Big Tech's Response to the Coronavirus Outbreak

March 17th 2020
Author profile picture

@asandreAndreas Sandre

Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.

LinkedIn social iconfacebook social iconTwitter social icon

It’s not just about Google and what coronavirus website

Yes, the coronavirus pandemic is a threat for the tech industry. Consider that Apple, Facebook, Alphabet, Amazon, and Microsoft lost a combined $416.63 billion on March 12, Wall Street’s worst drop since the 1987 Black Market crash. Apple — the world’s most valuable tech company — and Microsoft lost more than $1 billion in value. Even a worse loss on the following Monday, March 16, when the Dow Jones index broke the grim record the markets set just a few days earlier.
Yes, many on the tech companies rely on China — where the coronavirus has originated from and where the number of confirmed cases have skyrocketed to over 80,000 with more than 3,000 deaths — to build and assemble their hardware.
Yes, with the virus continuing to spread around the world with more than 180,000 cases in 120+ countries — most tech companies have restricted or even halted travel of their employees and most are working from home.
Now that US President Donald Trump, during his emergency declaration news conference in March 13, has pointed to Google and its parent company Alphabet as one of the companies helping the Administration in the fight against the virus, I think it’d be helpful to try understand the role of Big Tech — and technology in general — in the age of the coronavirus.
“I want to thank Google,” President Trump said at a press conference in the Rose Garden at the White House. “Google is helping to develop a website. It’s going to be very quickly done, unlike websites of the past, to determine whether a test is warranted and to facilitate testing at a nearby convenient location.”
The President pointed out: “Google has 1,700 engineers working on this right now. They’ve made tremendous progress. Our overriding goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this.”
However, according to Dieter Bohn of Verge Science, it appears that Google is really not building such a website.
“Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up,” writes Bohn. “It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area.”
Bohn explains: “Carolyn Wang, communications lead for Verily, told The Verge that the ‘triage website’ was initially only going to be made available to health care workers instead of the general public.” He continues: “Now that it has been announced the way it was, however, anybody will be able to visit it, she said. But the tool will only be able to direct people to “pilot sites” for testing in the Bay Area, though Wang says Verily hopes to expand it beyond California ‘over time.’”
Brian Barrett and Louise Matsakis reports that “A source at Google tells WIRED that company leadership was surprised that Trump announced anything about the initiative at the press conference. What he did say was also almost entirely wrong.”
24 hours later, however, Google posted a new statement, tweeted by Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, with a different wording.
“We’re partnering with the U.S. government in developing a website dedicated to COVID-19 education, prevention, and local resources nationwide,” the statement reads. “This includes best practices on prevention, links to authoritative information from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and helpful tips and tools from Google for individuals, teachers and businesses. We’ll be rolling out an initial version of the website late Monday, March 16, and we’ll continue to enhance and update it with more resources on an ongoing basis.”
At a White House press conference on March 15, President Trump said: “I want to thank the people at Google and Google Communications because, as you know, they substantiated what I said on Friday. The head of Google, who’s a great gentleman, said — called us and he apologized.”

Here is the website that Google’s Verily launched on the evening of March 15, ahead of schedule: https://www.projectbaseline.com/study/covid-19/

