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Facebook is a publicly traded company that mostly operates in rational and predictable ways. Facebook is also a collection of posts from more than 2 billion people, and an enduring lesson from the company’s history is that those people often operate in irrational and unpredictable ways. This weekend we got to witness an important tension between the two.
Facebook the company is fighting the good fight against the global pandemic. It has donated more than $100 million to small businesses and is prominently displaying vetted information from public health authorities across Facebook and Instagram. It released maps illustrating regional mobility patterns that have informed elected officials’ decisions to close parks and beaches. It’s using machine-learning systems to help hospitals anticipate spikes in demand for intensive care unit beds, ventilators, and other supplies.
And on Monday, the company announced early results from its symptom tracker, which is asking people across the country to self-report their health status in a survey conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Two weeks in, researchers say that results from the tracker correlate with available public health data, suggesting that the 150,000 reports a day the survey is generating can be used as an effective surrogate for in-person surveys. On Wednesday the survey will go international, in coordination with researchers at the University of Maryland.
It’s way too soon to evaluate which tech giant has made the most effective contributions to the pandemic response. But it seems to me like Facebook may have made the most contributions to the response, at least in terms of sheer number of projects.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of any of these efforts, and I suspect many of Facebook’s efforts will be quite helpful. (Several researchers have in fact already told me that they have been.) And yet it also feels fair game to note that these projects buttress two pillars of Facebook’s strategic messaging: that its vast size does more good than harm, and that its commitment to free speech is a pro-democratic force.
I spoke with CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday, and he emphasized both points. From my story in The Verge — point one, on the value of size:
Zuckerberg said that while Facebook would not seek to interpret the symptom data it shares with researchers, its size has enabled it to make a significant contribution to the public health response.
“What we can do is help them get a survey out to a large number of people quickly, and on a daily basis,” he said. “Since we have a basic understanding of who people are, we can make sure that it’s sampled properly. We’re in a relatively unique position where I don’t think that there are that many institutions in the world that could stand up a survey like this — across the country, much less across the world.”
And point two, on the value of free speech:
Zuckerberg said that global maps could serve as a reality check in places where elected officials have been slow to acknowledge the spread of COVID-19 within their borders.
“Some of these governments, frankly, are not excited about the world knowing how many actual cases there might be, or indicators of how it’s spreading in their countries,” Zuckerberg said. “So getting that data out there is very important.”
He elaborated on that point in an op-ed today in the Washington Post. Again, there are a lot of people at Facebook working hard to reduce the impact of the pandemic around the world. But it’s also true that the moment has presented the company with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to demonstrate the merits of its size and and its free-speech ethos, and Zuckerberg is seizing it.
But while Facebook the company works on its maps and its symptom trackers, Facebook the user base continues to post in sometimes dangerous ways. In recent weeks users have gone into overdrive spreading misinformation related to the coronavirus, and one report found that just 100 pieces of false COVID-19 content had 117 million views. And then over the past week, some people began using Facebook to organize protests of legal orders to stay home. Here are Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm in the Washington Post:
The Facebook groups target Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and they appear to be the work of Ben Dorr, the political director of a group called “Minnesota Gun Rights,” and his siblings, Christopher and Aaron. By Sunday, the groups had roughly 200,000 members combined, and they continued to expand quickly, days after President Trump endorsed such protests by suggesting citizens should “liberate” their states.
You can see a clear path forward for what comes next. Posts in these groups will generate outrage, which will drive engagement, which will earn the posts and groups more algorithmic promotion within Facebook. Membership in the groups will swell, viewpoints will harden around partisan lines, and the social fabric will tear a bit more. None of this will be caused by Facebook, exactly, but some aspects may be worsened by it. By Monday there were more than 100 such state-specific groups, with more than 900,000 members, who had organized at least 49 events, NBC News reported.
ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos asked Zuckerberg how the company would respond. Here’s what he said, as captured by Joe Concha at The Hill:
“We do classify that as harmful misinformation and we take that down,” Zuckerberg said. “At the same time, it’s important that people can debate policies, so there’s a line on this, you know, more than normal political discourse. I think a lot of the stuff that people are saying that is false around a health emergency like this can be classified as harmful misinformation.”
A spokesperson for Facebook told The Hill that the events would only be taken down if they violate state laws, meaning that many protests against social distancing guidelines could continue to be organized on the platform unless they break the guidelines themselves.
