Sep 8, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Hope you managed to enjoy the long weekend despite the continuing pandemic, wave of extreme heat, and fire-causing gender reveal parties.

Don't miss: Mark Zuckerberg tonight on "Axios on HBO": Mike Allen asks Zuckerberg about right-wing dominance on Facebook, the CEO's view of his Silicon Valley competitors, and his relationship with President Trump (see clip). Catch the full interview at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Today's Login is 1,411 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Why tech couldn't save us from COVID-19

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Tech's biggest, richest companies have proved powerless to help stop or significantly stem the pandemic, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports — largely because the companies' own products have destabilized the public sphere.

The big picture: When the greatest public health disaster of our lifetimes hit, the industry mobilized to send workers home, help procure millions of masks and face shields, and build apps to slow the virus' spread. But it found that the information environment it had shaped via the internet and social media was profoundly vulnerable to misinformation, partisan division, ignorance and fraud.

  • In that environment, tech could generate all the innovative quick-fixes and agile solutions that it specializes in, but they would never have a chance.
  • No one expects tech companies to develop vaccines or promulgate quarantine policy on their own, but in a crisis U.S. political and business leaders today turn to the tech industry for resources, innovations and problem-solving muscle.

Flashback: Silicon Valley saw the crisis as a moment to shine.

  • During the first wave of lockdowns in the U.S. in March and April, the tech industry, moving into a leadership vacuum left by the federal government, mobilized to enable remote work and schooling, helped secure scarce protective equipment for health workers and began building systems for virus tracking.

Tech was among the very first business sectors to shut down big events and send workers home.

But the pandemic itself became a slowly cascading train wreck in the U.S. that shows no signs of ending. It has already left nearly 200,000 dead and put the economy in a coma.

The industry's failures fall into three categories:

1. Data distrust. Tech's mindset is data-driven, and the public health field traditionally works behind a "politics ends here" cordon.

  • But coronavirus data became a partisan flashpoint early on, as the Trump administration — fueled by a populist resentment of experts — sought to downplay the pandemic's impact.
  • Even as Silicon Valley thought leaders set up smart visualizations of real-time virus data, the president and his supporters were using the industry's own platforms to challenge the validity of the numbers.

2. The limits of incrementalism. Tech's preference is to break big, "hairy" projects down into small pieces and tackle those fast with "minimum viable products."

  • That's a great roadmap for tackling daunting technical challenges or taking the first steps toward a moonshot.
  • It doesn't work well with a problem like the pandemic, with its tangle of human factors and social complexities that don't cleave easily.

3. The consensus-building blind spot. Public health campaigns depend on building trust across social, economic and geographical divides to persuade people to follow medical recommendations or get vaccinated.

  • The social media universe built by Silicon Valley, with its libertarian-individualist roots, efficiently breaks the public down into targetable chunks and amplifies divisive voices.
  • It's never been good at bringing people together or helping form a consensus.

Our thought bubble: Everything that tech could do to help mitigate the pandemic — and there was plenty — depended on the presence of strong national leadership committed to a fact-based response to the crisis.

  • When the Trump administration instead chose a response that questioned science, politicized public-health controversies and left each state to chart its own course, the tech industry had no plan B.
2. SF startup employees arrested in Belarus

Four Belarus-based employees of San Francisco-based PandaDoc were arrested in recent days, according to the company, after CEO Mikita Mikado spoke out about a government crackdown and disputed election there.

The big picture: The move comes amid weeks of protest in Belarus following an Aug. 9 election that opposition leaders say was rigged. Mikado, who is from Belarus, founded his company there before moving its headquarters to the U.S. in 2014.

Driving the news: In a post to a new SavePandaDoc website, the company said its Minsk office was raided Sept. 2. Per the post, four PandaDoc employees, including the director of the office, were arrested, ostensibly for embezzlement. PandaDoc says those charges are "completely untrue."

  • "This action is purely an act of repression against the founders of PandaDoc who have been supporting some of the victims of the Belarussian government in the weeks since the stolen presidential election," the company said in a statement.

