How social networks can do good while we’re all trapped indoors


If Wednesday was the day where the full magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis became clear to many Americans, Thursday was the day that the country seemed to enter shock. By now, a significant portion of the Silicon Valley workforce is working, or pretending to, from home, giving everyone near-unlimited time to refresh Twitter, Instagram, and other feeds for the very latest in what threatens to be a catastrophic few months.

The good news, if you squint, is that the country is finally implementing the social distancing measures that have been effective (to varying degrees) in China, South Korea, and Taiwan. The NHL suspended the season, Major League Baseball called off spring training, and Disneyland closed for the month. Schools everywhere are closing, some for the rest of the semester. With luck, that mass national cloistering in our respective homes may mitigate the Trump administration’s terrible mishandling of the crisis.

The next several days are likely to be crucial in slowing the virus’ spread and flattening the curve of infection, reducing the burden on the nation’s healthcare system. But make no mistake: it’s spreading. On Thursday an Ohio health official estimated that 100,000 people in the state have been infected. I had dinner with a friend who has been studying the crisis for work this week and he told me that, in all likelihood, either he or I would come down with the coronavirus.

One question you could ask, if you were desperate to turn your attention away from the public health implications of the crisis, is how spending a month or two mostly indoors will affect American life — both in the moment and afterward. We are social creatures, and we’re about to be deprived of much of that socialization. Writing for Vox, Ezra Klein predicts a coming loneliness epidemic:

Just as the coronavirus fallout threatens to cause an economic recession, it’s also going to cause what we might call a “social recession”: a collapse in social contact that is particularly hard on the populations most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness — older adults and people with disabilities or preexisting health conditions.

A tension in the coronavirus response is that it’s so difficult to get people to accept social distancing that few want to muddle the message with worries about social isolation. But if the ultimate concern is the health and well-being of the most vulnerable, then both dangers need to be addressed.

As Klein points out, we can ease some of this burden digitally, through phone calls and video conferences. Earlier this week, my friend Hunter Walk suggested the idea of hosting a public “work from home happy hour” on the video conference service Zoom. We tweeted out a link, and around 50 people showed up to banter with us and show off their pets and babies. We did it again the next day, and more than 75 people joined for an impromptu conversation with social network savant Eugene Wei and the New York Times’ Shira Ovide. Twitter’s vice president of product, Keith Coleman, and venture capitalist Alexia Bonatsos are on tonight at 5PM PT. On Monday we’ll be joined by The Information founder Jessica Lessin and New York Times legend Taylor Lorenz.

These calls have a small audience and are being conducted exclusively for the fun of it. But in the age of quarantine, we should expect a lot more of this kind of modern-day appointment television. The classical concert pianist Igor Levitt announced that he would be performing for free on Twitter Thursday evening, for example. Discord upped the limit on the number of people who can join a free video call to 50.

During its heyday, HQ Trivia trained its fans to spend 10 minutes with them every day at noon Pacific time. Between Zoom and Discord and all the other free live-streaming tools now available, this feels like the sort of time that a next-generation HQ might be born.

On Twitter I joked that our public Zoom calls were just Fortnite for adults. And in Italy, where public life has come to a standstill as virtually all gatherings have been banned, Fortnite is indeed surging. The battle royale shooter game, which quickly came to serve as a virtual hangout for young people, has become so popular in Italy that the company’s internet infrastructure is straining under the weight. Here are Daniele Lepido and Niclas Rolander in Bloomberg:

With schools, shops and restaurants closed in an attempt to limit Europe’s worst coronavirus outbreak, the amount of data passing through Telecom Italia SpA’s national network has surged by more than two-thirds in the past two weeks, the company said. […]

“We reported an increase of more than 70 percent of Internet traffic over our landline network, with a big contribution from online gaming such as Fortnite,” Telecom Italia Chief Executive Officer Luigi Gubitosi said Wednesday on a call with analysts.

It’s good that young people are finding ways to socialize despite being quarantined. Older people could stand to learn from their example. (And the United States could work harder to close the digital divide that has kept broadband access from reaching all Americans.)

And what of our social networks, which were born promising to make us feel more connected? Twitter may be anxiety-inducing, particularly if you stare at it for multiple hours per day the way I do, but in my opinion it has never felt more vital. It’s particularly good at focusing attention on big, urgent issues, and COVID-19 is as big as any issue to come along in the company’s lifetime. Yes, misinformation spreads there — I stupidly retweeted a satire site’s fake story saying hospital workers had rolled a volleyball into Tom Hanks’ room, meant as a joke about Wilson from Cast Away — only to learn of my mistake later from BuzzFeed. But for the most part, I find that it is serving up mostly high-quality journalism and important threads from public health workers and government officials. Wearying though the site can be, I can’t imagine trying to make my way through the crisis without it.

