Leading tech personalities this week took high-profile steps in the global effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout by pledging donations, fielding public questions and vowing to police harmful content on social media.
The moves by some of the world’s richest and most powerful non-political figures come as governments struggle to offer a cohesive approach to the virus outbreak and the public increasingly relies on the digital world for work, information and social support.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who has been heavily criticized in recent years for his platform’s lax enforcement of politically damaging content, among other things, highlighted the company’s role in keeping people connected amid the crisis.
“Teams are hard at work to make sure all the services run smoothly, because this is clearly a time when people want to stay connected,” Zuckerberg said. “We want to make sure we do our part to alleviate loneliness.”
Zuckerberg said Wednesday on a press call that he was working from home.
“Like everyone is experiencing, it’s a big change to be working from home,” Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think it would be very good to encourage everyone else to do that and then not do that myself.”
Facebook said Wednesday it would put “authoritative” coronavirus content at the top of user feeds as it scrambled to keep up with increased usage and stem the flow of misinformation on its platform and WhatsApp messaging.
It will also display content from public health experts, celebrities, academics and others encouraging ways to reduce coronavirus risk — such as by taking social-distancing seriously, according to Zuckerberg.
Around 4pm PT today, I'm going live with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert involved in…
The leading social network said it has nearly doubled server capacity to power WhatsApp as people in isolation place more voice and video calls using the popular messaging service.
Facebook also donated $1 million to the International Fact-Checking Network to expand the presence of local fact-checkers and curb misinformation on WhatsApp, said Facebook head of health Kang-Xing Jin.
Facebook is under intense scrutiny regarding how it prevents hoaxes or dangerously misleading information regarding the deadly pandemic from spreading on its platform, according to Creative Strategies analyst Carolina Milanesi.
“It’s not politics. It’s not [an] election. This is killing people,” Milanesi said of the importance of getting people the truth about the coronavirus. “If they’re smart — I know it sounds callous on my part — but they would use this to win back some of the positive sentiment around the brand.”
Facebook this week also pledged $100 million in cash grants for small businesses hit by the virus, and said it would give full-time employees working from home a $1,000 cash bonus. The bonus will not extend to tens of thousands of contract workers, who will still be paid in full for their work, according to The Intercept.
Elon Musk, head of Tesla and SpaceX, said on Wednesday that his companies would “make ventilators if there is a shortage.”
He said in a Twitter exchange with journalist Nate Silver that Tesla and SpaceX already make ventilation and life support systems, implying that the equipment could be repurposed to produce ventilators.
Tesla makes cars with sophisticated hvac systems. SpaceX makes spacecraft with life support systems. Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly. Which hospitals have these shortages you speak of right now?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 19, 2020
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responded, saying that the city would buy the ventilators. Musk said he would connect with New York officials to discuss “potential needs.”
@elonmusk New York City is buying!
Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We’re getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!
We’re reaching out to you directly.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) March 19, 2020
Musk has faced criticism for saying several times on Twitter that he believes the US is overreacting to the virus outbreak, and for keeping a Tesla factory in California open amid a nearby outbreak.
Twitter and Square CEO Jack Dorsey said he would use Square subsidiary Cash App to donate money to users, without providing details.
Sending cash out to folks. Drop your cashtag https://t.co/foX5IYVtEe
— jack ???????????? (@jack) March 18, 2020
Twitter said Wednesday that it was enforcing safety rules by removing “content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.”
The social media platform said it would remove tweets that denied expert guidance, encouraged fake or ineffective treatments, or misled people by purporting to be from experts or authorities.
Some of the world’s leading online platforms — Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube — on Monday issued an unprecedented joint statement saying they would work “closely together on COVID-19 response efforts.”
— Facebook Newsroom (@fbnewsroom) March 17, 2020
“We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world,” the statement said.
Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and China’s richest man, has been on a philanthropic spree in recent weeks. He pledged to send one million masks and 500,000 testing kits to the US, saying on Sunday that the first shipment had left Shanghai for the US.
The first shipment of masks and coronavirus test kits to the US is taking off from Shanghai. All the best to our friends in America. ???? pic.twitter.com/LTn26gvlOl
— Jack Ma (@JackMa) March 16, 2020
The move comes amid simmering tensions between the US and China, as the White House repeatedly refers to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus,” and China expelled almost all US journalists, accusing the US of “ideological prejudice.” The coronavirus emerged in China late last year.
Ma said his foundation would donate 20,000 test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suits to each of Africa’s 54 countries.
The Jack Ma foundation also said it was donating medical supplies to Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Italy.
Ma retired as chairman of Alibaba in September 2019.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, who stepped down from the company’s board last week to focus on philanthropy, on Wednesday took to Reddit to answer questions from the public on the virus.
Gates said that models predicting millions of deaths “were too negative,” and pointed to China as evidence that the virus could be halted. He said that a “shut down” and widespread testing could contain the virus outbreak within a few months.
“If a country does a good job with testing and ‘shut down’ then within 6-10 weeks they should see very few cases and be able to open back up,” Gates said.
Even with containment in more wealthy countries, he said he was concerned about economic damage and the virus’s effect on developing countries, which cannot carry out social distancing measures or medical responses as well as more developed states.
He called for a “serious social distancing effort,” widespread testing, especially for the elderly, and using digital tools to stay connected.
He said a therapeutic treatment could be available before a vaccine, and that his philanthropy organization was supporting work to find therapies to treat the virus. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated $100 million in February toward developing diagnostics, therapeutic treatments and vaccines, he said.