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How the coronavirus is changing Big Tech

March 4 · Issue #467 · View online
The Interface
You hate to accuse our big tech platforms of being responsible during a crisis. For one thing, they benefit from low expectations, having historically ignored much of the misinformation that they unwittingly promoted with their recommendation algorithms. And for another, the American part of the COVID-19 crisis is likely just beginning: each day brings with it a fresh raft of headlines about new diagnoses, new conference cancelations, new restrictions on employee travel, and so on. With the novel coronavirus, as with so much else, it appears that things really are going to get worse before they get better.
Still, as I look at the past few days of news, I can’t help but notice hopeful signs. The big tech companies and social platforms are taking meaningful action to direct people to timely, accurate information about the virus. And some of those steps they’re even taking proactively. Here are a few.
More than a week ago, Facebook began inserting a box into the news feed directing users to the Centers for Disease Control’s page about COVID-19. Minor though this may seem, it represents a meaningful departure from the company’s usual approach to putting things in the News Feed. The essence of the feed, after all, is personalization — Facebook wants to show you only things it has some reason to believe that you will care about, whether it’s because you are friends with a person or liked a page. With the virus box, Facebook put a rare algorithmic thumb on the scale, presumably driving many millions of users to reliable, vetted information from an authoritative source.
On Tuesday night, the company took further steps to address the virus’ spread. In a Facebook post, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the company would grant unlimited free ad credits to the World Health Organization to promote accurate information about the crisis. The company will also remove “false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations,” and will block people from running ads that “try to exploit the situation,” such as by falsely advertising a cure. These are also good steps — although, as ever, policy is what you actually enforce. We’ll see!
Twitter has implemented similar measures, the company said Wednesday. Searching for COVID-19 will take you to a page featuring recent stories from public health organizations and credible mainstream news sources. The search also accounts for common misspellings, the company said.
Twitter also said that while it had not yet seen Russian-style efforts to sow discord via large-scale information operations, it would take a “zero-tolerance approach to platform manipulation and any other attempts to abuse our service at this critical juncture.” Easier said than done, of course, but it’s clear that the problem has the company’s attention. It’s also giving away ad credits to public health organizations and other nonprofits.
Google took a step to make life easier for those who are required to work or study from home, giving away advanced streaming tools to all paid customers of the G Suite. Here’s what that means in practice, according to my colleague Jay Peters:
Google announced this morning that it would be rolling out free access to “advanced” features for Hangouts Meet to all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers globally through July 1st. That means organizations can host meetings with up to 250 participants, live stream to up to 100,000 viewers within a single domain, and record and save meetings to Google Drive. Normally, Google charges $13 extra per user per month for these features in addition to G Suite access under its “enterprise” tier, which adds up to a total of $25 per user per month.
Microsoft took a similar step, offering a free six-month trial of its Teams product, which facilitates remote work through video and text chat.
There’s obviously an element of self-interest in this. Tech companies give away their products for free during times of crisis for the same reason that newspapers lower their paywalls: it’s good for attracting new paying customers. But it’s also a good and helpful and pro-social thing to do, and I suspect many organizations will find it useful.
Pinterest, which pioneered many of the anti-misinformation techniques that Facebook and Twitter are now adopting, is also limiting search results for “COVID-19,” “coronavirus” and related terms to “internationally recognized health organizations.”
Google-owned YouTube, historically the most conspiracy-friendly of the big platforms, has also added a link to the World Health Organization page on the virus outbreak to the top of search results. In the early days of the crisis, BuzzFeed found popular conspiracy videos about the coronavirus on YouTube — particularly in India, where one “explainer” with a false explanation of the disease’s origin racked up 13 million views before YouTube removed it. But in the United States, conspiracy videos about the disease have struggled to win even 1 million views.
That’s not to say that misinformation isn’t spreading on tech platforms — just as it’s spreading on the larger internet, and among friends and family in conversation. If there’s a platform that seems to be under-performing in the current crisis, it’s Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where the Washington Post found “a flood of misinformation” in countries including Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Pakistan, Ireland. Given the encrypted nature of the app, it’s difficult to quantify the scale of the issue. (The Post doesn’t really offer a guess.) Misinformation is frequently shared in WhatsApp groups, where membership is limited to 250 people. Information in one group can be easily to another, but there’s a meaningful amount of friction in spinning up multiple groups to peddle phony miracle cures or spread malicious rumors.
Still, people are doing it. It’s a price we pay for having tools that enable conversations that the government can’t listen in on. My hope is that companies building encryption do so in a way that minimizes the harm from the hoaxes that messaging apps will invariably contain. But that’s far from a given.
Many of the measures described above are relatively minor in the scheme of things. Ultimately, the responsibility to coordinate the response to the spread of the virus belongs to the US government. Still, it’s worth noting that after a years-long pressure campaign from academics, journalists, and elected officials, tech platforms are beginning to accept responsibility for the material they host. Not in a legal sense — Section 230 is still the law of the land — but in a moral sense.
That’s progress, and I’ll take it.