Facebook — my News Feed anyway — feels a little thin by comparison. Lots of pictures of, and commentary about, working from home. Lots of notices about schools being closed and events being canceled. Some memes. Twitter has the news, and Facebook has the fallout. It’s fine, but it hasn’t really made me feel connected to anything.

But it’s different for everyone. In Westchester County, NY, Lorenz reports, teenagers are getting their news from Instagram meme accounts. The accounts I follow on Instagram — mostly friends I have met in person — appear to be ignoring the coronavirus almost entirely. This is not a criticism. People are going to need somewhere to go that is not the coronavirus, and virtual spaces will be all they have for a while.

Still, I continue to feel like every social product has a lot more that they can do here. Mitigating the spread of misinformation, and taking steps to intervene directly in the crisis, have been welcome moves. But the period of social isolation that is now crashing down on America will offer a new kind of test for our social networks. And to pass it, we’re all going to need to get creative.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Apple signed an open letter opposing new legislation that’s rolling out across the United States, targeting the LGBTQ community. Airbnb, Amazon, Google, and Uber all signed the letter as well.

Trending up: A disease tracker backed by the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is helping to trace the spread of the new coronavirus in Cambodia. (Megan Molteni / Wired)

Trending sideways: Airbnb is denying refund requests from people canceling trips due to the coronavirus pandemic. The company is trying to balance the needs of travelers with those of hosts who depend on the bookings for income.

Outbreak

The Verge has a nice, constantly evolving guide to the spread of COVID-19.

Amazon is restricting who can sell face masks and hand sanitizer due to coronavirus price gouging. It’s a notable escalation in the company’s fight against coronavirus-related abuse on its platform. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

These popular memes, which all show someone touching their face, are now canceled. (TC Sottek / The Verge)

Here’s your working from home pandemic bingo chart. (Kimberly Harrington / McSweeney’s)

An essay:

⭐Shannon Keating writes what I’m feeling in BuzzFeed:

I’m paralyzed with guilt and dread over my every move right now: Can I go to the grocery store? What about a friend’s house? In a couple weeks I’m supposed to fly to Florida to visit my dad and my grandmother, neither of whom are in good health; what if I get them sick? (But if I don’t go, what are the chances I never see them again?) Would it be extraordinarily selfish if I get on a plane to reach my girlfriend in the United Kingdom before any more potential travel bans are put in place?

On the misinformation front:

Here’s a list of 28 dishonest comments Trump and his team have made about the coronavirus pandemic. It seems unfair to focus exclusively on misinformation spread on social networks when the president himself is the source of so many false statements. (Daniel Dale and Tara Subramaniam / CNN)

Coronavirus books plagiarized from news stories and written by authors with no identifiable science or medical backgrounds have dominated Amazon’s search results for the virus. The listings show how little oversight Amazon has implemented on its own platform. (Ben Collins / NBC)

Criminal hackers have been sending fake coronavirus-themed emails designed to trick people into opening attachments that download malicious software. Some messages look like they’re coming from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Ken Dilanian and Emmanuelle Saliba / NBC)

A fake photo of Tom Hanks in quarantine went viral after the actor announced he and Rita Wilson have coronavirus. The photo, first published on a satirical website, showed Hanks posing with “Wilson” from Cast Away. (David Mack / BuzzFeed)

A dubious list of coronavirus tips is going viral on Facebook and Twitter. It claims to be from Stanford University and contains loads of disinformation. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)

A week after Etsy said it was removing coronavirus-themed products, listings for “Immunity Tea,” DIY hand sanitizer, and “I survived coronavirus” bracelets remained. The listings have now been taken down. (Kat Tenbarge / Business Insider)

On the office front:

Twitter has moved from encouraging employees to work from home to making remote work mandatory. (Ina Fried / Axios)

Google employees miss the free food, gyms, and dry cleaning at company’s campus. They’re being asked to work from home due to the coronavirus pandemic, which means less access to office perks. I also miss my office perks btw!! (Blake Montgomery / Daily Beast)

On the events front:

Joe Biden is having his first virtual town hall after canceling live rallies.

