Can “Tech for Good” Be Better?

By Sydney Kirkland, Client Strategy Manager

Phone screen with social media apps like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter in focus

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has jarringly thrown technology at the epicenter of everything we do; it’s how we socialize, work, and (depending on where you live) get basic necessities. Can the current COVID-19 crisis provide the catalyst for communication platform providers to do more good? As we wrap up week 7 of social distancing in North America, we look to see if technology can still deliver on its original promise: helping us to stay connected with one another more easily and meaningfully, and enabling more access to and sharing of accurate information. 

Using digital tools to truly connect with one another

We were already fighting the loneliness epidemic in pre-COVID-19 days. One in five Canadians identifies as feeling lonely and it is causing major health concerns. In addition to increased rates of depression and anxiety, loneliness for a prolonged period of time is now reported to be more harmful to you than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. 

At the same time, we are more connected to each other than ever before. Even before COVID-19, our lives were becoming increasingly digital, even as tools like social media, WhatsApp, and FaceTime were released with the promise of keeping us more connected. Unfortunately, the opposite seems increasingly true, with studies finding that overattachment to your phone boosts feelings of loneliness and isolation due to a lack of face-to-face interaction. Layer in recent requirements to socially distance and limited options for face-to-face interactions, we are at risk of what Vox calls a “social recession”; a collapse of social interaction.  

But because we are staying indoors, we are changing the way we use digital tools to find ways to connect with one another. Not only are traditional social media platforms growing during COVID-19, but we are also seeking ways to connect beyond messaging, such as video calling. From holding full-blown fundraising concerts to virtual yoga classes and online happy hours, COVID-19 has given us the chance to get creative with how we forge and maintain connections digitally. 

We have been forced to move away from the passive use of social media tools to engage with them more meaningfully because, frankly,  it’s our only way of connecting with others at this moment. And the best part is we know that digital tools can help strengthen our real-world relationships when used in this way. Digital tools are most effective in tackling isolation and loneliness when used actively, to enhance existing relationships or create new meaningful ones. Broadcasting status updates are not enough, but one-on-one interactions and talking with close friends online can result in improved social support, lower levels of depression, and reduced feelings of loneliness. 

We always have been optimistic that technology can solve loneliness and enhance our connection with one another. Maybe COVID-19 will show us it can be done.

Sharing information that’s actually accurate 

Part of the benefit promised from an ever-connected society is the ease and speed in which information can be created and shared. However, this is part of its downfall too.  According to PEW  Research Center, 62% of Americans get their news from social media, dominated by Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. Pre-COVID-19, reliable information was just as likely as misinformation to go viral, and intentionally misleading pages got as much engagement as legitimate sources. 

COVID-19 has highlighted the prevalence of misinformation. Uncertainty and anxiety around the pandemic, in combination with the growing political elements, create an atmosphere that breeds misinformation that can have devastating consequences. Increasing public pressure led companies to beef up their misinformation policies forcing platforms to take a heavier activist stance which would never occur pre-pandemic. 

“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.” 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, World Health Organization 

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Microsoft, LinkedIn, and Google came out with a joint statement to work on combating misinformation together.

YouTube has now “banned all conspiracy theory videos falsely linking coronavirus symptoms to 5G networks” and will remove the video. This past Tuesday, YouTube announced that it is bringing its fact-checking panels to the United States to ensure people are connecting with authoritative sources. 

Facebook will remove any events that violate state social distancing guidelines. Facebook has displayed warnings on 40 million posts related to COVID-19, fact-check 4,000 articles since March, and informing those who have interacted with harmful COVID-19 claims.

WhatsApp has set limits on its forwarding feature to limit virality, seeing a decrease in total forwarded messages globally by 25%.  

Twitter  updates its COVID-19 policy, making users remove any tweets making unverified claims “that incite people to engage in harmful activity” and “could lead to widespread panic, social unrest, or large-scale disorder.” Additionally, Twitter announced they will grant researchers access to real-time data of public tweets about COVID-19 to study the spread of the disease and track misinformation. 

Even though this is still more misinformation out there and fact, these actions are definitely a step in the right direction. COVID-19 has forced platforms to reckon with misinformation as it becomes too big and too dangerous to ignore. 

A return to our roots 

COVID-19 will continue to be a pressure test for us as we surge to social media to find connection. It has shown us that technology itself isn’t inherently good or bad — how we, as individuals and companies, choose to use the digital tools at our disposal is actually the biggest determinant of its effects. For platforms, it is finally time to embrace the responsibility that comes with the product.  COVID-19 has given us all a chance to move back to communication tech’s original promise. Already, our behaviours are shifting towards the intentional use of tech for good and we have a collective responsibility to continue that.