The Technology 202: Happy Zoomsgiving! Here’s how tech is expected to play an essential role in this year’s celebrations

Tech companies will play a pivotal role in the holidays for many families, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends against traveling or gathering due to climbing coronavirus cases. That means a grid of videoconferencing boxes be supplanting the traditional table in many households, and marketing emails are replacing Black Friday doorbusters. 

The virtual gatherings and rise in online shopping expected this week is a sign of how even more powerful tech has become during 2020. 

This time last year, it would have been hard for many of us to imagine holiday celebrations happening digitally. Holidays were typically a time reserved for logging off and getting real facetime with loved ones. 

But the coronavirus has forced an unprecedented shift in how people socialize and celebrate that could have long-lasting impacts well after the pandemic ends. And it’s made us ever more reliant on a handful of companies who are powering that revolution.  

Families are getting creative with planning virtual celebrations — especially if they’re Zoom fatigued from work and school. They’re finding ways to watch holiday movies together from across the country using Chrome extensions, or they’re meeting online in video games like Animal Crossing. 

Lisa Long, who is immunosuppressed and can’t get together with her nieces and nephews, told MIT Technology Review that her family is planning to get together in Bloxburg, a simulation game on the popular video game platform Roblox. Her daughters and cousins have been building a “house” where they can have their holiday celebration. 

But the holidays are also expected to push Silicon Valley’s limits. 

Work meetings and classroom life have adjusted to Zoom. But the holidays are likely to highlight the areas where the tech industry’s offerings are still falling short, as it can be difficult to recreate the magic of an in person get-together with a shaky WiFi signal, or that one uncle who always forgets he’s on mute. 

And the challenges for Silicon Valley won’t end when the leftover turkey is packed away. Online sales in November and December are expected to surge 33 percent year over year to a record $189 billion, according to estimates from Adobe Analytics. And increasing shutdowns and rising cases could force more people to do more personal shopping online again as well, potentially overwhelming e-commerce providers and shipping networks. 

Here’s how tech companies say they’re preparing for a busy holiday week:

  • Zoom is going to waive its 40-minute limit on free accounts’ calls on Thanksgiving Day to facilitate gatherings. “We operate our own global (co-located) data centers around the globe, providing significant control and flexibility when it comes to routing both audio and video traffic,” Zoom spokeswoman Colleen Rodriguez said in a statement. “In addition we work with public cloud providers to help with increased demand.”
  • Facebook continues to offer Messenger Rooms, which allow groups of friends and family to video chat. It also launched a ‘Watch Together’ feature earlier this fall that allows people to jointly watch television shows such a “Community” from different locations. The company also is running a campaign to encourage charitable giving, especially as Turkey Trots and other seasonal charitable events go virtual.
  • Google is offering unlimited video conferencing calls with up to 100 people for up to 24 hours through March 31 for all free accounts. The service offers virtual backgrounds, which people can use to make their backdrop more festive for the holidays. It also offers gaming features for trivia. Google also offers live captions for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Amazon is planning for its busiest holiday shopping season ever, and the company told investors to expect record-breaking revenue and costs. “We’re seeing more customers than ever shopping early for their holiday gifts, which is just one of the signs that this is going to be an unprecedented holiday season,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said in a statement last month. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) The company has been aggressively hiring to respond to this anticipated surge in demand, adding more than 100,000 full and part-time jobs across its operations network in September. On top of that, the company has added 100,000 new seasonal jobs to address the holiday rush.

My Post colleagues have also been writing about ways to create new traditions and connect during this strange Thanksgiving. Read more from Jura Koncius. 

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Facebook employees and executives are at odds over how to balance limiting misinformation with growth. 

As Trump was promoting baseless claims about election fraud and claiming early victory, Facebook employees proposed an emergency change to the company’s algorithm to surface more news sources Facebook deemed more authoritative using an internal ranking. The change resulted in more content surfacing from mainstream publishers such as CNN, the Times and NPR, and less from hyper-partisan pages such as Breitbart and Occupy Democrats. 

Some employees argued the change should become permanent, even though it was unknown how it would affect how much time people spend on the site. 

“The news feed debate illustrates a central tension that some inside Facebook are feeling acutely these days: that the company’s aspirations of improving the world are often at odds with its desire for dominance,” the Times reporters wrote. 

Guy Rosen, a Facebook executive who oversees Facebook’s integrity division, said on a call with reporters last week that the changes were always meant to be temporary. “There has never been a plan to make these permanent,” he said. 

Facebook’s own employees found its free pass for politicians’ posts facilitated misinformation. 

Since 2018, the company has maintained a “whitelist” of about 112,000 accounts belonging to politicians whose posts can’t be fact-checked, according to the Information’s Alex Heath. Before Facebook publicly announced this policy, its own employees had privately warned that exempting those politicians from fact-checking “is protecting content that is especially likely to deceive,” according to an internal presentation reviewed by the Information. 

The employees, led by three researchers on Facebook’s team overseeing civic discourse, wanted to disband the list. They cited a survey that found Facebook’s users were more likely to believe falsehoods when they were shared by a government official or candidate. 

Facebook’s leaders did not heed their warning, and they continued to exempt politicians’ posts from fact-checking. Yet they allowed labels on content shared from other sources that had been debunked, and later decided to apply labels to all election-related content. 

The policies are coming under new scrutiny as President Trump pushes a significant amount of misinformation about the election as he refuses to officially concede the race. 

YouTube temporarily suspended the Trump-friendly channel One America News Network. 

The one-week suspension from posting new videos or live streams came after YouTube found the network violated its coronavirus misinformation policies by uploading a video promoting a fake coronavirus cure, Ashley Gold reports for Axios. The tech company also stripped OAN from making money off existing content. 

YouTube removed the video that triggered the strike. It marks the company’s first crackdown on OAN. The network will have to reapply to the company’s partner program if it wants to monetize its video again. The network also risks having its account permanently banned if it violates policies again and receives more strikes. 

The move reflects a growing willingness of tech companies to crack down on misinformation that relates to the pandemic — even when it’s from prominent conservative accounts that have accused tech companies of holding a political bias. 

YouTube is taking action as it comes under fire for not doing enough to address election misinformation. Four Democrats yesterday wrote a letter to the Google-owned company, asking CEO Susan Wojcicki to commit to removing content with false or misleading information about the 2020 election as well as the Senate runoff in Georgia. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and other Democratic senators also sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter, asking them about the steps they’re taking to address disinformation in Georgia, including Spanish-language content. 

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One of the more normal things Trump has done this month:

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