It’s unclear whether, after the Rose Garden announcement, Google and the White House started to work together in a more coordinated way.
What is clear however is that the role of technology and technology companies in the fight agains the coronavirus is multifaceted and pro-active on many levels.
Obviously money is a big resource that Big Tech can provide and source.
“Apple’s committed donations to the global COVID-19 response — both to help treat those who are sick and to help lessen the economic and community impacts of the pandemic — today reached $15 million worldwide,” reads a statement by the company, tweeted by chief executive Tim Cook.
“We’re also announcing that we are matching our employee donations two-to-one to support COVID-19 response efforts locally, nationally and internationally.”
“Facebook is matching up to $10 million in donations, and 100% of funds will directly support the work to prevent, detect and respond to the outbreak around the world,” according to a post by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive. “We’ll also match $10 million for the CDC Foundation, which will launch a fundraiser in the next few weeks focused on combating the outbreak here in the US.”
In addition, Microsoft has partnered with the Seattle Foundation together with other philanthropy, government, and business partners “to create a COVID-19 Response Fund that will rapidly deploy resources to community-based organizations at the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak in the Puget Sound region” in Washington State.
The Fund has now raised almost $10 million.
“I’m so inspired to see additional support for the COVID-19 Response Fund from employers, nonprofits and individuals throughout King County,” Brad Smith, President at Microsoft, wrote on LinkedIn. “The human impact from this outbreak continues to grow, and it’s important that we work together as a region to address it.”
Also, Amazon has pledged to donate $5 million to small businesses around its Seattle headquarters that will be impacted by thousands of tech workers telecommuting in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“These businesses support tens of thousands of local jobs that are a critical part of the Seattle and Puget Sound economy,” wrote Amazon’s global real estate chief, John Schoettler, in a blog post. “They’re our friends and neighbors, and we believe it’s important to try to help them confront the economic challenges that are likely to come from the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Mark Benioff, founder and chief executive of Salesforce, announced on Twitter that the company “is donating $1 million to UCSF’s COVID-19 Response Fund and $500K to the CDC Foundation’s Emergency Response Fund, which is meeting rapidly evolving response needs around the world.”
In a statement posted online, Salesforce said: “As always, we are matching our employees’ donations to all eligible organizations, and during this time are recommending they support organizations such as the CDC Foundation, UNICEF, Direct Relief, Save the Children, and Give2Asia.”
In Italy, the country with the largest number of cases outside of China, crowdfunding platform GoFundMe has contributed €250,000 (around $275,000) to a crowdfunding campaign launched by social media influencer Chiara Ferragni and her influencer and artist husband Fedez, which raised almost €4 million. The money will help a selected number of hospitals in Italy to increase ICU capacity.
If not money, the tech industry is also mobilizing in other ways, in addition to, in most cases, waiving canceling fees or other penalties due to unforeseen circumstances linked to the pandemic, like Airbnb and many other tech platforms in the travel and service sector.
“In response to the extraordinary events and global disruption to travel caused by COVID-19, today we are announcing updated coverage under Airbnb’s Extenuating Circumstances policy,” a company statement reads. The new updated policy “allows hosts and guests to cancel eligible reservations with no charge or penalty.”
But help comes in many forms. For example, Jack Ma, cofounder of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, said in a statement posted on Twitter that his foundation will donate 500,000 COVID-19 testing kits and 1 million protective face masks to the US.
“The crisis presents a huge challenge to all humankind in a globalized world,” Ma said. “The pandemic we face today can no longer be resolved by any individual country.”
In other ways to help, Salesforce, for example, is “making our technology available to help our customers, partners, and communities.” They indicated that:
-- Through Health Cloud, Salesforce will provide free access to technology for emergency response teams, call centers, and care management teams for health systems affected by coronavirus.
-- Tableau has developed a free data resource hub to help organizations see and understand coronavirus data in near real-time. This includes case data compiled by Johns Hopkins University as well as data from the World Health Organization and the CDC.
-- To help teams collaborate while employees are away from the office, Quip Starter will be available for free to any Salesforce customer or non-profit organization through September 30, 2020.
Finally, misinformation is another major focus, in particular when it comes to social media platforms.
Last week, in a meeting with tech representatives at the White House, the US administration “urged the tech industry to coordinate its efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus conspiracy theories on major social media sites, urging the companies to swap intelligence about harmful hoaxes before they go viral,” Tony Romm of the Washington Post reported, quoting three participants to the meeting.
“Since the emergence and subsequent outbreak of COVID-19, there have been millions of Tweets and Retweets about the virus around the globe,” write in a statement Alex Josephson and Eimear Lambe at Twitter Next, a global collective of strategists and planners, technologists and program managers, designers, engineers and data scientists — dedicated to finding the next way to get people talking about brands.
“We are seeing a COVID-19 related Tweet every 45 milliseconds and #Coronavirus is now the second most used hashtag of 2020. These volumes reflect the huge appetite for seeing and sharing news and information related to this virus as it unfolds.”
In fact, as POLITICO reports, “In recent days, the world’s largest social media platforms have been pulling out all the stops to combat the wave of false reports, hacking attempts and outright lies that have spread like wildfire about COVID-19.”
But it seems all efforts are not working that well and “people are sharing rumors, fake stories and half-truths about COVID-19 with each other directly across the likes of Instagram and Twitter as they struggle to understand how best to protect themselves and their families.”
In this mayhem of misinformation and rush by social media platform to combat fake news about the virus, “Snap is different,” Adweek’s Scott Nover reports.
Nover points out: “Snap, Ben Smith wrote, ‘largely avoided the misinormation trap’ and ‘is driving users toward good health advice.’ He’s right. In designing a social platform that largely avoids the quandary of misinformation, Snapchat can devote its resources to promoting reliable information.”
In a statement, Snap states that “Snapchatters in the US are taking part in this timely and fast-moving global conversation” regarding the coronavirus health emergency and global pandemic.
“At Snap, we are taking a proactive approach to ensuring our community has access to credible, fact-based information during these times,” the company says while highlighting a series of steps they have taken. These includes: the Discover platform curated in closely with only a select set of partners; offering accurate Coronavirus-related coverage through vetted partners, including the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), across seven countries and in six different languages.
Here are some of the most-mentioned words and top trends in Snapchat Search, Public Snaps, and Our Story submissions in the US for March 13, 2020, according to Snap:
In general, when it comes to messaging and point out users to the right information, platforms have been focusing on warnings and information hubs.
Here are some examples:

