Global pandemics such as the Coronavirus, or COVID-19, are no joke. And it is no surprise that tech companies also want to be seen taking an active part in efforts that fall within their realm—combat misinformation, ensure social media users get the correct guidance from the relevant authorities and make life easier for those who may be under lockdown or working from home. Fair enough then, that the likes of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube sent out a joint statement a few hours ago in which they said they are working together to combat fraud and misinformation on online platforms, among other things.
“We are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts. We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world. We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe,” the joint statement says. The perplexing bit is, no one really knows what this joint effort will involve. Combating misinformation on their platforms is a 24x7 job for tech companies, which makes us wonder what specific updates they have made as a group, with regards to the Coronavirus pandemic. Yet, it is not all ambiguous because individually, they seem to be doing quite a bit. Yet, there are glaring gaps too.
Perhaps the first hint came this morning when Facebook admitted that in an attempt to take down fake and potentially abusive content related to the Coronavirus, their systems managed to also mark genuine content and put it in the bin. Once fix, which it will be if not already, this will really help curb the spread of fake and completely baseless information designed to spread panic about the Coronavirus.
Google, on its part, is trying to add Coronavirus relevant features across its apps. For instance, Search gets the Do the Five campaign that urges people to wash their hands, advices on how to cough and more. There are more COVID-19 SOS alerts too. On YouTube, content from health authorities including the CDC is being curated. Google Maps will potentially warn you in case a place you are planning to visit or navigate to, is closed because of Coronavirus. “We’re also using our artificial intelligence (AI) technology Duplex where possible to contact businesses to confirm their updated business hours, so we can reflect them accurately when people are looking on Search and Maps,” Google also added.
Yet the good news is, Facebook is giving all its employees a $1000 bonus to help them tide through the crisis with some cash in hand. That’s 45,000 employees, and the company will reportedly also take over some of the tasks otherwise done by contractors so that they can stay home—them and the hourly paid employees will continue to get paid even when they may be home because of the Coronavirus. Microsoft was the first tech company to announce earlier this month that they will continue to pay hourly employees their full wages as a corporate response to the Coronavirus pandemic—whether they are working or not. Apart from Facebook. Amazon, Google and Twitter also announced similar measures. ““In addition, we will subsidize one month of rent for the local small businesses that operate inside our owned buildings to help support them during this period,” Amazon had told Axios at the time.
Apple had also announced earlier this month that all of its workers would be able to work from home. Additionally, hourly employees will be able to take unlimited sick leave for coronavirus-like symptoms and no doctor’s note is required. The company has also shut its stores worldwide except Greater China region, because of the global spread of the Coronavirus.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan are organizing funding via the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub to increase Coronavirus testing in the San Francisco Bay Area—the idea is to buy two diagnostic machines and have the University of California, San Francisco as well as Stanford University act as test locations for a city’s medical system that may already be feeling overwhelmed. “We’re funding the acquisition of state-of-the-art FDA approved COVID-19 diagnostic machines that will significantly increase the Bay Area’s ability to test and diagnose new cases. We’re also bridging connections between clinical labs at Stanford and UCSF to help distribute the testing load throughout the area,” Zuckerberg had said in a Facebook post.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has also announced that it is partnering with the University of Washington to fund at-home testing kits for COVID-19 for residents in the greater Seattle area.
Google is also battling misinformation, on YouTube, Maps, Play and via ads. “On YouTube, we’ve taken down thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information, and we continue to remove videos that promote medically unproven methods to prevent coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment. On Google Maps, our automated and manual review systems continue to take down false and harmful content such as fake reviews and misleading information about healthcare locations,” they say. Strict policies are in place for advertisements across all apps and services.
Then there is the small matter of Google being blindsided by US President Donald Trump. Last week, Trump in a press conference said Google was building a website that would tell the public everything they needed to know about the Coronavirus and whether they should seek to get tested or not. He added that Google had 1,700 engineers working on this website. In reality, Google was doing no such thing, instead working on a website for health workers as well as something that was a pilot project in the Bay Area with limited scope. In response to this, Google actually went ahead and decided to build the website anyway—now that its hands was forced. Basically, the scope and context of the pilot project website gets enhanced and there will be a website that will hold all the information about COVID-19 and available nationwide. When we see these sites is anyone’s guess.
But on the employee front, the company might not be having an easy time of it either. While Google may have allowed most of the full-time workers to work from home as the Coronavirus spread continues, the contract workers claim they have been asked to report to work at the same time. “"In a cafeteria that would normally be packed with Google employees, members of our bargaining unit took a stand today to demand our right to work safely." #CovidTVCBlackout #SocialDistancing #StayHomeSaveLives,” says a tweet by United HCL Workers of Pittsburg – the Pittsburg office of Google uses contract workers too. (Read more here: https://twitter.com/HCLtechUnion).(Illustration: New York Times; Data based on surveys collected between February 2018 and November 2019. Walmart data from March 2019 to November 2019, following a change in its sick leave policy. Includes workers who may be legally entitled to paid sick leave, but reported that they did not believe they were able to take paid sick leave. Sources: Shift Project; Reference USA.)
There was hope from the US lawmakers to come in support of the workers, but that hasn’t happened either. In a bill passed in the House of Representatives last week, millions of workers in America do not have the choice of staying home if they are ill. They didn’t have this choice earlier, and don’t have it now either. Companies which have more than 500 employees will not get the congressional aid package—and that means the choice of paid sick leave then becomes a matter of discretion of the employers, and not the employees. A helpful illustration by the New York Times suggests that before the Coronavirus pandemic hit the United States, companies that did not have a sick paid leave policy included Starbucks, Whataburger, Disney, Amazon, Walmart, McDonalds, Burger King, Target, Marriott, Nordstrom, Walgreens, GAP, Bath & Body Works, Ikea, Barnes & Noble, Home Depot and FedEx. Things have since changed, and a lot of the companies (including the ones listed above) have tweaked their policies in the current situation. Hopefully this will be a change for the better.