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May 11, 2020

🎬 Tonight's "Axios on HBO" returns with interviews with Vice President Mike Pence (clip) and Sen. Marco Rubio, as well as my interview with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff on what it will take for corporate America to return to work. Plus we explore the bioethics of contact tracing.

  • Catch the show tonight at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms. 

Meanwhile, today's Login is 1,562 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Coronavirus misinformation is a tricky foe for tech

Illustration of coronavirus with arrow cursor

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The major online platforms' long struggle to cope with floods of misinformation has reached a new pitch of urgency during the coronavirus pandemic — just as the fight has become harder than ever.

Driving the news: In the most recent controversy, One America News Network — a small rival to Fox News that is President Trump's current favorite — aired a segment Friday, also posted on YouTube, that makes conspiracy-theory-style connections between China, the "deep state," George Soros, Bill Gates, and the Clintons.

The big picture: Although Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have gotten better at spotting and stopping coordinated information warfare (disinformation), they still struggle with false claims spread by people who sincerely believe them (misinformation).

  • When the pandemic arrived, all three pledged to move against false coronavirus-related postings, since lives are on the line.
  • For example, YouTube has taken down thousands of videos for spreading misinformation, product chief Neal Mohan told Axios last month. Twitter and Facebook have also taken action in some — but not all — cases.
  • YouTube and Facebook have fully taken down clips from a documentary titled "Plandemic" that makes some claims similar to the OANN segment, citing violations of their coronavirus misinformation policies.

Yes, but: Two factors have thrown a wrench into the platforms' efforts to stem the coronavirus misinformation tide.

  • It's a new disease and there's a lot we don't actually know for sure, making it hard for content moderators to draw clear distinctions between what's true and what's not.
  • Enough business and political leaders have lined up in opposition to the scientific consensus that fringe positions have moved into the mainstream — without supporting evidence but with loud voices amplifying them.

Details: Three recent examples that have challenges the platforms' policy, each with different outcomes:

1. The One America News Network segment was titled "Deep State, China use COVID-19 for population control: Soros, Clintons, Gates suspected of Beijing-WHO cover-up to seize COVID-19 cure, undo U.S. Constitution."

  • Some have questioned how YouTube is allowing the segment to remain up given its misinformation policies.
  • YouTube told Axios it has reviewed the video and deemed it “borderline content” that doesn’t meet the bar for outright removal but won’t appear in search or recommendations.

2. President Trump's discussion at an April 23 press conference about whether it might make sense to fight the virus by using disinfectant or UV light on patients posed thorny challenges for the social media platforms.

  • Twitter, for example, has banned claims about unproven or potentially harmful cures.
  • However, it declined to take down content that included Trump's remarks, saying they weren't definitive.

3. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, has repeatedly spoken out in opposition to accepted health guidelines — even those from Brazilian authorities — regarding social distancing and other measures. In that case, Facebook and YouTube removed some of Bolsonaro's videos.

The bottom line: Prominent people are spreading dangerous misinformation about the virus. And it's having real-world impact.

  • The most dramatic example of that impact was a rise in people calling poison control centers after ingesting household cleaners.
  • But far larger numbers are being exposed to arguments that the virus is a hoax, or promulgated by Bill Gates.

Go deeper:

2. Scoop: Snapchat offers in-app domestic violence support

An illustration of Snapchat's ghost mascot with a white beard on a therapists' couch

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Snapchat and Twilio are both announcing new efforts Monday to provide support for people affected by domestic violence and mental health concerns in response to a swell in demand during the COVID-19 outbreak, Axios can exclusively report.

Why it matters: Online services and crisis lines are being asked to shoulder a greater share of the burden of responding to people's needs at a moment when other types of direct service are harder to access.

Driving the news:

  • Snapchat is partnering with the National Network to End Domestic Violence to include more resources for users dealing with domestic violence as well as those who want to support a friend who is in such a situation. The resources are part of Snapchat’s broader Here For You initiative that offers informational content and instructions on getting help to users in crisis. They will also be available in subtitles for those who don’t feel comfortable or safe viewing content with the sound on.
  • Twilio is announcing $2 million in cash grants for organizations that provide mental health crisis support services via voice, text or chat.

Context: Twilio, a digital phone services provider whose tech powers many of the nation's crisis hotlines, said it has seen usage by such services increase 20% since the pandemic began, with volume more than doubling at some hotlines, such as Crisis Text Line.

