With the world on lockdown, tech platforms are now the social fabric. How they act in the next few days will decide their legacy, and perhaps our fate.
THERE ARE FEW moments in history when the foundation of society shifts upside down in such a short time. Over the course of mere weeks, we have witnessed an upending of our entire economy and the most basic tenets of social life.
In a world of rising lockdowns and quarantines, much of modern society has suddenly been transformed into a world living isolated on screens at home. In the blink of an eye, platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Zoom went from operating our social communications—serving as the dominant mediating agent of users’ human attention—to becoming the dedicated social habitats for humankind.
This dramatic and sudden shift means that these platforms have tremendous responsibility in the way they increasingly shape our perception of the world and of the Covid-19 pandemic during this time of crisis.
Let’s consider what we’re up against. Our brains are already bad at seeing exponential curves. Covid-19 spreads exponentially, so a handful of cases trickling through a population can turn into a torrent of millions in just three months. The coronavirus already decimated Italy’s health care system, which is one of the best in the world. If some of Italy’s hospitals are already being forced to give up on patients over 60, picture the horror that may soon overwhelm the health care systems in Lagos or Mexico City or New Delhi, where millions more people reside—not to mention here in the US, where we have only 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people. Our systems aren’t built for exponential growth of this kind.
In the US alone, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the lowest number of deaths may be 200,000—about equal to the number of American deaths in World War I, Korea, and Vietnam combined. With fewer hospital beds per capita than Italy, the steep exponential growth rate of the virus is on track to crush the American health care system. Our hospitals were not built for surges of this scale, so frontline caregivers will be making difficult decisions about who receives care and who doesn’t.
For many countries, these gruesome futures are coming fast on the horizon. Yet we can still avoid losing millions of lives depending on what immediate choices billions of people make—on the order of the next hours and days, not weeks.
We have a choice. Either billions of people continue on the default path, where the slow pace of grassroots commitments to practice social distancing, slow responses by governments, and slow observations of how “few others are taking it seriously” wake up to Italy-scale horrors of miscalculation of exponential curves. In the other future, billions of people gain a “corrective lens” that enables them to see the exponential curve of what’s coming now and are offered radical ways to take immediate and coordinated actions that “flatten the curve.” Millions of lives are saved and economic calamities avoided.
But who could possibly race ahead of the exponential growth and reach billions of people with this corrective lens before the virus can? Only today’s major tech platforms are positioned to do so.
Until we have a Covid-19 vaccine, delivering this corrective lens to 3 billion people is our best hope.
What does that really mean, though? This corrective lens would require platforms taking a new position. Up until now, they achieved global dominance by avoiding ruffling political feathers and hiding behind the fiction of “neutrality”—that ‘neutral’ metrics, sorting ‘fairly’ by what we liked and shared the most, would result in the ultimate democracy. But not only was that fiction wrong, it was dangerous. It fueled the mass spread of disinformation, polarization, and ultimate breakdown of truth that dismantled our capacity to agree on this obvious threat in the first place. Using metrics to govern a global information system was always broken, but it’s taken a global pandemic to see how starkly that paradigm is inadequate.
This emergency, this moment, calls for a fundamentally new approach to technology—to abandon the myth of neutral metrics and engagement, and restructure technology to prioritize this corrective lens that can help save millions of lives.
This obligation to save lives is especially true of Facebook (and its subsidiary WhatsApp), where the success of its Free Basics program across Africa and South Asia have made it the primary and unavoidable communications infrastructure in countries whose health systems are likely to get overwhelmed by Covid-19’s exponential curves. No one else is better positioned. No one else can compete.
Clearly this is uncomfortable. We would not voluntarily hand over control of our information environment to the whims of any private corporation—let alone Facebook, with its questionable track record—to navigate a pandemic. Yet the platforms are in this unique position, so now more than ever, they have a responsibility to take action.
It might look like they have already. In the past few days, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have made important shifts. Facebook has launched a Covid-19 Help Center with featured facts, links to CDC resources, and notifications. WhatsApp has launched a World Health Organization Chatbot to a billion members. Google.com now has a small link “Do the Five” with five tips for preventing the spread of infection.
Given the exponential challenge we’re up against, passive information is woefully insufficient to change behavior. Many people are still not taking the threat seriously. As recently as Monday, March 21:
- In the US, only 17 percent of Republicans are “extremely concerned” about Covid-19.
- Only 34 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats are “extremely concerned” about Covid-19.
