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“Ina Fried on Tech and Coronavirus, and How Life is Changing” (Two Think Minimum)

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Scott Wallsten: Hi and welcome back to Two Think Minimum. Today is March 31st, 2020 and I’m Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. I’m joined by my colleague, TPI senior fellow, Sarah Oh. And today we are delighted to have as our guest Ina Fried. Ina is the chief technology correspondent for Axios, and before that she was a senior editor or writer at some of the most important tech journalism sites there are: Recode, All Things Digital, CNET and others. Ina, Thanks for joining us.

Ina Fried: Thanks for having me, Scott.

Scott: I want to start off with just a very general, open ended question. On March 18th, which seems like a lifetime ago now, you wrote that this was tech’s moment to shine or not, this being the coronavirus epidemic. Thinking back to that and now we have almost a couple of weeks’ experience, how do you think they’ve done so far, relative to what you expected and what you were looking for at the time?

Ina: I think the tech companies have done very well over all. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement where there haven’t been criticisms, but I think what you’ve seen is a lot of their own employees and contractors as well as keeping their platforms up and running for the very high demand that we all are relying on them for. So along those metrics I think that they are doing quite well. I think much is expected. The old saying to whom much is given, much is expected. I’m butchering that. But you know, I think a lot is expected in this moment from tech. I think so far they are delivering a lot of those things. Again, it’s still early.

Scott: Right. Well what do you think they’re doing particularly well and what should they be doing better?

Ina: So, on the doing well, I mean certainly, I think Microsoft was one of the first, and Twitter, bringing their employees home but then agreeing to pay, there’s a huge support workforce in tech. You have the engineers at their desks who are often highly paid, full time employees, but you have much lower paid hourly workers, often working for a contractor, that are serving them their free meals and cleaning the place and doing even some tech work like QA. And in a lot of cases those people aren’t able to work from home. And so what you saw a lot of the tech companies do early on is vocally say we’re going to keep paying those people regardless of whether we need their services, regardless of whether they can do their jobs from home. And that was important, one, certainly important to those workers, which again often outnumber the full-time employees, but also important as a signal of what large companies can do. Tech is fortunate to be very wealthy, to be able to do a lot of its work remotely. So they’re more fortunate than some in this situation. Certainly large restaurant chains, large retailers don’t have the sort of resources at this moment, but I think they set a good example. So that’s one. Another thing I think they’ve done remarkably well so far is handle the increased load. Everyone is working, playing and learning from home. And so far, knock on wood if you have it, the internet has held up really well, but not just the overall internet but also most of the key services that we all rely on, whether it’s the entertainment services like Netflix, Twitter, Facebook as well as all the myriad cloud based services.

Ina: So I think they’ve done that well. I think the other thing that they have done well is be good stewards to the community in terms of things that you wouldn’t expect, necessarily, from tech, whether it’s making sure masks get donated, whether it was from their own wildfire supplies or Apple working through its supply chain, saying we’re going to donate 13 million masks, things like that. You had Facebook step up and say to California who’s trying to recruit retired doctors, look, you aren’t going to be paid, but if you need help with childcare, with housing, with transportation costs, Facebook stepped up and said, we’re going to pay for that. So I think on those three dynamics you’ve seen tech do really well. I think the one where there’s increased pressure and will continue to be pressure is around misinformation. This is the time where we all want super accurate information. We don’t want rumors spreading and the platforms have struggled with this before coronavirus. So it’s not a surprise that it’s a big challenge at this moment. What we have seen, interestingly, is Twitter and Facebook in particular being willing to enforce stricter codes than they normally do around the virus than they do with other types of information.

Scott: And how have they done with that? You wrote a story just a few days ago, actually maybe it was even yesterday, about Twitter deleting tweets from Giuliani and the Brazilian president and even taking The Federalist offline for briefly 

Ina: They didn’t take The Federalist offline, but their Twitter account.

Scott: I’m sorry. Right. Of course, their Twitter account. So are they acting more quickly on this? Is it easier for them than the more general issues they deal with? The broader question of misinformation?

