Oh hey, today is our 500th issue! Thanks to everyone who has been with us from the beginning, and each of you who has joined along the way. We can’t imagine a better use of our time during this weird era than bringing you news and analysis of the day’s big moments in tech, democracy, and the pandemic.
One result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that big tech companies, which long have been reluctant to intervene in questions of content moderation, have quickly become much more aggressive. At Google, for example, the company began showing news stories from trusted sources to anyone who searched for information about the virus. It stepped up efforts to remove videos containing misinformation about the pandemic from YouTube.
YouTube also added a “shelf” of high-quality breaking news videos, along with links to the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local health authorities. As a result, YouTube says, news consumption is up 75 percent from this time last year, and links to the WHO and CDC have received more than 20 billion impressions.
YouTube will begin adding informational panels containing information from its network of fact-checkers to videos in the United States, the company said. The panels, which were introduced last year in Brazil and India, appear on searches for topics where fact-checkers have published relevant articles on the subject. The move comes at a time when platforms have seen a surge in misinformation related to COVID-19 and its origin, possible cures, and other subjects. [...]
YouTube says “more than a dozen” US publishers are already participating in its network of fact-checkers, including FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and The Washington Post Fact Checker. The network is open to any publisher that is a member of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and signs its code of principles. Google recently announced that it would donate $1 million to the IFCN.
On Monday afternoon, I spoke with YouTube’s head of product, Neal Mohan, about how the company is navigating several challenges related to the pandemic. We talked about evolving advice from public health organizations, scrubbing bad content from the platform, and the company’s increasing reliance on automated systems for moderation.
“When users are searching on YouTube around a specific claim, we want to give an opportunity for those fact checks to show up right then and there, when our users are looking for information — especially around fast-moving, quickly changing topics like COVID-19,” Mohan told me.
Highlights from our interview are below, edited lightly for clarity and length.
Casey Newton: You rolled out fact checks in Brazil and India last year. What did you learn?
Neal Mohan: We happened to roll it out in India right around the time of their elections last year. Those are the largest elections in the world, and as a result of the number of people that vote, the election itself occurs over the course of a month. So there was time for the potential spread of a lot of misinformation between one election date and another.
We have information panels that we triggered in the case of more evergreen conspiracies, like flat earth and anti-vaccine. But what about fast-moving, changing news events where there might not be a robust Wikipedia article or a CDC entry or an Encyclopedia Britannica article to link to? And so that’s why we leaned on this concept of actually bringing professional fact checkers into our YouTube search results and triggering them there.
And our experience both in India and Brazil was positive. We think that we did our job in terms of curtailing the spread of misinformation in an otherwise sort of pretty flammable environment. Most importantly from my standpoint, we felt that we did right by our users in terms of doing our best to try to prevent this happening in those countries. And that that sort of positive result for our users led us to expand it here in the US. And our goal is not to just stop at these three countries — we want to continue to roll it out in other parts of the world as well.
One challenge of policing information about COVID-19 is that the disease itself is new, and the advice we get keeps evolving. In some cases, advice like “don’t wear masks” has changed to “everyone please wear masks.” How should a big tech platform approach that problem?
My perspective there is that we really do have to rely on sources — and in our case, that means channels — that have a track record of being relevant and credible in this space. Yes, lots of guidelines are changing, every single day, every single week. You’re literally seeing science being created on an hourly or daily basis. And so the reason why surfacing authoritative results feels like the best thing that we can do is because even if there’s a change, an authoritative source is going to give the context behind it.
So let’s say there’s a change in mask guidance. I would expect an authoritative news outlet, or a medical authority like the CDC, to give context on it and say, ‘this used to be our guidance, and our new guidance is this, and here’s the reason why.’ Or a news publication covering it says ‘CDC changes its guidelines: this is what they used to say, now they’re saying this, and this is the science that led them to change that.’ And by surfacing authoritative results, I think we’re doing what we can as a platform to deliver the most timely, but also the most credible information to our users.
I know YouTube has also been relying on more automated systems during the past couple months due to challenges with being able to bring third-party vendors into offices. How are you measuring the effect on your moderation decisions?
A lot of of this was really very, very simple, which was protecting the health of our extended workforce. And for me and I think for everybody else here at YouTube and Google, that was really the number one consideration, and frankly everything else we were going to do was going to be secondary.
You and I have talked before about the way that [content moderation] works best is through a combination of machines and machine learning, and the nuanced judgment of well trained raters who do this for a living. Without that second part, we’ve had to rely much more on handling things through appeals. Because there’s a lot of action taken by these machines, sometimes those appeals are impacted in terms of our response time. But generally speaking, we’ve been able to manage this.
