On March 5th, as COVID-19 began to reshape American life, I noted here that big tech companies had responded with unusual alacrity. Where they once had been loath to intervene in matters of fact, suddenly Facebook and Twitter were prominently featuring links to high-quality information from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization in their respective feeds and search results. Google followed suit shortly thereafter.
In the weeks since, Big Tech has only accelerated its efforts at doing good. They have donated tens of millions of dollars to relief efforts. They have contributed large stocks of precious N95 masks acquired during last year’s wildfires to medical organizations. They have added sections to their apps highlighting accurate news about COVID-19. And as unemployment surged, Facebook pledged $100 million in grants to small businesses, and Amazon said it would hire 100,000 people.
In a dramatic change from only weeks before, news about Big Tech has been a bright spot at a time of great fear — and, increasingly, of grief. Increasingly, journalists are asking whether the backlash against technology companies that has defined coverage of them for the past three and a half years might have come to an end.
In Wired on Friday, Steven Levy asked the question plainly: has the coronvirus killed the techlash? He writes:
Now that our lives are dominated by these giants, we see them as greedy exploiters of personal data and anticompetitive behemoths who have generally degraded society. Before the pandemic, there was every expectation that those companies would be reined in, if not split apart.
But the deus ex machina of an overwhelming public health crisis has changed things. The pandemic may have the effect of a justifiable war waged by an embattled president with low popularity. While Big Tech’s misdeeds are still apparent, their actual deeds now matter more to us. We’re using Facebook to comfort ourselves while physically bunkered and social distancing. Google is being conscripted as the potential hub of one of our greatest needs—Covid-19 testing. Our personal supply chain—literally the only way many of us are getting food and vital supplies—is Amazon.
Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?
At CNBC, Salvador Rodriguez explored the same issue on Saturday, focused on Facebook. After rounding up everything the company had done so far, he said: “Facebook won’t be able to rebuild trust with the public overnight, but when the company was presented with an opportunity to rebuild goodwill by being proactive and helpful during global health and financial crises, Facebook sprung to action and seized the moment.”
Subsequent articles have noted that, however magnanimous tech giants have acted in the crisis so far, they have much to gain from successfully navigating the coronavirus response. In The Information, Cory Weinberg noted that the companies’ work so far would likely have a recruiting benefit:
It is too early to know how big tech companies might seize the moment. And their own businesses certainly aren’t immune to economic fallout. But one area where they stand to benefit is recruiting. In recent years, big tech firms have had to compete with fast-growing startups for skilled computer scientists, especially as scandals and questions about abuses of power have tainted the reputations of the bigger firms. But tech workers who once might have preferred the dynamic surroundings of a small startup now might welcome the safer bet of a big enterprise.
One software engineer, who declined to be named to protect his job prospects, said he has been ignoring dozens of emails and calls from recruiters at Facebook in the last few months as he sought to develop his own company or join younger firms. But with venture capital firms expected to pull back from investing in nascent businesses, this month he scheduled an interview with the social media giant. His rationale: Stock gains from an equity package at Facebook could eventually help him self-fund his startup.
And perhaps even more importantly, the crisis represents an opportunity for tech companies to entwine themselves ever more deeply into customers’ lives. Already I’ve had friends who had sworn off Facebook for good return to check on friends and family; will they be so quickly to delete it when a more normal way of life resumes? Amazon Prime may be groaning under the weight of increased demand, but after it gets your family through this crisis, would you ever dream of canceling it?
Daisuke Wakabayashi, Jack Nicas, Steve Lohr and Mike Isaac explore this question in the New York Times:
While Amazon has changed shopping habits for items like books, getting customers to trust it with groceries has been challenging. Now, as more people are forced to stay home, one of the last strongholds of physical retailing may be coming under pressure. [...]
As more customers try different Amazon services, they may create permanent shifts in buying habits, said Guru Hariharan, a former Amazon employee and the founder of CommerceIQ, a company whose automation software is used by major brands like Kellogg’s and Kimberly-Clark.
For now, I think the prevailing sentiment is accurate: tech giants have probably turned a corner in public opinion. I imagine that the next time The Verge does its survey of Americans, it will find that the decline in trust has at least slowed, if not entirely reversed. One pressing question is whether that shift in sentiment, assuming its real, will affect the many ongoing state and federal investigations into competition and privacy issues that are still under way. Since late 2016 we have been focused on the problems that emerge from the size of giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon; in the past several weeks the benefits that come from that size have become more apparent.
Still, it’s possible that even a perfect response to the COVID-19 crisis could plant the seeds for a future backlash. So much of the frustration with tech companies in recent years has originated from the fact that they are inescapable. Dependence breeds resentment, and the fewer alternatives consumers have to tech giants, the more resentful they are likely to become in time. It’s also possible — and even likely — that tech companies will make significant errors in their handling of the crisis, which could set back any progress they haver made.