Ina: I don’t think it’s easier. I do think they’re willing to take a tougher stand. Typically they try and lean as much as possible on free speech and be as limited as possible in what they take down. I think with the virus they recognize these are life or death issues and are drawing a different line. So I don’t think it’s easier or harder. I think they’re choosing a different line. We have seen them take more action, particularly against prominent accounts, than I think we’ve ever seen before. Twitter took down two tweets from the Brazilian leader and Facebook interrupted and took down a live broadcast, saying that he’s spreading misinformation likely to cause physical harm. That’s not something we would have seen either company do, I don’t think, under previous circumstances. Certainly, there’ve been a lot of calls for them to ban, Twitter in particular, to ban Donald Trump’s account.

Ina: They’ve not only not done that, but they’ve never even flagged one of his tweets for breaking the rules. So I do think on that respect we’re seeing them take more aggressive steps and actually not just announce policies, but do some enforcement. In the broad category of misinformation, I think still a lot is getting through and I can only imagine in other languages it’s probably worse. I think in English it’s easier. More people see it, more people flag it, more of the people at the company know it. I’d be really concerned to look at how that’s gonna play out, particularly as the developing world starts to be affected. And the other piece of this is WhatsApp, which is encrypted peer-to-peer. It’s much harder, and we have seen a bunch of misinformation spread. Again, I think you’re seeing Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, be more aggressive than normal, but the nature of the platform makes it harder. So on the misinformation front, I’d say there they’re doing more than they normally do. But I think that’s an area that we have to continue to pay attention to and hold their feet to the fire.

Scott: How do you think this will change or will it change back after this period is over? Because your responses are kind of opposite from what they might have been a few weeks ago, where now, generally, it seems like people are very positive about the tech companies where they had been negative before or maybe it’s more in our little bubble that they had been, because the polls to certainly didn’t show them to be too unpopular, and we’re worried about them not taking down enough. Is the new normal going to be more along the lines of what is it is now, where people remain happy and the company, the platforms themselves take a harder line on what they keep up there?

Ina: I think this is one of the big questions and not just for this narrow one, but broadly speaking, what of our new normal becomes persistent after the crisis abates and what doesn’t? I’d love to take that question in a lot of different directions. How do we shop, how do we live? All those things are really interesting. But to your particular one about what they’re doing, for example, with misinformation or their policies, I think there will be pressure on the tech companies. They can’t say any longer, we can’t do this, because people will be able to say, look, when it was about coronavirus, you were able to act really aggressively on misinformation. That’s actually been a fallacy for a long time. The companies have taken action. In Germany, for example, they’re required to delete misinformation about the Holocaust and they do. Where they’re forced to, they do.

Ina: But I think this will point out pretty emphatically that the companies can do more when they choose it. So I think there will be pressure. I don’t think we will see them broadly be as aggressive about other kinds of misinformation. But I do think this will serve as a proof point for critics who say they can do more to show, you’ve proven to us you can do more, now take on hate and anti-vaxxers and other attacks on science and truth. 

Scott: This may be too big of a leap, but is it part of a general trend towards more centralized authority over everything?

Ina: That’s one of the big questions and concerns. There was a good piece in the last couple of days on authoritarians across the world using this to grab power that they may never let go of. I know in Hungary the leader has been granted broad new authorities. There’s a lot of questions. In the US, we’ve had a lot of questions about location data, which is obviously one of the most sensitive things. You can tell a tremendous amount. It’s easily collected because that data lives in our smartphone. There’s a lot of decent public health reasons why we might want the government to have more access to that at this time. And a lot of equally valid concern that once we give up that information, we won’t be able to get back the control that we had before. So I think this one’s a really tough one. I think we really need to look at what are the best solutions to this question. Are there ways to share information that’s either anonymized or using differential privacy or other techniques that would allow some of the information that public health officials could use to control the spread without blanketly giving up our rights to our privacy and our location data, which has been a perennial question for the industry and it intensifies as that data becomes more powerful and as our tools to analyze that data become more powerful.

Sarah Oh: Curious to hear more of your take about test and trace and just surveillance in pandemic times. I think one thing that’s underappreciated about the South Korea and Taiwan story is that the Ministry of Interior was tracing everybody who’s positive through the government central database and that’s how they flatten the curve. And so I wonder what are those tradeoffs, for an American audience, and do the costs outweigh the benefits.