Finally, we’re in a situation in which some of the people spreading misinformation about COVID-19 are elected officials. How is YouTube approaching that when it comes to moderation?
Just to be very clear, our community guidelines are based on the content. That applies to the content within the videos, and it also applies to comments and any other surface, if you will, on the YouTube platform. And so they’re not about the speaker. The policies apply equally, whether you or I say something, an elected official does, or a national leader does. This crisis is no different.
One of the enforcement examples that we gave around medical misinformation was explicitly encouraging somebody to flout state or national guidance around a stay-at-home order. And this happened in the case of the Brazilian president.
We removed a couple of videos that happened when there was an explicit call to flout those orders. Of course, you have to strike the right balance. If there are people who have different opinions or would like to express an opinion — in terms of economic trade-offs versus health trade-offs — then that discourse needs to be allowed and protected on our platform. But something that explicitly says, through false information, that stay-at-home doesn’t actually do anything, that would be an example of a policy violation, regardless of who the speaker is.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔽 Trending down: Amazon may have violated federal safety standards for providing “inadequate” protections to warehouse workers in New York, according to the state attorney general. (Alina Selyukh / NPR)
⭐ In less than a month, Apple and Google launched a contact tracing software toolkit to help health officials trace coronavirus. The project was driven by a handful of dedicated employees. Here’s Christina Farr at CNBC:
That speed of development was highly unusual for Apple, a company obsessed with making its products perfect before releasing them to the world. Project Bubble also required that Apple join forces with its historic rival, Google, to co-develop technology that could be used by health authorities in countries around the world.
The software, which Apple and Google now refer to by the softer-sounding term “exposure notification” instead of “contact tracing,” is due to be released on May 1. In recent weeks, the employees have been working nights and weekends to incorporate external feedback. The companies still have their critics, but the transparency has helped them win over some unlikely supporters, including in countries like Germany where officials were initially reluctant to work with Big Tech.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai says employees will not return to their offices until at least June 1st. But it seems far likelier, given what we know, that the actual return date will be much later. (Jennifer Elias / CNBC)
Prices for basic items like rice and pasta on Amazon have been fluctuating wildly during the pandemic. It turns out that dynamic pricing algorithms on the platform aren’t just about supply and demand. (Sara Harrison / The Markup)
Uber may lay off as much as 20 percent of its workforce a mid an enormous decline in the number of rides taken during the pandemic. The chief technology officer, Thuan Pham, is resigning after seven years at the company. (Amir Efrati / The Information)
Instagram launched a new way for users to fundraise for nonprofits via Instagram Live, amid the coronavirus pandemic. While the company already had Donation Stickers for Stories, Live Donations allows anyone to create fundraisers while live streaming. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
TikTok added donation stickers to enable its creators to raise money for pandemic relief and other good causes. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
Facebook has been quietly doubling down on online shopping and payments over the last year, including adding shopping functionality to Instagram. The pandemic is making that move look smarter than ever. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
Facebook will stream a live graduation event on May 15th for students missing in-person ceremonies due to ongoing shelter-in-place orders. The event will feature a commencement speech from Oprah Winfrey, as well as smaller speeches by Awkwafina, Jennifer Garner, Lil Nas X, and Simone Biles. Miley Cyrus will also perform. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
China is installing surveillance cameras outside the front doors of people under quarantine. And sometimes inside people’s homes, too. The government is already using a digital “health code” system to control people’s movements and decide who should go into quarantine. (Nectar Gan / CNN)
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff spent more than $25 million to procure more than 50 million pieces of protective equipment for American medical facilities. The relative ease with which he was able to acquire the gear stands in sharp contrast to the often chaotic government efforts. (David Gelles / The New York Times)
Executives at Universal Pictures decided to release the new animated movie “Trolls World Tour” for rental on streaming platforms, rather than postponing the opening due to COVID-19. The movie has now racked up nearly $100 million in rentals, convincing Universal that digital releases can be a winning strategy. This may diminish the role of theaters even after the pandemic passes. (Erich Schwartzel / The Wall Street Journal)
Snap’s reliance on direct response ads makes it well positioned for a revenue resurgence during the coronavirus crisis. The company has also seen traffic on its Discover feature go up by as much as 75 percent for some programs since the fall. (Tom Dotan / The Information)
Stores and workplaces are equipping security cameras with artificial intelligence to track compliance with health guidelines like social distancing and mask-wearing. The technology could be important as businesses begin to reopen. (Paresh Dave / Reuters)
With schools closed due to COVID-19, parents have to play teacher’s aide, hall monitor, counselor and cafeteria worker — all while trying to do their own jobs under extraordinary circumstances. (Elizabeth A. Harris / The New York Times)
People are drinking way more now that they’re at home so much. “Sales of alcohol at U.S. liquor and grocery stores have risen nearly 26% from the week ending March 7 through the week ending April 11.” (Ray A. Smith and Bojan Pancevski / Wall Street Journal)
Total cases in the US: At least 1,002,459.
