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Tech giants are getting creative to manage the COVID-19 crisis

Tech giants are getting creative to manage the COVID-19 crisis


New trials, new websites, new employees: Google, Amazon and others are finding new ways to help

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An image of the Google Assistant user interface asking “Hi, how can I help?”
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

A good thing to do during the global outbreak of a deadly virus is to test people who think they may have it. Beyond providing important information to people affected by the disease, large-scale testing allows authorities to map the spread of the disease and respond accordingly. Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong all worked rapidly after the initial COVID-19 outbreak to identify carriers of the disease, and the work contributed to a successful containment strategy. In the United States, by contrast, testing rolled out with fatal slowness. On Monday, as the stock market crashed and San Francisco banned all non-essential travel for residents, a simple question — how do I get tested for COVID-19? — remains difficult to answer.

On Friday, President Donald Trump held a press conference in which he announced that Google was coming to the rescue. The company was building a website to help people understand whether they should seek a test for the coronavirus, Trump said, and added that Google had committed a staggering 1,700 engineers to the project.

Among the people this was news to were the employees of Google, who were unaware that they were working on such a project. It turned out that a more modest effort was under way by Verily, the life sciences company that, like Google, also sits under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. Dieter Bohn broke the news at The Verge:

Google is not working with the US government in building a nationwide website to help people determine whether and how to get a novel coronavirus test, despite what President Donald Trump said in the course of issuing an emergency declaration for the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, a much smaller trial website made by another division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is going up. It will only be able to direct people to testing facilities in the Bay Area. [...]

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. 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.”

The website, he said, would be available on Monday.

It has long since stopped being unusual to hear the president lie during a moment of crisis. (At Vanity Fair, Gabriel Sherman reported that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was the one over-selling Google’s effort behind the scenes.) Whatever the case, this was a particularly high-stakes bit of news to get wrong, in the sense that the president had essentially charged a corporation with building out a significant component of the nation’s coronavirus testing infrastructure. And it came just before more Americans would be ordered to stay inside their homes unless absolutely necessary — and as more high-profile reports of celebrity cases of the disease trickle in. (Get well, Idris Elba! That’s an order!)

But then a funny thing happened: Google decided to go ahead and build the website anyway. In fact, it’s building two websites! And they both already are actually built, at least partially, and one of them did launch on Monday morning, as just as Trump said it would. I liked Ina Fried’s concise summary in Axios:

Google was blindsided by Trump’s Friday announcement of such a project. The company is now working on two different tracks: ramping up a small pilot project that partially resembles what Trump spoke of Friday but had much more modest scope, while also scrambling to launch an entirely new, less personalized nationwide information portal about the virus.

That nationwide information portal sounds relatively modest. According to Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai in a Sunday blog post, the site will contain “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.” The site, which was expected to launch late Monday, will be updated regularly with new information, Pichai said. (It’s delayed.)

It’s the Verily effort, which Trump had pitched as a kind of national triage system, that commanded more attention. The good news is that Verily’s effort has launched — you can find it at this link. But as Bohn notes in another story for The Verge, it’s not at all like Trump described:

Verily’s website is very limited in scope: it’s only available to people in the Bay Area of California and it’s more of a pilot program than a public health utility.

In fact, it’s even more limited than that: in order to qualify you must be 18 years of age or older, be able to speak English, and be a US resident. It very much looks like the program a Verily spokesperson described to us on the phone on Friday and not the expansive triage system that the Trump administration promised.

The initial question on Verily’s site asks “Are you currently experiencing severe cough, shortness of breath, fever, or other concerning symptoms?” If you answer “yes,” you are told that the program is “not the right fit” and to seek medical attention.

That last part seems counterintuitive — people who are sick can’t be tested? But Verily says it is not equipped to treat seriously ill people. In any case, within a few hours, Verily’s pilot program was at capacity. And venture capitalists were on Twitter musing about building rapid testing kids. (Help them if you can!)

What to make of all this? One thought I’ve had lately is that we are seeing a shift in trust. In December, when we interviewed people for the second Verge Tech Survey, we found that trust was generally on the decline — particularly for social networks. But now we find ourselves in a time, as Ben Smith put it in the New York Times on Sunday, “when Facebook is more trustworthy than the president.” Social networks have gotten better at amplifying urgent updates and authoritative experts:

After four years in which social media has been viewed as an antisocial force, the crisis is revealing something surprising, and a bit retro: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and others can actually deliver on their old promise to democratize information and organize communities, and on their newer promise to drain the toxic information swamp.

Moreover. as I’ve noted in this space a couple of times, the tech giants have performed admirably in the past few weeks. Among other things, they have stepped up their fight against misinformation and begun paying more attention to what their algorithms are amplifying.

