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How COVID-19 is changing public perception of big tech companies

On March 5th, as COVID-19 began to reshape American life, I noted here that big tech companies had responded with unusual alacrity. Where they once had been loath to intervene in matters of fact, suddenly Facebook and Twitter were prominently featuring links to high-quality information from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization in their respective feeds and search results. Google followed suit shortly thereafter.

In the weeks since, Big Tech has only accelerated its efforts at doing good. They have donated tens of millions of dollars to relief efforts. They have contributed large stocks of precious N95 masks acquired during last year’s wildfires to medical organizations. They have added sections to their apps highlighting accurate news about COVID-19. And as unemployment surged, Facebook pledged $100 million in grants to small businesses, and Amazon said it would hire 100,000 people.

In a dramatic change from only weeks before, news about Big Tech has been a bright spot at a time of great fear — and, increasingly, of grief. Increasingly, journalists are asking whether the backlash against technology companies that has defined coverage of them for the past three and a half years might have come to an end.

In Wired on Friday, Steven Levy asked the question plainly: has the coronvirus killed the techlash? He writes:

Now that our lives are dominated by these giants, we see them as greedy exploiters of personal data and anticompetitive behemoths who have generally degraded society. Before the pandemic, there was every expectation that those companies would be reined in, if not split apart.

But the deus ex machina of an overwhelming public health crisis has changed things. The pandemic may have the effect of a justifiable war waged by an embattled president with low popularity. While Big Tech’s misdeeds are still apparent, their actual deeds now matter more to us. We’re using Facebook to comfort ourselves while physically bunkered and social distancing. Google is being conscripted as the potential hub of one of our greatest needs—Covid-19 testing. Our personal supply chain—literally the only way many of us are getting food and vital supplies—is Amazon.

Who knew the techlash was susceptible to a virus?

At CNBC, Salvador Rodriguez explored the same issue on Saturday, focused on Facebook. After rounding up everything the company had done so far, he said: “Facebook won’t be able to rebuild trust with the public overnight, but when the company was presented with an opportunity to rebuild goodwill by being proactive and helpful during global health and financial crises, Facebook sprung to action and seized the moment.”

Subsequent articles have noted that, however magnanimous tech giants have acted in the crisis so far, they have much to gain from successfully navigating the coronavirus response. In The Information, Cory Weinberg noted that the companies’ work so far would likely have a recruiting benefit:

It is too early to know how big tech companies might seize the moment. And their own businesses certainly aren’t immune to economic fallout. But one area where they stand to benefit is recruiting. In recent years, big tech firms have had to compete with fast-growing startups for skilled computer scientists, especially as scandals and questions about abuses of power have tainted the reputations of the bigger firms. But tech workers who once might have preferred the dynamic surroundings of a small startup now might welcome the safer bet of a big enterprise.

One software engineer, who declined to be named to protect his job prospects, said he has been ignoring dozens of emails and calls from recruiters at Facebook in the last few months as he sought to develop his own company or join younger firms. But with venture capital firms expected to pull back from investing in nascent businesses, this month he scheduled an interview with the social media giant. His rationale: Stock gains from an equity package at Facebook could eventually help him self-fund his startup.

And perhaps even more importantly, the crisis represents an opportunity for tech companies to entwine themselves ever more deeply into customers’ lives. Already I’ve had friends who had sworn off Facebook for good return to check on friends and family; will they be so quickly to delete it when a more normal way of life resumes? Amazon Prime may be groaning under the weight of increased demand, but after it gets your family through this crisis, would you ever dream of canceling it?

Daisuke Wakabayashi, Jack Nicas, Steve Lohr and Mike Isaac explore this question in the New York Times:

While Amazon has changed shopping habits for items like books, getting customers to trust it with groceries has been challenging. Now, as more people are forced to stay home, one of the last strongholds of physical retailing may be coming under pressure. […]

As more customers try different Amazon services, they may create permanent shifts in buying habits, said Guru Hariharan, a former Amazon employee and the founder of CommerceIQ, a company whose automation software is used by major brands like Kellogg’s and Kimberly-Clark.

For now, I think the prevailing sentiment is accurate: tech giants have probably turned a corner in public opinion. I imagine that the next time The Verge does its survey of Americans, it will find that the decline in trust has at least slowed, if not entirely reversed. One pressing question is whether that shift in sentiment, assuming its real, will affect the many ongoing state and federal investigations into competition and privacy issues that are still under way. Since late 2016 we have been focused on the problems that emerge from the size of giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon; in the past several weeks the benefits that come from that size have become more apparent.

Still, it’s possible that even a perfect response to the COVID-19 crisis could plant the seeds for a future backlash. So much of the frustration with tech companies in recent years has originated from the fact that they are inescapable. Dependence breeds resentment, and the fewer alternatives consumers have to tech giants, the more resentful they are likely to become in time. It’s also possible — and even likely — that tech companies will make significant errors in their handling of the crisis, which could set back any progress they haver made.

But all that can wait for another day. For better and for worse, Americans are relying on technology companies to get them through the next several months. If there was ever a moment for these companies to prove their worth, it’s now.

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