Tech giants tell workers to stay at home

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Google, Twitter and others, encourage homeworking to limit virus spread, while fake news exacerbates it

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3 March 2020 | 0

Google has taken the precautionary step of recommending that workers at its European headquarters, in Dublin, work from home today (03/03/2020) after a worker there reported flu-like symptoms.

“We continue to take precautionary measures to protect the health and safety of our workforce, in accordance with the advice of medical experts, and as part of that effort we have asked our Dublin teams to work from home tomorrow,” said a Google statement.

It has also been reported that Twitter has advised employees to do the same.

 

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“We are strongly encouraging all employees globally to work from home if they’re able,” wrote Jennifer Christie, human resources chief, Twitter, in a blog post.

“Our goal is to lower the probability of the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus for us — and the world around us.”

The news comes after a north Dublin school was closed for two weeks after a pupil returned from a high-risk area in Italy.

Various measures

Around the world, tech companies are taking a lead in advising employees to work from home as much as possible, to limit the spread of COVID-19. According to reports, Coinbase, a San Francisco based cryptocurrency company has also issued such advice.

Remote working, conferencing and disaster recovery vendors have been quick to offer advice on how organisations can leverage services and platforms to enable workers to stay at home.

Analysts and commentators have already said that supply chains have been disrupted, not just in China, which had an extended holiday shutdown as part of its containment efforts.

In its latest earnings call, Microsoft said that things are returning to normal, but there has been an impact.

“Although we see strong Windows demand in line with our expectations, the supply chain is returning to normal operations at a slower pace than anticipated at the time of our Q2 earnings call,” it stated.

There have also been unexpected impacts to the coronavirus outbreak. The Mexican beer brand Corona has seen a dramatic slump in sales, while the emergence of CoronaCoin has been branded a cynical attempt at cashing in.

Gatherings impact

Locally, many organisations organising events have been including advice about the outbreak.

One such note read:

“The health and safety of our guests is of the upmost importance to us and we are taking precautions for the safety of everyone attending our event. We are closely monitoring the situation relating to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and acknowledge the public concern. We are reviewing information from international health agencies, local governments and our own safety and security protocols. We respectfully ask that if you have visited an affected region in the past 14 days, not to travel to the event. For more information and advice visit the HSE web site.”

Criminal cash in

Amid the demand for information on precautions and best practice, Adam Levin, security expert at CyberScout warns:

“Victims are emailed malware laden links and contaminated email attachments falsely offering health safety advice or the latest news on the Coronavirus. The emails are designed to get the consumer to click for more information and then infect networks, recruit digital devices into botnet armies and lock up files demanding ransom.

The issue of both cyber criminals cashing in and manipulators using disinformation could contribute to making such outbreaks worse, according to research.

Fake news issue

According to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA), Fake news makes disease outbreaks worse.

The researchers focused on influenza, monkeypox and norovirus across two studies, and they say their findings could also be useful for dealing with the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak.

The team say that efforts to stop people sharing fake news, misinformation and harmful advice on social media could save lives.

The worry that fake news might be used to distort political processes or manipulate financial markets is well established. But less studied is the possibility that misinformation spread could harm human health, especially during the outbreak of an infectious disease.

COVID-19 expert Prof Paul Hunter and Dr Julii Brainard, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, set out to test the effect of sharing dangerously wrong information on human health during a disease outbreak.

Prof Hunter said: “Fake news is manufactured with no respect for accuracy, and is often based on conspiracy theories.

“Worryingly, research has shown that nearly 40% of the British public believe at least one conspiracy theory, and even more in the US and other countries. 

“When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and fake news circulating on the internet – about how the virus originated, what causes it and how it is spread.

“Misinformation means that bad advice can circulate very quickly – and it can change human behaviour to take greater risks.

“We have already seen how the rise of the anti-vax movement has created a surge in measles cases around the world.

“People in West Africa affected by the Ebola outbreak were more likely to practice unsafe burial practices if they believed misinformation. And here in the UK, 14% of parents have reported sending their child to school with symptoms of contagious chickenpox – violating school policies and official quarantine advice.

“Examples of risky behaviour during infectious disease outbreaks include not washing hands, sharing food with ill people, not disinfecting potentially contaminated surfaces, and failing to self-isolate.

“Worryingly, people are more likely to share bad advice on social media, than good advice from trusted sources such as the NHS, Public Health England or the World Health Organisation.”

Theoretical simulations

The researchers created theoretical simulations which took into account studies of real behaviour, how different diseases are spread, incubation periods and recovery times, and the speed and frequency of social media posting and real-life information sharing.

They also took into account how a distrust in conventional authorities is closely linked to the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, the phenomena that people interact within ‘information bubbles’ online, and the fact that people are more likely to share false stories than correct information online.

The researchers also investigated strategies to fight fake news – such as drowning bad information with good information and ‘immunising’ people against bad information though better education.

Dr Julii Brainard said: “No previous studies have looked in such detail at how the spread of misinformation affects the spread of disease.

“We found that misinformation during epidemics of infectious disease could make those outbreaks more severe.

“We tested strategies to reduce misinformation. In our first study, focusing on the flu, monkeypox and norovirus, we found that reducing the amount of harmful advice being circulated by just 10% – from 50% to 40% – mitigated the influence of bad advice on the outcomes of a disease outbreak.

“Making 20% of the population unable to share or believe harmful advice – or ‘immunising’ them against fake news, had the same positive effect.

“Our second study, which focused on norovirus, showed that even if 90% of the advice is good, some disease will still circulate,” said Dr Brainard.

TechCentral Reporters

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