And, as Google showed over the weekend, they’re also springing into action. Trump may have forced Google’s hand, but I still expect the company to ramp up both of its new websites considerably in the coming days and weeks. Others are taking even bolder action — Amazon, for example, announced plans to hire a staggering 100,000 workers to help keep up with the surge in demand for deliveries, and said it would give warehouse and delivery workers a raise of $2 an hour.

In incredibly fraught times — the most anxious I’ve ever known — these are meaningful steps forward. None of it is a replacement for a competent government, and the hardest days are surely ahead. But at the moment tech giants have an incredible chance to give back to the country they were born in. And it has been heartening to see some of them take it.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

🔼Trending up: Facebook launched a matching fund to encourage people to donate money to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The company has committed a total of $20 million to fight the outbreak.

🔼Trending up: Apple is donating $15 million to help treat coronavirus patients and ease the economic impact of the pandemic. It’s also matching employee coronavirus donations two-to-one.

🔼Trending up: Salesforce is donating $1 million to the UCSF coronavirus response fund and another $500,000 to the CDD emergency response fund. It’s also matching employee donations.

🔼Trending up: Amazon plans to hire an additional 100,000 employees in the United States as millions of people turn to online deliveries in the wake of the new coronavirus. Finally, a good public-relations effort from Amazon!

🔼Trending up: Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma is donating 500,000 coronavirus testing kits and one million protective face masks to the United States. The Chinese billionaire already pledged 2 million protective masks to European countries as well.

🔼Trending up: AT&T, Comcast and Verizon joined dozens of telecom providers in agreeing not to shut off the phone or internet service of subscribers who can’t pay their bills due to the novel coronavirus.

🔃Trending sideways: Facebook is cracking down on coronavirus hoaxes in English, but misinformation continues to go viral in other languages.


Here’s the latest in the United States:

The spread of the disease in the United States is more in line with Italy and Iran than Singapore and Hong Kong. We also continue to test people at a lower rate than other developed countries. (Dylan Scott and Rani Molla / Vox)

The United States doesn’t have enough ventilators or ICU beds if there’s a significant surge in new coronavirus cases. As in Italy, the health system could well be overwhelmed in coming weeks. (Aaron E. Carroll / The New York Times)

The stock market plunged 3,000 points on Monday as fears over the novel coronavirus spread. The sell-off triggered the so-called circuit breaker for the third time in two weeks. It was the stock market’s second-worst day ever. (Taylor Telford and Thomas Heath / The Washington Post)

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers and congressional staff may soon be asked to work remotely as the coronavirus spreads. The move would make sensitive government data more vulnerable to attack. It’ll also probably slow down all those investigations into big tech! (Joseph Marks and Lisa Rein / The Washington Post)

Georgia delayed its presidential primary due to the novel coronavirus. It will now be held on May 19th. Louisiana also rescheduled its April 4th primary to June 20th. (Zach Montellaro / Politico)

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine is recommending the state’s primaries be postponed until June to protect voters from the coronavirus pandemic. The primaries are supposed to take place on Tuesday. (Zach Montellaro and Alice Ollstein / Politico)

Stanford Medicine is doing drive-through coronavirus testing for patients who’ve been referred by their medical providers. Each appointment takes only a few minutes. (Stanford Medicine)

President Trump follows 47 accounts on Twitter. Here’s what they’re saying about the coronavirus pandemic, from “this is China’s fault” to “The President is doing a great job.” (Jordan Muller / Politico)

When news of the coronavirus started to spread, this man bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer, planning to resell from for a profit on Amazon. Then, the company cracked down on price gauging. After he faced an avalanche of criticism, the man promised to donate his hoard. (Jack Nicas / The New York Times)

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread across the United States, some technologists are suggesting using smartphone data to track transmissions. But American views on privacy and government surveillance may make that a non-starter. (Will Knight / Wired)

The coronavirus pandemic is going to put a massive strain on Amazon Prime, experts say. It’s a logistical nightmare during the best of times. But supply chain issues, increased demand, and the potential of a warehouse outbreak are all making things worse. Good time to hire 100,000 people and give them a raise! (Lauren Kaori Gurley / Vice)

Here’s what happened when nearly one million tech workers in Silicon Valley were asked to work from home. Scenes from our surreal new way of life. (Rob Copeland and Tripp Mickle / The Wall Street Journal)

Here’s how it’s changing the culture:

Amid social distancing, people are mobilizing on coronavirus Facebook groups. Some groups focus on emergency preparedness, while others share news about the virus. (Arielle Pardes / Wired)