What they're saying:

  • Snapchat VP of public policy Jen Stout: "We hope these new resources will give Snapchatters and their loved ones the help and support they need to stay both physically and emotionally safe while following shelter in place and other public health guidelines."
  • Twilio chief social impact officer Erin Reilly: "The additional impact on people from COVID, such as depression, abuse and hunger, are significant. We want to help the organizations on the front line. The people who are providing crisis support on these hotlines are some of the unsung heroes of this pandemic."

3. CLEAR to offer businesses virus screening

A lane for CLEAR customers at an airport checkpoint

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The biometric ID company CLEAR is introducing a new product that will link personal health data to verified IDs to help businesses screen employees for COVID-19 as they return to work, Axios' Brian Walsh scooped yesterday.

Why it matters: Before businesses can effectively reopen, workers and customers need to be assured that they're unlikely to encounter coronavirus infections. Linking COVID-19 to IDs could make that easier, but to be fully effective, it requires a more vigorous and reliable testing regimen, as well as public acceptance of a new level of tech-enabled health surveillance.

How it works: The company will roll out the product, called "Health Pass by CLEAR," in the week ahead.

  • To enter a business or venue that employs Health Pass, users download a free app, snap a selfie to authenticate their identity and take a health quiz on possible COVID-19 symptoms. The company says that it plans for users to be able to link coronavirus test results with their digital identity in the future.

Background: CLEAR is best known for its airport service. Members pay up to $179 a year and hand over biometric data — fingerprints, iris and facial scans — that is then linked to their official ID.

My thought bubble: For CLEAR, it is a product also born of necessity, given that its core business relies on heavy travelers, many of whom are staying put these days and may think twice before renewing a product that is most valuable when one is flying frequently. Many startups are being forced to pivot as their original business is less needed or less viable in the coronavirus era.

  • CLEAR had been expanding beyond airports, but mainly to use its service at places like stadiums to speed security for concerts and sporting events — gatherings that are also on hold.

What's next: CLEAR says it is in conversations with potential business partners including restaurateur Danny Meyer and the New York Mets, as well as Las Vegas' COVID-19 recovery task force.

But, but, but: Services like Health Pass will need to prove their effectiveness and will carry risks to personal privacy.

  • There's no guarantee that a user will fill out a health quiz honestly, especially if the answers could mean the difference between being able to work or not. Temperature checks wouldn't necessarily catch the asymptomatic or those in the infectious period before symptoms set in.
  • Linking such ID services directly to COVID-19 tests would improve their utility, but the U.S. is still a long way from being able to regularly and rapidly test much of the population. And the WHO has warned against offering "immunity passports" on the grounds that scientists still aren't sure that the recovered are protected against future infections.
  • While CLEAR says that the Health Pass would be opt-in for users, it's difficult to see how truly voluntary any such system would be if it is mandated, as employers are already permitted to perform temperature checks.

4. Microsoft's shelter from reply-all storms

Microsoft has added a feature to Office 365 designed to prevent runaway email threads initiated when someone clicks "reply-all" to a lengthy list of recipients. Inevitably others reply, then people start replying "unsubscribe," and it takes off from there.

Why it matters: In addition to annoying many, such threads put enormous strain on corporate e-mail systems, sometimes taking them offline.

My thought bubble: These email outbursts were kind of fun, too, especially in recent years when they've been few and far between.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Damien Patton, the founder and CEO of Banjo, has stepped down following reports of his past ties to a white supremacist group, per the Deseret News.
  • Alexandra Reeve Givens officially takes over today as CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology. The group has also hired Lydia X.Z. Brown as policy counsel for its Privacy and Data Project and Cody Venzke as policy counsel for its student privacy project.
  • Tina Pelkey is leaving her post as press secretary to FCC chairman Ajit Pai to become senior manager of government affairs communication at Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' commercial spaceflight firm.


  • PCs with a Thunderbolt port made prior to 2019 have a significant, unpatchable flaw that can allow someone with direct access to a machine to bypass typical data protections. (Wired)
  • Microsoft and Amazon are taking fresh shots at each other, as the latter continues its quest to keep Microsoft from starting work on a coveted Pentagon contract. (TechCrunch)
  • The Trump administration is reportedly talking to Intel and another major chip maker about building new factories in the U.S. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Online car seller Vroom has reportedly filed for an IPO, planned for June. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Qualcomm has announced a 5G-minded upgrade to its Snapdragon processor line. (The Verge)
  • Tesla is suing Alameda County, California, over business restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, as CEO Elon Musk threatens to move the company out of state. (Washington Post)

6. After you Login

I'm certainly not advocating hoarding, but this is a pretty good use of excess peanut butter jars.