Criticism as tech giants cash in on pandemic

Elephants in the room: Lockdown massively increased our reliance on digital businesses.

Is Big Tech profiting from human misery? In the next 36 hours, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon results will show surging growth. Fully deserved? Or morally dubious?

Throughout modern history, a few powerful industries have dominated the global economy. In the 19th Century, it was said that “cotton is king”. In the 20th Century, car manufacturers such as Ford and General Motors employed millions of people, bringing luxury goods to the masses. So far, the 21st Century is the century of Big Tech.

Today, Google’s parent company Alphabet, and its rival Microsoft, will report their earnings for the first quarter of 2021. Tomorrow, it will be Facebook’s turn, and on Thursday Amazon and Twitter will make their own reports. It is expected that all of them will announce a big boost in profits.

Throughout the pandemic, digital giants have bucked the economic trend. While shops, bars and restaurants closed their doors, tech company profits shot up.

In fact, experts believe that the tech giants have benefited directly from the pandemic. Most of their revenues come from online advertising, which has soared during the pandemic.

During lockdown, people turned to online shopping or social media to while away their monotonous days indoors. Currently, as many people emerge from lockdown, they are looking to celebrate by buying new things, often driven by online adverts.

Now some people are accusing Big Tech of profiteering. In a recent interview, the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen claimed that social media companies “are profiting off of death”, arguing that they have cashed in on the spread of misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic on their platforms.

Defenders of big tech companies suggest that the spread of misinformation about the disease is just the price we pay for the unprecedented freedom of expression that social media grants to its users.

But others think digital players are actively encouraging online misinformation for their own profits. They point out that the more time people spend on social media, the more money the platforms make through advertising. And allowing misinformation to spread can be a good way of keeping users on their sites.

This is because when people start believing in conspiracy theories about Covid-19, they tend to seek out others who believe the same. The result is to spend hours trawling social media getting their beliefs confirmed by other users, and arguing with those who do not agree with them.

While Amazon does not make its revenues from online advertising, critics assert that it has also profited from the pandemic.

Unable to visit shops, many consumers have turned to Amazon’s delivery services for the things they need. So Amazon has been a lifeline for households in quarantine. But this has come at a cost for its warehouse workers and delivery drivers, who work long, intense shifts for low pay and little job security.

Is Big Tech profiting from human misery?

Misinformed?

Yes, say some. Leading sociologist Shoshana Zuboff writes about the particular impact that social media sites have had on the young. She argues that they encourage users to construct online identities that are difficult to live up to, which can cause mental illness. For Zuboff, the business model of Big Tech is unethical.

Not at all, say others. Tech companies of all sizes supply people with what they need: communication, deliveries and entertainment. Far from benefiting from human misery, the pandemic would have been unthinkable without them!

You Decide

  1. Think of some ways in which you have relied more on technology since the pandemic struck.
  2. Is it morally wrong to make money out of a natural disaster like a pandemic?

Activities

  1. Imagine you have formed a new tech company whose aim is to put a stop to online misinformation. Working in a small group, design a logo for this new company.
  2. Form a small group and think up three proposals for halting the spread of misinformation online.

Some People Say...

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955), German-American physicist.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that online misinformation has been a public health hazard during the pandemic. Conspiracy theories about mask-wearing and vaccines have spread quickly in online communities. Some people have become convinced that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, based on mRNA technology, will alter their DNA. Others came to believe that a clause in Magna Carta, a document written in 1215 by rebellious barons, makes it illegal for the state to close their businesses.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not the government should step in to regulate social media. Some think that for as long as there is profit to be made out of online misinformation, social media companies will be unwilling to stamp it out themselves. But others worry that state regulation could be a slippery slope. They point to the example of India, where the government made Twitter delete posts criticising its handling of the pandemic, as an example of the dangers of state interference.

Word Watch

Cotton is king
A slogan coined in the pro-slavery American South in the years before the Civil War. Southerners were convinced that they could use their monopoly on raw cotton production to put pressure on Britain to support them against the anti-slavery Northern states.
Ford
Henry Ford pioneered the use of the assembly line, a conveyor belt that carries materials from one workstation to the next. This allowed each worker to specialise in a single task that they would perform repeatedly without variation, a more efficient way of building a complex product. This made his motor company one of the most successful in the world.
General Motors
An American car manufacturer that was once one of the biggest companies in the world, employing more than 600,000 people alone and enjoying a 50% market share in the USA.
Report their earnings
Every three months, i.e. every quarter of a year or “quarter” for short, major companies publicly release some key financial details about their performances. Investors will decide on the basis of these reports where to put their money.
Profiteering
Making a profit by unethical means, such as exploiting a natural disaster to make money out of people.
Shoshana Zuboff
An American sociologist who has written extensively about the power of Big Tech companies.

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