Major League Baseball suspended all spring training in Arizona and Florida and delayed the start of the regular season by at least two weeks in response to the coronavirus pandemic. (Bill Shaikin and Jorge Castillo / Los Angeles Times)

Broadway is suspending all of its shows for a month after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned all gatherings of more than 500 people. (Julia Reinstein / BuzzFeed)

Elsewhere:

Cleaning your phone isn’t actually the best way to protect against the threat of coronavirus. But if you want to do it, this article tells you how. (Joanna Stern / The Wall Street Journal)

Yesterday we included a link about the coronavirus pandemic hurting travel influencers on Instagram. But according to this article, some are continuing to post unabated. Ok then! (Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)

“It’s Corona Time” has become the go-to song for coronavirus memes on TikTok. Who knew the pandemic needed an anthem? (Stacey Ritzen / Daily Dot)

Governing

Facebook and Twitter took down a network of accounts from trolls based in Ghana and Nigeria who were working on behalf of Russia to inflame racial tensions in the United States. The activity had striking similarities to the Russian troll campaign of 2016. CNN’s Clarissa Ward, Katie Polglase, Sebastian Shukla, Gianluca Mezzofiore and Tim Lister report:

One of the accounts even pretended to be the cousin of an African American who died in police custody. The post was then shared to a Facebook group called Africans in the United States. The group told CNN it had no idea that trolls were trying to engage it.

Another also implied they were in the US, tweeting in February: “Just experienced blatant #racism in Downton (sic) Huntsville, Alabama … Three of my black male friends were turned away because they were ‘out of dress code.’”

There was a concerted effort to agitate in the US. One of the trolls — Black People Trendz — posted to the Facebook page of Black Lives Matter in Cincinnati. Another — @The_black_secret — was devoted to police shootings of African Americans. It also posted a video of a racial incident with the comment “Blacks have a right to defend themselves against Racism” that drew more than 5,000 reactions and more than 2,000 shares.

The coronavirus pandemic might force presidential candidates to campaign almost entirely online. That would give Facebook, Twitter, and Google more power over the election than ever before. (Rob Price / Business Insider)

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign announced their first “virtual” town hall to protect the candidate and supporters from coronavirus. (Makena Kelly / Twitter)

Here’s what Kashmiris had to say about living through a seven-month internet shutdown. “This is what the totalitarian face of the world’s largest democracy looks like under the surface,” one person remarked. (Pranav Dixit / BuzzFeed)

Industry

Facebook contractors are being told to continue coming into the office even as full-time employees work from home, Sam Biddle reports at The Intercept. This is a very tricky one: let contractors work from home and you dramatically increase the odds that users’ private information will be stolen.

Discussions from Facebook’s internal employee forum reviewed by The Intercept reveal a state of confusion, fear, and resentment, with precariously employed hourly contract workers stating that, contrary to statements to them from Facebook, they are barred by their actual employers from working from home, despite the technical feasibility and clear public health benefits of doing so.

Discussions from Facebook’s internal employee forum reviewed by The Intercept reveal a state of confusion, fear, and resentment, with precariously employed hourly contract workers stating that, contrary to statements to them from Facebook, they are barred by their actual employers from working from home, despite the technical feasibility and clear public health benefits of doing so.

Members of the Hype House, TikTok’s most notable squad, are embroiled in a legal dispute that threatens to split the community. Some members are leaving to start a new collective. (Hanna Lustig / Business Insider)

TikTok has been investing heavily in a new age of influencers in Africa. It’s part of a concerted strategy for the youth-friendly app to get a major foothold in the world’s youngest continent. (Alexandria Williams / Quartz)

A 71-year-old woman who goes by the name “Grandma YoYo” has been documenting her battle with terminal lung cancer on TikTok. She now has 1 million followers. (Connor Perrett / Business Insider)

TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, appointed two new leaders for its China business and set a goal to nearly double its global headcount to 100,000 by the end of the year. (Yingzhi Yang and Brenda Goh / Reuters)

New Twitter client Brizzly+ lets users undo and auto-delete tweets. The features are part of Brizzly+’s subscription service which offers a robust toolset built on the Twitter API. Unusually, Twitter publicly endorsed Brizzly, years after telling developers to stop building clients that replicate core features of the service. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Magic Leap, the augmented reality startup that raised more than $2 billion, is exploring a potential partnership or sale. It’s gauging interest from companies including Facebook and Johnson & Johnson. If you want to buy it let me know and I’ll talk you out of it. (Ed Hammond and Sarah Frier / Bloomberg)

And finally…

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and honestly just stay safe this weekend, we’re worried about you! casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.



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