infodemic". The false information includes advice that vitamin D will prevent the virus, boiled garlic water is a cure, or that the deadly virus was created in Canada and stolen by Chinese spies.

In China, where the outbreak began, tech companies are also working to protect people from misinformation and stabilise product prices for medical items like face masks.

Chinese search giant Baidu said it had removed more than 147,000 examples of "harmful information" related to coronavirus as of Feb 12, including messages designed to create panic, false rumours, promotion and sale of wild animals, asking high prices for protective medical equipment, and scams involving face masks.

Chinese e-tailers including Alibaba Group's Taobao, Suning and made pledges late January to prevent price spikes for medical items including face masks and disinfectant, and to offer non-stop deliveries during Lunar New Year as rumours spread that supplies of in-demand items like masks were running low at most drug stores in some of the country's biggest cities.

While authorities in China have advised people to wear a mask while both indoors and outdoors, some public health experts disagree.

"It scares everybody to wear masks on the streets when there are no people. Very few people are on the streets these days, yet [the government] still wants people to wear masks. It is ridiculous," said Dr Tang Deliang, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University Medical Centre, who said in a recent interview with the Post that he voluntarily spends his evenings answering questions online from China about the health crisis.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.