- Only 25 percent of Americans are living under “shelter in place” orders, our most powerful way of slowing the spread of the virus.
- Berlin teenagers are still hosting parties in violation of clear “shelter in place” orders.
- Citizens still hoard N95 masks, despite hospitals screaming about a vast shortage.
Are billions of people changing their behavior fast enough to meet the exponential curve? Absolutely not. We need a structural corrective lens and realignment of technology to meet the exponential curve. The following are several directions to accelerate life-saving outcomes, all within Silicon Valley’s power to enact.
Prioritization: Just as we have invoked wartime acts to repurpose industry to produce medical supplies, we need wartime action from Facebook and other platforms to flatten the curve of the pandemic. Having employees focused on traditional goals of “driving engagement” or even “meaningful interactions” are distractions from preventing lives from being lost.
Facebook and other platforms should immediately release employees from traditional goals and performance evaluations, and suspend all nonessential tasks—as Amazon has already done—to maximally respond to the crisis. Everyone should ask themselves: How would we feel looking back on this time, if any of us had spent it designing smiley stickers or improving ads?
Corrective Lens to Act Beyond Exponential Curves: Meeting exponential curves means ensuring that each segment of users—each geography and age demographic—has personalized information that motivates the most effective actions to flatten the curve. For example, Instagram, SnapChat, and TikTok could know which young users are still hitting the clubs under the pretense of “A flu isn’t so bad for me!” and retarget them with messages that emphasize, “Don’t endanger our grandparents.” Facebook could actively inform older users who doubt the risks by highlighting the friends in their age range who have been infected. Instead of a WHO chatbot passively waiting to be asked questions, WhatsApp could actively message reluctant users in a certain geography predictively when a spike of cases is predicted in their area, contextualized against future fatalities already experienced in other countries, with locally personalized actions that would flatten the curve.
Whether platforms like it or not, every choice they make shapes user behavior, including the ranking of posts within feeds, notification delivery, and group suggestions, to name just a few. This is the moment to embrace that reality, moving from generic linking to CDC resources— which are not always up to date—to the most persuasive and personalized “lens” and empowering actions that motivate billions to make life-saving choices.
Social norms & signaling: In a time of physical isolation, those who are taking the most heroic, altruistic, and generous actions to flatten the curve—including frontline health care work and social distancing—are invisible to our eyes. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and WhatsApp should reimagine their platforms and flip social norms upside down, elevating people who have responsibly chosen to socially isolate, wear masks, or take actions that help others. “240 of your friends chose to stay home,” a push notification could read, or “80 friends offered N95 masks to workers. Add yours.” Similar ideas should be deployed through multiple pathways and across all products. The platforms should be using their persuasive powers of “social proof” to foster altruism and generosity, highlighting examples of friends who are choosing to help others—say, health care workers or those unemployed. We know this works: When Facebook created a button to allow users to announce that they had voted in recent elections, they increased voter turnout in the 2010 US congressional elections by over 340,000 people.
Efficient relief coordination: In a world where supply chains break down, platforms can connect needs to grassroots relief efforts. Imagine Facebook transforming the incredible sophistication and billions of dollars invested in its microtargeting advertising engine into a “Help Engine” that precisely matches users with the right local help to coordinate life-saving supplies at scale. Instead of the inefficient process where exhausted health care workers make ordinary Facebook post pleas for N95 masks—where the burden is on them to respond to a flood of comments like “yea, message me if you need this”—Facebook could create a radically more intelligent supply-demand coordination system that highlights hyperefficient ways for neighborhoods or communities to find and lend a hand.
Technology has the chance to enable a new economic paradigm where generosity wins, instead of scarcity.
Coalition: If ever there were a time for collaboration between the major tech companies, it is now. Tech giants should form a pandemic response coalition to share best practices, exchange information, and coordinate effective responses. Imagine Google Flu Trends, Twitter Analytics, Snapchat, and Facebook combining their insights to provide unprecedented forecasting for planning in the medical supply chain, for example.
It’s time for technology companies to demonstrate how much good they can do when they act like public utilities operating for the greater common good, rather than optimizing for extraction and profit. These steps would mark a transformational moment, shifting the old arrangement of large technology platforms toward a “duty of care” that prioritizes the public interest.
The choices social media platforms make in the next days and weeks will—whether the platforms want to or not—shape the story of how humanity fought Covid-19. Let’s write the remarkable story of how humanity came together, not how it fell apart.
This article first appeared in www.wired.com
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