Ina: I think there’s a couple of things to keep in mind and it is a really important question. I think one is you really have to have widespread testing and do it early for that to be of a lot of value. So even if that was the right approach a while ago, it may still not be the right approach now and we might be trading off privacy for lesser gains. It can still be useful as you point out. Once we know who has it and who doesn’t we may want to do the kind of re-entry where people who’ve had it and recovered are able to go back to work. People who haven’t are tracked to make sure they don’t get sick, that sort of thing. The other is I do think there are cultural differences and those may not abate just in the name of science. I wrote about this a few days ago, a week ago, and talked about cure three big reasons it’s not coming here even though it has been effective elsewhere. One, we just don’t have the widespread testing. Tracking and tracing only works if you can track. And right now, we don’t have anything to track. Even though we are doing more testing than we were, we’re still only testing the sickest for the most part, the sickest and apparently NBA players. So that’s one reason, but the other reasons that I think are also important are our cultural values around privacy. And I don’t think it’s necessarily good or bad. I think there are pros and cons to the different things. There is no question that not just authoritarian regimes, but regimes where individual liberties are less prized did a better job, through sometimes very aggressive means. But you know, if you look at Singapore or Taiwan, places that are generally democratic and not necessarily authoritarian, but where there’s more acceptance around compliance, and more of a value around the societal good. We are a very individualistic society. I think the idea that we are largely sheltering in place in much of the country is something that I would have found unfathomable. I think the compliance, for America, is pretty good. It may not be good enough in a lot of places, but it’s still bucking our societal instincts. So I would be surprised, even if it’s the right thing to do, if much of our solution going forward relies on widespread testing and tracking. Again, not saying that wouldn’t be the right thing to do from a public health standpoint. I just have a hard time seeing it take root in the US. 

Scott: Although you also said that you would have had a hard time seeing a shelter in place work in the US, also. I mean I would have to and yet I’m sitting in my bedroom, sheltering.

Ina: We are socially distanced about as well as you can imagine. I’m at our upstairs neighbors in San Francisco. I think we have responded in ways that are unique. At the same time you’ve seen this tension play out. I mean you’ve seen the tension. People have different opinions about it, but the we need to hunker down and have a nationwide lockdown versus we need to reopen the economy, this is America. Those are extremes. But I think a piece of that lives in all of us. We might have different amounts of that. But I think that’s our cultural identity, both wanting to stay safe and wanting to protect the most vulnerable in society, but also, we aren’t a society that makes big sacrifices. It’s one of the reasons we can’t balance the budget or protect the environment or save social security, is those are all things that require collective sacrifice for a long term good. And I just don’t think that’s our strongest suit. We have lots of good and admirable qualities as a country, but I don’t think enduring short term pain for long term sacrifice is something we’re particularly good at.

Scott: In all your talking to people and companies and policy makers and so on, are you seeing any shifts in that, either towards being willing to make sacrifices or people beginning to get fed-up and saying, I just can’t take this anymore?

Ina: Well, I don’t think we’ve hit the fed-up stage, for most people. Again, there’s a range and we’ve seen a few prominent examples of people not wanting to make even short term sacrifice. I think we’ve, again, for the most part, I think you’ve seen admirable willingness of companies and individuals to put the collective good ahead. I do worry that, that as this prolongs, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be hard for everyone. There’s no question this is a challenging time. I don’t know that we’ve seen a tremendous change in policies. On the regulatory front, I think you’ve seen a lot of government agencies trying to find ways to be flexible. Certainly, again, not institutions that are known for flexibility and quick change, but you’ve seen the FCC and the FDA and other state and local agencies try and figure out what rules need to be relaxed.

Ina: I look at things like allowing physicians to cross state lines or allowing people to work outside their specialty or making sure that people can get paid for telehealth, since that’s a lot safer, relaxing school rules. There was a rule that in order to get a free or reduced lunch, the kid had to be physically present, which meant exposing another person when you went out to get the food. Through local action that actually changed nationally. So I think you’ve seen a remarkable amount, again, given the nature of the institutions and similar in the private sector, but the private sector has an easier time adjusting more quickly. So I do think regulators deserve credit for recognizing their broader mission and how to preserve public safety, how to make sure we’re not rushing unsafe things to the market, not opening the door for widespread fraud. At the same time adjusting to a reality that none of us particularly expected to be in.