What's next: The company, which develops sales-process software, is encouraging people to post videos and take to social media with the hashtag #SavePandaDoc. "We are hoping that maximum publicity will show solidarity and pressure to have our colleagues released," the company said.

3. New game spotlights trans representation

Image: Microsoft

Tell Me Why, which debuted for Xbox and Windows late last month, is the first big studio game to feature a transgender main character. In an interview, August Black, the transgender man who voices Tyler, said the role allowed him to be the trans male character he didn't see on screen when he was growing up.

Why it matters: LGBTQ representation in video games has lagged behind TV and movies, but that is beginning to change.

"At the end of the day I am honored to give Tyler a voice," Black told Axios. "He has taught me so much and in a way I feel like I also showed him a thing or two."

Details: The first episode of Tell Me Why released on Aug. 27, with another episode premiering last week and the third installment arriving this Thursday. The game features the story of Tyler and Alyson Ronan, twins who, according to the game's creators, "use their special bond to unravel the memories of their loving but troubled childhood."

The big picture: In addition to Tell Me Why, 2020 has also seen the release of The Last of Us, Part 2, which features a major non-playable trans character (as well as a lead character in a same-sex relationship).

While excited for what the game means for trans people, Black said he expects some negative responses too.

"Being different always means backlash. It’s not the first time I’ll receive it and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Backlash doesn’t scare me. I think it means you're pushing the boundaries on what people are used to. People should get used to trans representation; people should get used to trans existence."
4. For Russian meddling, 2020 looks like 2016
Data: Center for Democracy and Technology; Chart: Axios Visuals

Increasing evidence shows that foreign actors, particularly Russia, are looking to exploit similar themes that were used in 2016 and in 2018 to divide the country ahead of this years' election, Axios’ Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: There's now a visible pattern emerging across election cycles of which issues our country is most vulnerable to in terms of manipulation.

  • New data from the Alliance for Securing Democracy shows that in recent mentions of Joe Biden in tweets by Russian state media accounts, there's a clear narrative that Biden is a pro-cop, establishment centrist who can’t be trusted by progressives.

As in 2016, Russia-linked actors are attacking Democrats from the left and looking to sow generalized distrust, in the apparent interest of suppressing the Democratic vote and undermining U.S. institutions. Some of the key themes:

  • Race and Black Lives Matter: Tweets from Russian accounts have focused on the violence in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as well as the shooting of Jacob Blake.
  • Disrupting confidence in the voting system: "The mail-in voting angle is the key one," says Bret Schafer, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy. "That has come from the president so it's a tough thing for them to shut down as unreasonable."
  • Stoking fears around health: Russia has been actively spreading misinformation about the coronavirus throughout the West, according to digital forensics experts and government officials.

Go deeper.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Noted cryptography expert Jon Callas, who helped launch PGP, co-founded Silent Circle and helped develop encryption technologies at Apple, has joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation as technology projects director.
  • Apple reportedly hired Tim Connolly, a former Hulu and Quibi executive, to join the video division that runs Apple TV+.

ICYMI

  • The Chinese government has banned use of Scratch, the MIT-developed programming language. (TechCrunch)
  • TikTok was scrambling over the weekend to stop users from including footage of a suicide in posts. (The Verge)
  • In contrast to other tech executives, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says ubiquitous telecommuting has been a "pure negative" at his company. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Following leaks, Microsoft confirmed a $299 next-generation Xbox Series S will launch alongside the already confirmed higher-end Xbox Series X. (Engadget)
  • China is launching a counter to the Trump administration’s Clean Network, which is aimed at blunting the global expansion of Chinese hardware and software. (Wall Street Journal)

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for anyone in distress, in addition to prevention and crisis resources. Also available for online chat.

6. After you Login

After a weekend of fires, more threats to democracy across the globe and scorching heat, I offer this: A baby's reaction to seeing her first waterfall.

Ina Fried