Coronavirus has brought on the dawn of the virtual happy hour, as friends and co-workers gather on Zoom and Google Hangouts to chat after hours. This is all I do after work now. (Abram Brown / Forbes)

The pandemic has also brought about the age of the virtual dinner party. I’m doing my first one on Thursday! (Zoë Bernard and Nick Bastone / The Information)

Theaters are already struggling to compete with new streaming services. Now they’re facing the prospect of no audiences or new fils due to the spread of the coronavirus. (Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling / The New York Times)

The Centers for Disease Control said any funeral with more than 50 people should be canceled and moved to livestream. It’s part of the organizations recommendations for limiting the spread of the coronavirus. (Eleanor Cummins / Vice)

On the misinformation front:

A rumor about Trump issuing a national quarantine and forcing people to stay in their homes is going viral. It’s spreading primarily through text messages, and always purports to be coming from someone with a direct line to the White House. It’s a hoax, so stop forwarding it. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

Instagram is removing augmented reality filters that claim to be able to diagnose or treat coronavirus. The company will also start hiding coronavirus-themed augmented reality effects from search results. (Karissa Bell / Engadget)

YouTube is leaning more heavily on AI to flag and remove inappropriate content in an effort to crack down on coronavirus misinformation. Because it doesn’t want contract content moderators to come into the office, Google is turning the job over to machine learning. This could go very badly. (YouTube)

On the conference front:

Evan Spiegel asked all Snap employees to work from home and postponed the company’s planned partner summit due to the coronavirus pandemic. The April 2nd event for Snapchat developers, advertisers, and creators had already been moved to an online-only presentation. Now it’s being postponed altogether.

Microsoft’s Build developer conference is also going to be held online. The software giant was planning on holding its annual developer conference in Seattle from May 19th to May 21st. (Tom Warren / The Verge)

Major esports events from games like CSGO, Overwatch, PUBG, League of Legends, and Dota 2 have been disrupted as the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the globe. (Aron Garst / The Verge)

Apple announced that the 2020 Worldwide Developers Conference will be held online due to the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus. The event will take place sometime in June. (Jay Peters / The Verge)

Y Combinator’s W20 Demo Day is going to be online only. The accelerator also said that while it still plans to host a summer program, some portion of it may happen online.

Here’s what companies are doing:

This is what Silicon Valley tech leaders are worried about with the novel coronavirus. (Lauren Hepler / Protocol)

Microsoft launched a new interactive Bing map to provide information on the spread of COVID-19. The map shows the amount of cases on a per country basis. It also surfaces links to relevant news stories. Unfortunately, the stories being promoted aren’t always the most timely or useful. (Jon Porter / The Verge)

Zoom is giving K-12 students its videoconferencing tools for free. The move follows schools across the country shutting down due to the novel coronavirus. (Alex Konrad / Forbes)

As people around the world hunker down to limit the spread of the coronavirus, internet usage is surging. So far, there haven’t been any major outages. The internet was “designed to survive a nuclear blast,” said one expert. (Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)

Here’s the latest outside the United States:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the country’s internal security agency to tap into a secret trove of cellphone data to retrace the movements of people who have the coronavirus. The information would also allow the government to identify those who should be quarantined because they’ve crossed paths with coronavirus carriers. (David M. Halbfinger, Isabel Kershner and Ronen Bergman / The New York Times)

China is silencing people who are criticizing the government’s response to coronavirus online, by dragging them in for questioning and forcing them to loyalty pledges. The enforcers are known as the internet police. (Paul Mozur / The New York Times)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Here’s a list of video games you should play while you’re stuck inside avoiding the coronavirus.

Pokémon Go won’t make you leave the house for the time being.

The meditation app Headspace is giving all US healthcare workers free access to Headspace Plus through 2020. And it’s making a variety of anti-anxiety content free for all.

Balance is offering a free one-year subscription of its meditation app to anyone who wants it.

Say hello to online drinking, an activity that recently got a new name in Japan: on-nomi. It’s the latest craze among self-isolated middle-aged women in the country. I’m following their lead!

The Metropolitan Opera is streaming operas for free in the wake of the novel coronavirus. The digital concerts will be hosted nightly. (Chris Murphy / Vulture)


Joe Biden’s first virtual town hall was a technical nightmare. The campaign has had to get creative due to the coronavirus pandemic, but so far it’s not going smoothly. Here’s Makena Kelly at The Verge:

The Zoom call was plagued with technical problems from the beginning. First, it began over three hours late. Once Biden did start speaking, his staff had to restart his entire speech because there was no audio, fading his campaign logo in and back out again to signify that they were redoing the address. As he started reading off his prepared remarks again, Biden’s audio was suddenly painful to hear and impossible to understand, at least until they replaced whatever mic he was using with a smartphone.