There’s currently a debate among journalists about how much oxygen to give these protests. (It’s a good time to re-read Data & Society’s Oxygen of Amplification report.) A majority of Republicans continue to support stay-at-home orders, along with virtually all Democrats. The protests themselves remain relatively small. But what if they grow? And what if the Facebook groups that organize these events grow along with them, aided by prominent placement in the News Feed?
These are the same mechanics that helped fueled the rise of anti-vaccination zealots, ISIS, and — most famously — Russian election interference. They are mechanics that benefit enormously from Facebook’s vast reach and its commitment to permit the maximum amount of speech. And they are mechanics that seem to be working basically as well as they ever have.
And so on one hand you have Facebook the company working to stop the spread of the pandemic, and on the other you have a small but growing group of users working to exacerbate it. It’s easy to assume that the corporate effort, which draw on Facebook’s wealth of resources, will have the largest impact. But history has taught us that what happens at Facebook is usually not as important as what happens on Facebook.
On Thursday I wrote about Facebook’s efforts to fight COVID-19 misinformation and noted that people who are shown links to popular coronavirus myths won’t be informed that they are seeing it because they shared a falsehood. A spokeswoman followed up to remind me that while this is true, if you do share a falsehood and Facebook removes it, you do get a notification about that. “For people who share misinformation that’s later debunked, we send explicit notifications telling them false info was found in their post, share the fact-checker’s articles, and let them know we’ve placed a label on their content saying that it’s false,” the spokeswoman said. A fair point, and something I should have included.
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Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬇️ Trending down: The National Labor Relations Board is looking into claims that Amazon violated workers’ rights during the coronavirus pandemic. The news comes after workers in Chicago filed charges against the company alleging it retaliated against them for participating in protests about working conditions.
A trio of far-right, pro-gun activists is behind some of the largest Facebook groups calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country. The news shows how seemingly organic demonstrations are being engineered by a small network of conservative activists. (Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Facebook is expanding its like reactions with a “care” reaction to help people show support. Facebook says it hopes the reaction, which shows a face hugging a heart, helps people feel “a bit more connected” with their friends and family during the pandemic. (Taylor Lyles / The Verge)
Facebook launched fundraisers in India to allow users to contribute to community causes during the coronavirus pandemic. The company also partnered with additional state governments to provide authoritative information about the coronavirus through WhatsApp and Messenger. (Manish Singh / TechCrunch)
Amazon has started to use thermal cameras at its warehouses to speed up screening for workers who could be infected with COVID-19. The cameras measure how much heat people emit relative to their surroundings. (Jeffrey Dastin and Krystal Hu / Reuters)
The pandemic has made Amazon more essential. It has also made it vulnerable. This profile of Stacy Mitchell, an antitrust reformer and monopoly critic, explores how she has worked to focus opposition against the tech giant. (David Streitfeld / The New York Times)
Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft are restructuring large cloud computing contracts on a case-by-case basis amid the pandemic, but smaller companies aren’t getting the same flexibility. Startup executives said recent appeals to these cloud companies have gone unanswered. (Mark Bergen and Matt Day / Bloomberg)
Amazon and eBay have cracked down on listings for personal protective equipment, known as PPE. Now, a gray market has cropped up on LinkedIn to help meet the rising demand. (Mara Hvistendahl / Wired)
Whole Foods is quietly tracking its employees with a heat map tool that ranks which stores are most at risk of unionizing. The stores’ individual risk scores are calculated from more than two dozen metrics, including employee “loyalty,” turnover, and racial diversity, and “tipline” calls to human resources. (Hayley Peterson / Business Insider)
Taiwan’s first official warning about COVID-19 came from a Reddit-like forum called PTT. The warning led to early action by government officials, which is now seen as one of the primary reasons Taiwan managed to keep Covid-19 in check. (Masha Borak / Abacus)
Apple and Google’s Bluetooth-based contact tracing system isn’t perfect. But many of the biggest concerns have solutions. Here are your biggest questions about the system, answered. (Andy Greenberg / Wired)
The Apple/Google collaboration is billed as opt-in. But it seems likely that employers, schools, churches and other institutions could require people to use it in exchange for access. (Will Oremus / OneZero)
Some of Google’s contract workers say they’re getting left out of the company’s pandemic benefits for childcare and quarantine pay. Some have been told they won’t be compensated if they need to take time off to care for their kids — unlike full-time Google employees. (Rob Price and Hugh Langley / Google)
