The coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. has resulted in empty streets, shuttered businesses, and gut-wrenching impacts on everything from the restaurant industry to live entertainment. But as Americans remain stuck in their homes, some businesses, from grocery stores to Amazon, find themselves instead struggling to keep up with an unprecedented demand—and not even Facebook has figured out how to smoothly navigate the surge. The company reported Wednesday that the global pandemic is hitting the social media behemoth hard, as Facebook users around the world turn to its platforms just as its workforce is adjusting to the new reality. “We’re just trying to keep the lights on over here,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the New York Times in an interview published Wednesday. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Facebook’s traffic has heavily benefitted from the coronavirus outbreak, with the company reporting that messaging has increased by 50% and video calls on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp have doubled in countries hit hard by the pandemic. According to an internal Facebook report analyzed by the Times, the company has also seen an “unprecedented increase in the consumption of news articles on Facebook” as a result of the coronavirus, which has accounted for more than 50% of its news consumption in the U.S. Yet while the increased business is a boon for Facebook, it’s also putting a massive strain on an infrastructure that wasn’t prepared for such a sustained surge. “Our services were built to withstand spikes during events such as the Olympics or on New Year’s Eve. However, those happen infrequently, and we have plenty of time to prepare for them,” the company wrote in a blog post. “The usage growth from COVID-19 is unprecedented across the industry, and we are experiencing new records in usage almost every day.” Though Facebook’s response has benefited from the social network being banned in China, where coronavirus quarantines would have put an even bigger strain on its system, and having global Facebook usage spread out across time zones, Zuckerberg told the Times that the company was mobilizing its engineers to try and get a handle on the unexpected traffic boom. “It really is a big technical challenge,” Zuckerberg said. “We’re basically trying to ready everything we can.”
Part of the issue for Facebook is that its workforce isn’t accustomed to the work-from-home policy now being demanded by the pandemic, as Facebook has typically discouraged remote working and wasn’t equipped for its 45,000 employees to go remote all at once. As a result, the Times reports, “issues quickly piled up,” from buggy video chats to a widespread A.I. glitch that marked legitimate news from mainstream outlets as spam. While the bug was “routine,” the Times notes, Facebook managers said that thanks to the new remote workflow, “the amount of time it took to fix it was not.” Facebook’s content moderation has also suffered because of the company’s decision to put its massive team of moderators on paid leave, as the company believed they couldn’t effectively perform their work from home. “This means some reports will not be reviewed as quickly as they used to be and we will not get to some reports at all,” the company noted. While some full-time employees will moderate the most sensitive and necessary content to take down, the network will rely more heavily on artificial intelligence to screen its content—which, as the news glitch proved, isn’t always a reliable solution. “I do think it’s reasonable to expect that for some of the other categories where the severity might not be as imminent or extreme, that we may be a little less effective in the near term while we’re adjusting to this,” Zuckerberg told the Times.
Facebook’s struggle to address its coronavirus surge reflects how the coronavirus outbreak has, for the tech industry, been a double-edged sword. Silicon Valley has been a key player in the coronavirus response—Facebook alone has unveiled a suite of new features to help keep the public informed—and reaped the rewards of a global population forced to sit at home and communicate virtually with their loved ones. But as Facebook’s struggle to keep up suggests, there are also downsides to having unprecedented popularity—and even the tech behemoth isn’t immune from the economic realities of the pandemic. Though Facebook’s free features are being used widely, the company and other tech giants like Alphabet and Twitter are facing the same issue as media outlets across the globe, as advertisers facing decreased business pull the ad revenue the media industry needs to survive. “We don’t monetize many of the services where we’re seeing increased engagement, and we’ve seen a weakening in our ads business in countries taking aggressive actions to reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Facebook said in its blog post. While Facebook’s size and outsized role in the online ad business means the company will likely weather the storm better than the local news outlets expected to take the hardest hit, it’s clear that in these unprecedented times, not even Silicon Valley’s biggest names are going to emerge scot-free.
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