TikTok

Twitter

Instagram

Google Search

Nextdoor

However, as POLITICO reports, “Tech companies and policymakers are finding that the tens of millions of euros and dollars they have spent to detect, monitor and combat sophisticated digital misinformation campaigns have little effect when regular social media users, and not foreign governments, are the ones spreading falsehoods.”
“When you’re dealing with a pandemic, a lot of the stuff we’re seeing just crossed the threshold,” Zuckerberg told Ben Smith in The New York Times. “So it’s easier to set policies that are a little more black and white and take a much harder line.”
But is it really easier? Analyst and misinformation experts are as positive as Zuckerberg.
In the meantime, a group of social media platforms — Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube — posted a joint statement on coronavirus misinformation.
“We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe,” the statement reads. Companies like Snap, TikTok, Pinterest, and Nextdoor are notably missing.
TechCrunch’s Catherine Shu and Jonathan Shieber call the statement “an unprecedented move to reassure customers and flag the potential for misinformation about COVID-19 on their platforms.” They also point out: “tech companies aren’t just battling the spread of questionable posts by the public. They also have to contend with misleading information in several of President Donald Trump’s public statements on COVID-19, including his tweets and Facebook posts.”
Finally, some tech companies seem to benefit from this emergency. As millions of people around the world are confined at home.
A look at the streaming business shows that most financial analysts who track Netflix, for example, “agree the coronavirus will keep people at home to stream more,” writes CNET. “Most of them grade Netflix’s business as either unlikely to be hurt by the pandemic, or possibly to be helped by it.”
This is particularly true for new subscriptions.
“The world is going to be streaming a hella lot of Netflix,” CNET continues. “You might think that means everyone would be flocking to sign up, and that Netflix’s business would be booming. But in the US, homebound viewers have more streaming options than ever with new entrants like Disney Plus and Apple TV Plus, not to mention Amazon Prime Video and Hulu. And chances are you already have a Netflix account.”
As in everything, there’s another side of the coin, as the coronavirus has spurred streaming services, including Netflix and all the others to postpone productions.

Comments

Tags

The Noonification banner

Subscribe to get your daily round-up of top tech stories!