Total deaths in the US: More than 52,000
Reported cases in California: 45,462
Total test results (positive and negative) in California: 577,608
Reported cases in New York: 295,137
Total test results (positive and negative) in New York: 844,994
Reported cases in New Jersey: 113,856
Total test results (positive and negative) in New Jersey: 234,359
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 56,462
Total test results (positive and negative) in Massachusetts: 254,500
⭐Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is calling on federal prosecutors to open a criminal antitrust investigation into Amazon. In his letter to Attorney General William Barr, Hawley pressed the Justice Department to look in to whether Amazon used data on third-party sellers to develop competing products. Here’s Makena Kelly at The Verge:
“These practices are alarming for America’s small businesses even under ordinary circumstances,” Hawley wrote. “But at a time when most small retail businesses must rely on Amazon because of coronavirus-related shutdowns, predatory data practices threaten these businesses’ very existence.”
The CEO of the surveillance company Banjo was part of a Neo-Nazi group in his youth, according to a new investigation. He once helped a KKK leader shoot up a synagogue. Banjo is backed by SoftBank, among others. (Matt Stroud / OneZero)
Enforcement agencies are tracking people who were recently incarcerated with surveillance apps. Some say the app is faulty to the point of being unusable, inaccurately reporting their locations, failing to recognize the biometric data it relies on, and asking them to check in so often it makes daily life nearly impossible. (Molly Osberg and Dhruv Mehrotra / Gizmodo)
⭐ Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has overseen a broad shakeup in his board over the past several months. Two directors have left the company, and longtime friend of the CEO has been added. The moves were part of Zuckerberg’s campaign to consolidate decision-making at the company, report The Wall Street Journal’s Deepa Seetharaman and Emily Glazer. (Counterpoint: didn’t Zuckerberg already have near-total control over all things Facebook?)
It is far from certain that Mr. Zuckerberg’s repositioning of Facebook, and his role at the top, will lead to a lasting turnaround in its reputation following more than three years of controversy over the spread of misinformation, loose oversight of user data and the company’s competitive practices.
The departure of long-serving directors, along with those of several longtime lieutenants over the past two years, means he is navigating this moment without key advisers who might be able to help him spot potential pitfalls.
Facebook restructured some of its security teams in a move that displaces more than two dozen employees. The company said it is “investing more in automated detection” to stay ahead of evolving threats. (Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac / The New York Times)
WhatsApp video calls can now include up to eight people instead of just four. The new upper limit is available now on iOS, but it doesn’t appear to be available from the Google Play Store just yet. Also: I’m still waiting on my Messenger Rooms! What gives? (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Checkout.com, a British payments start-up, joined the Libra Association. I have made this joke before, but this is the traditional first step toward eventually leaving the Libra Association. (Checkout is the first payment processor to join the initiative since Visa, Mastercard and Stripe all pulled out over regulatory concerns last year.) (Ryan Browne / CNBC)
Travis Scott’s first Fortnite concert was surreal and spectacular. (Andrew Webster / The Verge)
Jay-Z ordered deepfake audio parodies of himself to be taken off YouTube. His copyright claim cited an unusual reason for removal: “This content unlawfully uses an AI to impersonate our client’s voice.” Is this a first? (Andy Baio / Waxy)
The Academy voted to significantly ease Oscar-eligibility requirements in response to the ongoing pandemic. Now, films can qualify for the competition if they are streamed, and do not have to be screened for at least one week in a Los Angeles-area theater. This applies only to the period that theaters are closed. (Scott Feinberg / The Hollywood Reporter)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Take the shower challenge, men! Is it safe for work? No. Is it safe for working from home? Also no.
Watch a late-night talk show held inside Animal Crossing. It’s hosted by the writer of Rogue One.
Attend a virtual prom in Houseparty. It takes place May 7th from 8 to 10PM ET, and will include DJs you can bring into your private chats with friends.