Mar 18, 2020 - Technology

Tech's moment to shine (or not)

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, Big Tech, after battling criticism for three years, has an opportunity to show the upside of its scale and reach.

Why it matters: If companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are able to demonstrate they can be a force for good in a trying time, many inside the companies feel, they could undo some of the techlash's ill will and maybe blunt some of the regulatory threats that loom over them.

According to insiders I talked to, the companies all view their roles similarly: to keep existing products working even amid new demand, provide accurate information and fight misinformation, and to help in the broader fight against the coronavirus.

What they're saying: "We just realize the seriousness of the moment and the importance of getting it right at a moment when our services are really needed," Facebook VP Molly Cutler said in an interview.

  • Cutler, who largely stays out of the media spotlight, leads Facebook's strategic response team, reporting to Sheryl Sandberg, and has been running the operations of its companywide virus response effort.

When you ask people at the companies, they say they want to help because it is the right thing to do. But many acknowledge they also hope that the public will start to see their companies they way they do.

These companies start with central positions in our new, virus-transformed lives.

  • Google's Search is where most people start their information hunts, and also plays a role in everything from video chatting to email and productivity software to entertainment (via YouTube).
  • Facebook's core service lets people see what their friends are up to, while Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Live and Facebook Messenger each help replace in-person contact.
  • Amazon delivers needed physical goods, and also digital entertainment through Prime Video, Audible and more.
  • Apple's devices and apps are helping people get their work done and keep the kids entertained.
  • Microsoft's shift to services over the past few years means that many workers can pick up at home where they left off at the office.

Now the companies are pushing hard not just to connect isolated people but also to promote reliable information that's desperately needed.

  • Facebook has been working with the World Health Organization since last month, offering free advertising space in the home feed to promote accurate info.
  • Google and YouTube are promoting information from the CDC, WHO and New York Times when people enter virus-related searches.
  • Google is also building some new websites to handle coronavirus information, as you may have heard.
  • Companies are also contributing to their communities, paying hourly workers even when their on-site jobs can't be performed, and taking other public-minded measures.

Yes, but: Despite these efforts, misinformation remains a constant problem.

  • Already, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been home to some harmful rumors, a longstanding challenge within private messaging systems.
  • The big tech companies have announced they are working together to promote quality information, but they have yet to offer many details on that effort.
  • While trying to find ways to help, Google has found itself in a tough spot, with the White House repeatedly mischaracterizing and overstating its efforts.
  • On Tuesday, Facebook was also incorrectly flagging coronavirus news stories and other accurate information as spam or violations of community standards, as the result of what the company said was a bug.
  • The big companies also face the challenge of meeting the needs of the moment while also shorthanded themselves. Most are based in California and Washington, two states hard hit by the pandemic. Many of their workers are now also homeschool teachers and caregivers, while also trying to do their day jobs.

Our thought bubble: Critics who have raised alarms about Big Tech's concentration of power, manipulation of attention and misuse of user data aren't likely to give up their analyses just because the firms pitched in during a public health crisis. Nonetheless, the companies suddenly have a new opening to burnish their public images and win some more hearts and minds.

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