Scott: Is that surprising to you, that regulators were able to react so quickly and so flexibly? Not to say that everything’s worked, but that they certainly seem to be trying.

Ina: I think in a lot of ways this has brought out the best of America more than the worst. It doesn’t mean there haven’t been examples of the other, but I think everyone’s reality has adjusted so much. I think what helps enable, whether it’s regulators or anyone, to think differently, is the fact that most of the assumptions we had in December of last year aren’t true. Our world looks very different. And so it sort of lets the mind say, okay, maybe the fact that we’ve always done it this way doesn’t mean that’s the only way it can be done. While, again, taking the mission into account. I think if you look at the FCC or the FDA, they’re still focused on their core mission. They’re just recognizing that some of the procedures to get there don’t make sense. We’ve seen similar things, open government. There’s really good reasons why governments have to meet in person and provide public notice and allow the public there except in rare circumstances. Well it doesn’t make sense for those same rules to be applied. But you want a public zoom meeting versus private email, might be a way to achieve similar ends recognizing the limits of the moment.

Sarah: I’m curious to hear your perspective, from being somebody in San Francisco, California. You’re kind of a month ahead of us on the East coast. What do you think about the procedures for reopening? Have people been talking about that in San Francisco?

Ina: We really haven’t. So we are about a month ahead of some places in terms of when the outbreak started, we were also earlier in our development, it was sooner than some of the other places, particularly New York, in addressing it. So even before there were official mandates, most people were working from home for several days to a week. And then the Bay area counties sheltered in place, and then we had a statewide. So I think so far so good. Again, you can never declare victory and I don’t want folks to loosen up, but we have seen things be better than they could be. At the same time, I don’t think there’s a better sense of when things get back to normal. I think we’ve seen institutions provide dates. I don’t know if this was brilliance or happenstance, but when the schools first told us they’d be closed, they’d said three weeks. Now it was pretty clear at the time, it would probably be longer. The reason I think that three week time period was good was that it was about the most, the average parent could handle hearing, Oh my goodness, I’ve got to take care of my kids for three weeks. Then as we’ve kind of gotten pretty well into that they’re like, okay, it’s going to be another month. And I don’t think anyone would be surprised if the whole school year changes. But sometimes we can only handle so much information and I think it’s hard enough working from home. We have more adults than kids, so I feel very fortunate. But working from home with kids is challenging and certainly I know some single parents out there and it’s super hard, or parents with multiple kids. So I think the Bay area has been ahead in a couple of areas. Also, we have more of an online life, more of us work in jobs that maybe we’re working from home to begin with or certainly had that ability. So I think there’s a bunch of things that are different. I think what’s not different is just there’s a great amount that’s unknown. None of us know what the end of that curve, what the end of the cycle looks like, in America. We’ve seen a little bit in other places, but again we haven’t done the kinds of things that other countries have done. So I don’t think we’ll have the kind of rapid exit either that comes from really eradicating the disease. But again, I’m getting away from my field of knowledge so I’m going to stop before I become another one of those annoying tech people who fancies themselves an epidemiologist.

Scott: I think everybody fancies themselves on epidemiologist these days, especially on Facebook and Twitter. But going back to your very particular area of expertise in journalism, how has this changed the way you do your job? 

Ina: Again, I think, like a lot of things, it hasn’t changed the core principles or the values or the things I’m trying to do as much as it’s changed the methods. One of the first things that change really rapidly was, as this all started, we were finishing up our season of Axios on HBO, the TV show we do. And normally that’s all about flying to where ever somebody is, sitting down, having a really tough face to face interview and we were like, okay, for this last episode we got to focus on the virus. We got to scrap most of the things that we’ve already filmed and we have to do it over zoom. So I interviewed both the CEO of Microsoft and the head of crisis text line to talk about how they were experiencing the virus, over zoom, shot from, my home is actually too messy. We used a friend’s shed that she’d built and filmed there, but over the internet. And so I think it’s changed that. I think it’s changed priorities too, is the other thing I’ve noticed. I really view it as an obligation, as a duty, to use the space that I have to raise important issues. So kind of every day I’m looking at what’s something that people aren’t thinking about, about our changed reality. And I’m writing about it in some cases, even going outside of my area of technology, looking at issues around mental health, and domestic violence, LGBTQ issues, that I think need to be raised and throwing my hat in. But even in tech, I think, writing a daily tech newsletter, it’s every day. A question of how much do people want to hear about non virus stuff? And so far the answers in my mind, not a whole lot. I take the tone and I’m like, if I were reading a newsletter based on what today looked like, what would I want to hear about? And for the most part it’s the intersection of technology and the new world we’re in. But it’s hard to imagine just writing about much absent the situation we find ourselves in. So if I’m writing about a new game, we wrote up feature, our one big thing one day last week was about Animal Crossing.