Google is now listing COVID-19 testing centers in search results. When you search for something related to COVID-19, you’ll now see a new “Testing” tab as part of the information shown in Google’s COVID-19 SOS alert. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
YouTube’s lo-fi hip-hop community is growing rapidly as people stay stuck indoors due to COVID-19. The streams have long been a place to virtually gather, do homework, and find comfort in the random messages of strangers that populate live chats. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
As tech offices begin to think about reopening, figuring out how to mass test employees and set up socially distant floor plans is key. (Lauren Hepler, Matt Drange and Levi Sumagaysay / Protocol)
More than 300 people around the world have been arrested for “spreading COVID-19 falsehoods.” Some countries say the arrests are part of a crack-down on the spread of misinformation, but human rights advocates are warning the aggressive measures are aimed at controlling the virus narrative. (Poynter)
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing New Yorkers to obtain marriage licenses and perform ceremonies via videoconference. Bride and groom? Meet bride and Zoom. (J. Edward Moreno / The Hill)
The idea that coronavirus has made the internet good again is a tempting thought, but a premature one. After a few weeks of faith in the possibility of an online utopia, the cracks are starting to show. (Kaitlyn Tiffany / The Atlantic)
Wild conspiracy theories about Bill Gates are circulating on social media. On YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he is being falsely portrayed as the creator of Covid-19 and as someone who wants to profit from the virus. (Daisuke Wakabayashi, Davey Alba and Marc Tracy / The New York Times)
Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger’s first collaboration since leaving Instagram is now live. It’s an effort to measure the rate at which COVID-19 is spreading in each individual state.
Total cases in the US: At least 770,138
Total deaths in the US: More than 37,000
Reported cases in California: 31,906
Reported cases in New York: 247,543
Reported cases in New Jersey: 88,806
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 38,077
⭐Google and Facebook will both be forced to pay media companies in Australia for publishing their news under what the government says is a world-first mandatory code of conduct. The payment model could be based on the cost of preparing journalistic content, or the value added to the digital platform by using it. Here’s Ed Johnson at Bloomberg:
Australia’s government has pledged to tackle the “power imbalance” between the digital giants and traditional media, adding to a barrage of global action against Google and Facebook. Regulators worldwide have been trying to loosen the tech giants’ grip on everything from advertising and search engines to news, data and elections.
Frydenberg said the government was “very conscious of the challenges” of forcing the companies to pay for news content, after efforts in France and Spain had failed. The payment model could be based on the cost of preparing journalistic content, or the value added to the digital platform by using it, he said.
Twitter won’t be able to reveal surveillance requests it receives from the US government after a federal judge accepted government arguments that this was likely to harm national security. Twitter had been arguing its free-speech rights were being violated by not being allowed to reveal the details. (Kanishka Singh / Reuters)
The Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Division have both signaled they are continuing to seriously investigate big tech companies like Facebook and Google for possible antitrust violations. Public sentiment toward the companies has shifted, but that might not matter for the probes. (Lauren Feiner / CNBC)
Researchers discovered an unsecured server storing information on 42 million messaging accounts, nearly all from Iran and tied to the messaging app Telegram, was part of the Iranian government’s spying operation. (Ryan Gallagher / Bloomberg)
⭐Dropbox privately paid top hackers to find bugs in Zoom’s software years before the company’s security flaws became national news. They said Zoom was slow to fix the flaws, even after being alerted to them. Natasha Singer and Nicole Perlroth at The New York Times report:
As part of a novel security assessment program for its vendors and partners, Dropbox in 2018 began privately offering rewards to top hackers to find holes in Zoom’s software code and that of a few other companies. The former Dropbox engineers said they were stunned by the volume and severity of the security flaws that hackers discovered in Zoom’s code — and troubled by Zoom’s slowness in fixing them.
After Dropbox presented the hackers’ findings from the Singapore event to Zoom Video Communications, the California company behind the videoconferencing service, it took more than three months for Zoom to fix the bug, the former engineers said. Zoom patched the vulnerability only after another hacker publicized a different security flaw with the same root cause.
Facebook is launching a dedicated gaming app to take on Twitch and YouTube. Facebook’s gaming app will largely curate and focus on the streaming community, although it will also highlight casual games that people might play online already, including Words with Friends. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
Instagram founder Kevin Systrom didn’t leave Facebook on the best of terms. But today, he has an “amicable” relationship with Mark Zuckerberg. (Kurt Wagner and Emily Chang / Bloomberg)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.