The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: YouTube has become a refuge for Pakistan journalists battling censorship. The platform has become a critical tool as reporters face one of the harshest media crackdowns in Pakistan’s 72-year history.
🔃Trending sideways: Facebook’s fact-checking program has a fatal flaw, according to new research out of MIT. When only some stories are fact-checked, people believe stories that haven’t been fact-checked even more — even if they’re completely false.
Here are all the companies that have pulled out of South by Southwest so far. Event officials say the conference is still going on as planned. (Eric Webb and Kara Carlson / Austin360)
Austin mayor Steve Adler said “there’s no evidence that cancelling SXSW makes us safer.” The remarks came during a press conference with city and health officials to address coronavirus concerns. (Yoojin Cho / KXAN)
Microsoft is allowing employees to work from home as the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to spread around the world. The software giant has updated its guidelines for employees, allowing anyone based in Seattle or San Francisco to work from home through March 9th. (Tom Warren / The Verge)
Google is moving all job interviews to Hangouts “for the foreseeable future” due to the coronavirus outbreak. Facebook and Amazon have also canceled in-person interviews for the time being. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
A Facebook fact-checking group linked to conservative website The Daily Caller labeled a post from Politico as false. The group took issue with the post’s claim that President Trump “tried to cast the global outbreak of the coronavirus as a liberal conspiracy.” Trump surrogates said he wasn’t calling coronavirus a hoax. Here’s The Verge’s Adi Robertson:
In short, Trump is making a weird and unclear statement, followed by conflicting notes on how seriously we should be taking the coronavirus outbreak. And The Daily Caller’s fact-checking wing is using its power — fairly or not — to push an interpretation favored by Trump, who has in fact made reckless and false claims downplaying the threat.
Legum argues that The Daily Caller’s seriously flawed editorial record makes it unfit to judge truth. But even leaving that aside, fact-checking is often politically fraught — The Washington Post has been accused of nitpicking claims by Sen. Bernie Sanders in an ideologically motivated way as well.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this case is that conservatives are usually the ones arguing Facebook has censored them. Now, figures like Donald Trump, Jr. are celebrating the fact that “Facebook [weighed] in” on their side.
Google rejected dozens of ads from Donald Trump’s presidential campaign for violating its ad policies in the week leading up to Super Tuesday. The company also rejected a Bernie Sanders ad and two from a political action committee supporting Joe Biden. (Kurt Wagner and Mark Bergen / Bloomberg)
Mike Bloomberg suspended his presidential campaign, citing his poor showing in the Super Tuesday primaries as the central reason for dropping out. He spent $500 million on his campaign, much of it advertising on social networks. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Officials in Utah have given a small artificial intelligence company called Banjo real-time access to government-owned surveillance and traffic cameras across the entire state. The goal is to alert law enforcement of crimes as they happen. Meanwhile, a Chinese-style social credit system continues to take shape here in the United States. (Jason Koebler, Emanuel Maiberg, and Joseph Cox / Vice)
Twitter is testing ephemeral tweets in Brazil and calling them “fleets.” They look almost identical to Snapchat stories. I wrote about it:
Since it was founded in March 2006, there has been only one type of post possible on Twitter: a tweet. But starting today, the 280-character post is being joined by an ephemeral South American cousin: the fleet.
That’s what Twitter is calling these new, more fleeting tweets — posts that appear in a separate timeline above the main timeline for 24 hours before disappearing. In other words, yes, Twitter is finally doing Snapchat Stories, and the implementation looks nearly identical to Instagram’s version of the feature.
“Twitter is for having conversations about what you care about,” Mo Aladham, a Twitter group product manager, said in a blog post. “But, some of you tell us that you’re uncomfortable to tweet because tweets are public, feel permanent, and have public counts (retweets and likes). We want to make it possible for you to have conversations in new ways with less pressure and more control, beyond tweets and direct messages. That’s why starting today in Brazil, we’re testing fleets, a new way to start conversations from your fleeting thoughts.”
Facebook developed a more efficient machine-learning tool to identify and take down fake accounts. The tool looks at how an account interacts with the rest of the community, rather than more obvious signals of fakery. (Side note: the number of friend requests I’ve gotten from brand-new accounts is way up lately.) (Daphne Leprince-Ringuet / ZDNet)
ByteDance, TikTok’s Chinese parent company, launched a music streaming app in India called Resso. The app allows users to share lyrics and comments along with full-length songs. (Ingrid Lunden and Manish Singh / TechCrunch)
A TikTok video showing a teenage girl getting an abortion went viral and set off a fiery debate over abortion rights on social media. TikTok is a platform for discussing social issues, whether the company wants it to be or not. (Ellen Cranley / Insider)
And finally ...
Casey Newton
(to the tune of “Come On Eileen”)

🎵 COVID-19 🎵
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