After his opening address was finished — as unintelligible as it was — staff opened the call up to questions. “Mr. Biden’s speech was garbled the entire time,” the first questioner said before being cut off.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and President Trump to focus on digital campaigning. Getting voters’ attention in this new environment will likely be difficult — and expensive. (Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou / Bloomberg)

Karlie Kloss’s father is helping Jared Kushner with the Trump Administration’s coronavirus response. His strategy involved crowd sourcing recommendations from physicians in a Facebook group. Excuse me what? (Anita Kumar / Politico)

An acquisition spree by Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft gobbled up many of the most promising artificial intelligence startups. The trend is one regulators are looking into as they investigate whether Big Tech companies have become too powerful. (Dina Bass and Joshua Brustein / Bloomberg)

Antitrust authorities in France ordered Apple to pay a $1.23 billion fine for anti-competitive behavior. They said the company was guilty of creating cartels within its distribution network and abusing the economic dependence of its outside resellers. Apple said it plans to appeal. (Silvia Amaro / CNBC)

Voatz, a mobile voting app that’s already been used in several elections in the United States, is filled with critical security flaws. The company also publicly refuted an MIT report that found flaws in the app even after it received confirmation that it was accurate. (Emanuel Maiberg, Jason Koebler and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai / Vice)


TikTok told moderators to suppress posts by people deemed too ugly or poor for the platform. The rigid and disturbing rules were part of the company’s growth strategy. Sam Biddle, Paulo Victor Ribeiro and Tatiana Dias at The Intercept have the story:

Today, The Intercept and The Intercept Brasil are publishing two internal TikTok moderation documents, recreated with only minor redactions, below. One lays out bans for ideologically undesirable content in livestreams, and another describes algorithmic punishments for unattractive and impoverished users. The documents appear to have been originally drafted in Chinese and later — at times awkwardly — translated into English for use in TikTok’s global offices. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-headquartered company that operates a suite of popular sites and social apps, a sort of Chinese analog to Facebook. ByteDance, founded in 2012, has come under scrutiny by the U.S. government over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party and numerous reports that the app’s censorship tactics mirror those of Beijing; Sens. Chuck Schumer and Josh Hawley have both worked to limit TikTok’s use by government personnel, arguing that it presents a risk to national security.

TikTok announced it’s going to stop using China-based moderators to monitor overseas content. The work will now be shifted to people outside of China, as part of the company’s efforts to quell concerns about Chinese ownership.

TikTok got a record 113 million App Store and Google Play downloads in February, making it the app’s best month ever for both installs and revenue. (SensorTower)

The most followed person on TikTok is 17-year-old Loren Gray. Now she’s trying to turn her viral fame into a mainstream music career. (Kat Tenbarge / Business Insider)

Jack Dorsey’s efforts to make conversations on Twitter more civil have stalled, according to researchers working with the company. Two years ago, the CEO committed to increasing “the collective health, openness, and civility of public conversation” on the platform, but the project has been slow getting off the ground. (Deepa Seetharaman / The Wall Street Journal)

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said no one knows how big the impact of coronavirus will be on the marketing industry. “We know that we can keep paying our employees, paying our contractors, we know we can keep the lights on,” she added. (Salvador Rodriguez / CNBC)

USA TODAY announced that it is joining Facebook’s third-party fact-checking program. The media organization will help review, rate and verify news on Facebook and Instagram to help prevent the spread of misinformation. (USA TODAY)

Kenneth Chenault will be leaving Facebook’s board of directors following disagreements with Mark Zuckerberg over the company’s governance and political policies. The news adds to significant turnover on the company’s board. (Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman / The Wall Street Journal)

Snap announced that Kelly Coffey, CEO of City National Bank, has been appointed to the company’s board of directors.

Zoom has bigger plans than just being your go-to video chat tool — or the place you host coronavirus dinner parties. It wants to reimagine the office as as a virtual space. (David Pierce / Protocol)

USC students are training to become social media influencers. The school offers an Influencer Relations class within the school of communications and an on-campus social media influencing club called Reach. (Kalhan Rosenblatt / NBC)

And finally...

ISIS warns terrorists to avoid Europe until coronavirus passes

I pride myself on never saying “not the Onion,” but this story is just truly, truly not the Onion:

ISIS has warned its terror organization to stay clear of Europe until coronavirus is under control. [...]

Terrorists serving the Islamic State are also reminded to wash their hands and cover their mouths when yawning and sneezing. The warning reportedly included a full page info-graphic teaching ISIS members how to avoid spreading the pandemic.


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