Scott: I read that, I was going to ask you about that.

Ina: But it was about it as a perfect antidote. A game for this moment. It would have come out, it would have been a popular game, probably, in a different environment. But what made it particularly interesting was here’s this fantasy that lets you create your own island, in a moment where we’re all trapped in doors.

Scott: My first thought though, when reading that, was that I can’t believe that what people want to do is pretend that their somewhere else where they can’t see anybody.

Ina: Well, that’s true, but you can visit other people’s islands. There’s no social distancing in Animal Crossing.

Scott: But when you say you’re looking for what you want to see, what people are interested in and looking for stories that are being told it looks like, we put together the collection of stories that you’re  building over this time period and it’s starting to look like an investigation into the way American life is changing. You’re talking about the different types of applications we’re using, what we’re buying now online instead of what we used to. I don’t know that you’re trying to put it together into a single story, but are you getting a sense that things are changing in a major way?

Ina: For sure. I mean, I think everything is changing right now. To your question earlier. I think the really interesting question that we probably won’t fully know until we’re past this and sort of readjusting to a non-COVID influenced life is how much of this persists, what changes that we’re making now are things that we go, you know what, this just works better. And what changes are we, as soon as we have the opportunity, we’re going back to. I think the areas this will be particularly interesting are certainly areas around shopping and retail. I think this has opened people’s eyes as to how much can be done online. Doesn’t mean we want to do all those things online. I think more people have tried online grocery shopping than probably had before. I don’t think it will be the niche that it has been, but I’m not convinced everyone will suddenly give it up, particularly when the costs get factored back in. You know, delivery has always existed, but there is a cost to it, whether it’s hidden or not. And you see, outside of pandemics, groceries are not a high margin business. So you see that cost find its way in, in general. So how we shop I think will be really interesting. How we work. We’ve all proven that we can do our jobs from home. I think it’s going to be harder for employers to mandate that everyone be in the office all the time. That doesn’t mean that a lot of people won’t be thankful to have more separation between work and home. I know I’m a person who travels a ton and that’s another area that changes. And I used to say, Oh, I just want to spend a week at home. Well, I’ve gotten more than my fill. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to go right back to traveling a ton, but I also don’t think I’m going to stop traveling once that opportunity is open again. Those questions around how we work, conferences, I think we’ve all seen basically every conference in our industry either canceled or go digital. Will that be the trend? I think people often talk about that. You see that in a recession, you see travel budgets go down. I think there is a place for personal interaction and I actually think a lot of us will come out of this with a longing to reconnect with those colleagues that we’ve been zooming with or texting and say, I actually want to see that person. I want to go have dinner, I want to talk to them over a cup of coffee. So I think, again, some of the changes will be permanent, but I think some of these things really are accommodations for the moment and I don’t totally have a handle on which are which.

Scott: Right. And it’s hard to know. I mean as an introvert, in some ways it’s easy to stay home and not worry that I feel like I have to go to a conference. But even I feel like it’s too much. You’ve gotta interact with people. You want to see people talk about their papers in person. One more question. You said you also said that there were issues of LGBTQ with coronavirus, with the quarantine and shelter in place. What are those specific issues? It’s also trans day of visibility, so it seems appropriate to talk about some of those issues. 

