From suggested self-quarantines to the sudden shutting down of businesses (and countless workers being laid off) the past month has brought unprecedented hardships for millions of Americans. Inevitable comparisons have been drawn between the coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which infected 500 million people and resulted in an astounding 50 million deaths.
But unlike then, a vibrant digital economy now exists to cater to Americans’ myriad needs as the world retreats indoors. Thanks to e-commerce and the lightning-fast spread of information via the digital domain and tech companies, Americans across the country can be #TogetherApart and support each other to get the help they need.
Countless companies and organizations such as the Taxpayers Protection Alliance hold regular staff meetings through Skype and Zoom, ensuring that work can get done at such a turbulent time. So, amid the loneliness and suffering, online platforms have made all the difference for millions of Americans struggling to provide for their loved ones and keep them safe.
In past crises (i.e. the L.A. riots, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina), Americans turned to all sorts of alternative media to get the facts they needed. Major news outlets such as CNN and Fox could only report information so quickly, and perspectives offered were limited to the handful of talking heads in the employ of these giant media conglomerates. Naturally, Americans turned to fun, spicy publications such as the National Enquirer to fulfill their craving for different takes on pressing problems facing the world. But for Americans who wanted better alternative content than Elvis and UFO sightings, tabloid rags offered little value.
Now, thanks to the rise of digital platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, there’s no real need for curated counter-news with a kooky bent. It’s little wonder that the Enquirer’s circulation has fallen roughly 90% over the past 20 years.
Americans curious about the differing predictions offered by health experts can easily follow epidemiologists such as University of California, Irvine professor Andrew Noymer and University of Michigan scholar Lindsay Kobayashi. Public intellectuals such as Nassim Talib have been positively prolific on Twitter in sharing thoughts and predictions of the pandemic.
Digital platforms are even attempting to pivot their verification procedures around academic and public health credibility — for example, putting out “a call for accounts that are ‘providing credible updates around #COVID19.’”
And sure, there’s bound to be fake news, and there’s been plenty of needed public push-back against glib comments on websites such as Facebook and Twitter dismissing the seriousness of the crisis or calling it a “hoax.” But vigilant users have rightly shamed such accounts and platforms have been proactive in suspending accounts spreading spurious information. Users posing as hospitals, for instance, have faced immediate account suspension.
In addition to offering a healthy helping of up-to-date information, the digital domain offers struggling Americans speedy deliveries of foodstuffs and other essential items. Delivery services such as Shipt, Instacart, and Amazon Pantry are seeing a sharp uptick in demand as consumers try their best to avoid germ-ridden grocery stores.
And with tight competition between these delivery services, companies are stepping up with innovative practices that keep consumers safe from the coronavirus. Consumer Reports notes, “If you’re concerned about having to interact with a grocery delivery person, some of the services have options in which groceries are delivered without your having to come to the door or be at home. Unattended deliveries are available if you shop for groceries from Prime Now, Amazon Fresh, and Whole Foods Market. You simply select the option at checkout.” Instacart and DoorDash have allowed similar options for consumers intent on social distancing.
These digital innovations are more important than ever, even as lawmakers openly question their value and scheme to regulate them out of existence. Last year, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., openly wondered, “Are these platforms — the social-media platforms in particular — are those really good for the economy, for society, for the country? Are they really adding anything at all?” When Hawley suggests burying digital platforms under a mountain of legal costs by removing Section 230 liability protections that have social media to thrive, there are costs that become apparent only in a situation like the one we face now. This crisis is allowing the Hawleys of the world to recognize the immense benefits offered by digital apps and innovations.
The internet and its most popular websites may not be perfect, but they’re certainly doing their part to keep Americans safe and in-the-know about the coronavirus. There will be many lessons learned from this pandemic. Let’s hope that one of them is that big (and small) tech kept us in touch, fed, and entertained during this time of crisis. Politicians and bureaucrats need to understand that overregulation of the digital domain will make us less prepared in the future.
Ross Marchand is the director of policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.