But all that can wait for another day. For better and for worse, Americans are relying on technology companies to get them through the next several months. If there was ever a moment for these companies to prove their worth, it’s now.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⭐Ten Amazon warehouses in the United States have had workers test positive for COVID-19. The news comes as the e-commerce giant races to hire 100,000 more workers to meet the rising demand. Here’s Jay Greene at The Washington Post:
The company has recently adopted new policies for its warehouses, including more regularly cleaning door handles, stairway handrails, touch screens and more, Levandowski said. It’s nixed stand-up meetings, staggered start and break times to aid social distancing, and suspended screening workers as they leave to improve the flow of workers, she said.
Amazon, though, is struggling to get workers all the protection it wants them to have. The company placed orders for “millions of face masks” to give to employees and contractors who cannot work from home, Bezos wrote in a letter to employees Saturday. Because of the global shortage of those masks, though, very few of those orders have been filled, he wrote.
Also: Amazon told workers at its warehouse in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, that it will keep the facility shut indefinitely after three people tested positive for COVID-19. The workers will continue to receive their scheduled pay. (Matt Day / Bloomberg)
Still, Amazon could come out of this crisis stronger than ever. The shutdown of many retail stores, along with a general anxiety about going out in public, could end up increasing the company’s share of overall retail by prompting shoppers to buy more stuff over the internet. (Priya Anand and Ashley Gold / The Information)
Amazon appears to be prioritizing shipments of its own hardware devices, like the Amazon Echo, while delaying distribution of other nonessential items as demand continues to soar. (Priya Anand / The Information)
⭐Singapore is open-sourcing its coronavirus contact-tracing app, called TraceTogether. The app uses Bluetooth to identify people who’ve been in close contact with COVID-19 patients. Here’s Hariz Baharudin at The Straits Times:
Launched last Friday, the TraceTogether app can identify people who have been within 2m of coronavirus patients for at least 30 minutes, using wireless Bluetooth technology. Its developers say the app is useful when those infected cannot recall whom they had been in close proximity with for an extended duration.
For the app to start tracing, the Bluetooth setting on mobile phones has to be turned on.
If a user gets infected, the authorities will be able to quickly find out the other users he has been in close contact with, allowing for easier identification of potential cases and helping curb the spread of the virus.
Russia is using facial-recognition technology to track people who are supposed to self-quarantine. It’s also threatening prison time for those who don’t self-isolate. (Robyn Dixon / The Washington Post)
Nextdoor has become the place for neighbors to connect, organize, and help one another amid the coronavirus outbreak. But relics of the old Nextdoor are still there, conspiracy theories and all. (John Herrman / The New York Times)
Facebook, Tesla, and Apple have pledged to donate thousands of masks to combat the medical equipment shortages caused by the novel coronavirus. Experts say it makes sense that these companies have vast stockpiles, since California is no stranger to natural disasters. (Blake Montgomery / Daily Beast)
Mark Zuckerberg said Facebook is “just trying to keep the lights on” as traffic continues to soar amid the coronavirus outbreak. The challenge is compounded by the company struggling to transition to a fully work from home culture. (Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel / The New York Times)
The World Health Organization plans to reach at least 50 million people with a WhatsApp chat service that delivers information about the novel coronavirus. The service garnered 10 million users within three days of launching. (Antony Sguazzin / Bloomberg)
Twitter temporarily locked the account of The Federalist after the conservative opinion site published a piece proposing the deliberate spread of the coronavirus in order to boost immunity to the disease. Fast, decisive, positive action from Twitter here. (Zachary Petrizzo / Mediaite)
Apple’s Screen Time feature has become a horrifying reminder of how much we’re using our devices now that we’re all stuck at home. I’m up to 16 hours a day across my devices, how about you? (Travis M. Andrews / The Washington Post)
Pinterest launched a new Today tab to bring people curated boards and coronavirus information. The company plans to include expert information from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control. (Nathan Ingraham / Engadget)
Foxconn and Wistron, two iPhone makers, have suspended production at their Indian plants to comply with a nationwide lockdown ordered. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ordered the population to stay at home for three weeks. (Debby Wu / Bloomberg)
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t (yet?) hurting TikTok stars at The Hype House in Los Angeles. Some say they’ve seen enormous growth since the virus started to spread. (EJ Dickson / Rolling Stone)
Hundreds of tech employees are getting laid off amid the coronavirus outbreak — and now it’s all happening over Zoom. Here’s how it went down at TripActions. (Biz Carson / Protocol)
Why you’re getting coronavirus emails from every brand you’ve ever interacted with. They’re all making decisions out of “an abundance of caution.” Abundance O’Caution is going to be a great drag name for someone when this is all over. Or now! (Rebecca Jennings / Vox)
The internet was designed to adapt to huge spikes in traffic just like the one we’re living through. But the platforms and apps that make the internet useful are less tested. (Adam Clark Estes / Recode)
Americans who primarily get their news through social media are less likely to closely follow coronavirus news coverage. They’re also the most likely to report seeing misinformation about the pandemic. (Pew Research Center)
Total cases in the US: 54,453
Total deaths in the US: 737
Cases reported in California: 2,853
Cases reported in New York: 26,358
Cases reported in Washington: 2,469
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
The Verge launched a newsletter called Home Screen about life on the internet during the pandemic. It’s designed to show you fun distractions from the disaster — highly recommended.