Ina: It is, thanks for bringing that up. I think it really is important to remember that sheltering in place looks really different for lots of different people. And that’s something that’s become very clear in my reporting. If you are single, this is really an isolating moment. You’re maybe at home by yourself or with a pet or maybe a roommate that you’re not that close with. That’s one experience. Another experience that a lot of people are having is they’re home, trying to work from home, while raising a family. In that case, it’s not necessarily a lack of attention. It’s this different trying to have space and separate these things that are now pushed in close proximity. But I’ve also paid a lot of attention to what it looks like for other communities, including some that I’m a part of, like the LGBTQ, but also some that I’m not a part of. If you were an LGBTQ youth who got a lot of support at school and live with parents that are maybe somewhat supportive or not supportive, your world changed dramatically when the schools got closed. You might have lost your access to support, to people who understand you. It might feel more isolating. One of the issues I’ve looked at a lot, and I’m going to be writing about, is around domestic violence. Some people are sheltering in place with an abusive partner and it’s just a tremendously difficult space. You’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure on an already unhealthy relationship. I’m very concerned about the lack of resources for that group. I think undocumented workers are in a really tough space when it comes to healthcare, when it comes to accessing resources and benefits. So I think if there’s one takeaway, it’s really remembering that your shelter in place experience is not everyone’s, and there’s a lot of issues beyond just keeping people from getting COVID-19. The mental health implications broadly I think are going to be huge for most people, including people dealing with other issues. I think for people with disabilities, there’s a real fear that the criteria for how they’re going to be treated. I think a lot of people are worried that if they end up in the ER that their life is going to be valued less. Same with LGBTQ. I know there was a lot of concern in the last 48 hours that the organization building this field hospital in New York is run by an organization whose leader openly anti-LGBTQ. And I think there’s a worry, Hey, when ventilators are in short supply, is my gender or sexuality gonna make me less likely to get treatment. So I think there’s just a ton of other issues that come up beyond the one that I think unites us, which is we’re trying to slow the spread of a pandemic.

Scott: Are there groups trying to deal with some of these issues? Because like you said, we don’t hear a lot about that, but are there places for people to go who have an abusive partner or who needs support in some way or undocumented immigrants who, they often live in very crowded conditions. Are there people thinking about ways of handling these issues?

Ina: There are, they tend to be the interest groups that were focusing on these issues before. A couple of generic resources that are great. Crisis text line is out there and they’re a text messaging based app, which is helpful when people can’t necessarily get to a safe phone to call. That’s one option. And they deal with all kinds of issues, have been primarily oriented at youth, but dealing with a much broader population in this age. The national domestic violence hotline is fully operating. Not all of the resources that are normally available to people in abusive relationships are there, but many are. Some, but not all, shelters are still taking in people. So a lot of the resources that exist still exist. But there are limits. Courts aren’t as open as they were. If you’re trying to get a protective order, that’s still possible in many places. In some it’s not, where it’s more challenging. ICE and immigration enforcement has been an open question. They’ve not been super clear about whether they would or wouldn’t go after people in a healthcare setting. I think they’ve said that they won’t normally, only in extreme circumstances, but that’s tough to feel comfortable with if you are undocumented, obviously if you’re undocumented and need healthcare, I definitely think you should. And there are groups that are trying to protect people who are in that situation.

Scott: Yeah, that’s a good reminder that this can be particularly difficult for a lot of people.

Ina: And the biggest thing I’ve heard, too, is reach out to your friends. Like if you know someone that might be in a problematic situation, check in with them, see how they’re doing. In general, I think people in a tougher situation are going to have a tendency to feel even more isolated, maybe isolating themselves, reach out, check in on people. There’s a lot we can do to be allies to our neighbors. We’ve seen some great stuff too. Again, I think we’ve seen a lot of good humanity, of people going shopping for their older neighbors, of seeing who needs resources around them, of scrounging up surplus protective equipment and making sure it gets to the hospitals. But really, I think it is a good time to check in on those you know, those you might barely know. I think these do bring neighborhoods together. Ironically, even though it’s social distancing, I know I’m much more connected to my physical neighbors, many of whom I didn’t even know by name before all this.

Scott: Yeah. I’m finding the same in our neighborhood. There are nightly concerts where people of course are spread appropriately far apart. But porch concerts, it’s nice. But you’re right, it’s an important time to remember to do nice things for other people when you can. That’s probably a good place to stop. So, Ina, thank you so much. That was that was really interesting.

Ina: Thank you Scott, I always enjoyed coming on.