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The Role of Tech Companies in Amplifying Misinformation and Disinformation that Surrounds the Covid-19 Pandemic

Posted on 4 min read

Infodemic has been a word that is closely related to the Covid-19 pandemic. As the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread and turned into a pandemic, an information epidemic has been going on in the world; what is now referred to as the infodemic. This refers to a rapid and far-reaching spread of both accurate and inaccurate information about Covid-19, making it hard to learn essential information about the pandemic. This is the current state of the world.

Behind the infodemic is the use of technology that has made it possible for anybody to widely share information, disinformation and misinformation. In today’s world, anybody can share information with a global audience using platforms such as social media. This has made it possible for conspiracy theories, fake news, propaganda or even hoaxes to spread easily. Some of this has made it hard to fight the spread of Covid-19 as people cannot tell what is true and what is false.

What role do technology companies play in this?

Tech companies dictate how people consume information. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and others have taken over the place of traditional media and their mode of operation has made it easier to share inaccurate information. As we will see, the way these tech platforms are designed to work is what makes them good channels for misinformation and disinformation.

Creating Filter Bubbles

A major selling point of tech-based media companies is the ability to customize content for every person, thus delivering specific content and of interest to each user. This approach has helped tech companies to grow because the users only receive what they want to see and hear, unlike the traditional media where one size was offered to fit all.

Unfortunately, this approach has serious undoing. Customized content means that one can avoid anything contrary to what they want to hear, and still be fed with an endless stream of what they need. People only get to see information that they want and opposing voices are gradually suppressed. You get to see information that aligns with your believes and worldviews, even if it is wrong.

This has helped fan misinformation and disinformation because objective facts are shunned in favor of content that will generate likes and clicks. Recommendation engines give users what they want to see, not what is truthful or factual. This works closely with another innate behaviour of human beings to seek facts that confirm what they already or want to believe.

Confirmation Bias

At the onset of the pandemic, people were looking for answers and narratives to help explain what was happening. Some turned to science, others to pseudo-science, and others to conspiracy theories. The origin of the virus, the mode of transmission, how it was spreading from one region to another and whether the virus was a natural occurrence or a bio weapon were all a matter of speculation.

People formed opinions and narratives to make sense of the world. They would then go online to find information about the same. When they found information that matched with what they already believed, the belief was strengthened further. Consequently, some conspiracy theories gained more momentum through online sources. People believed that 5G networks were the cause of Covid-19, and there was enough content online to support this. Others said that Africans were immune to the virus and there were online communities talking about this.

By helping people confirm what they already assumed, tech companies helped spread misinformation and disinformation.

Celebrity Voices/Influencers

Celebrities and influencers have a lot of influence on societies today. They can bypass the traditional media and pass their message to millions of people using various tools such as social media.

Unfortunately, the information they pass may not be very accurate, and at times it might be completely wrong. Tech companies were at loss trying to figure out what to do with such people, and the Covid-19 pandemic made things worse. The problem is that when these influential people share information, it is believed by many people who look up to them.

Content Moderation

An attempt to regulate the kind of information shared on tech platforms has a serious downside. It is hard to regulate content in a post-truth society, where everything is relative. This is why tech companies did not know what to do with the problem of fake news, until after the pandemic and the 2020 US Election.

Moderation is still a problem because of many factors. The number of users is large. There are also many languages. Political interests exist and some matters are heavily disputed, even among the experts. It is also a delicate matter of freedom of speech because a free society needs space even for dissenting opinions. As Natan Sharansky puts it, free societies are societies in which the right of dissent is protected.

Technology companies should have foreseen that and planned on what to do early enough. Instead of waiting to act when the world was faced with a matter of life and death, there should have been some preset guidelines.

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Dangers of Tech-driven Solutions to Covid-19

Posted on 5 min read

Whenever disruption happens, the ability to withstand the disruption is dependent on the capacity to adapt to the new normal. People and organizations seek tools and resources that can make it easier for them to adapt, making it possible for them to survive the tough times. This was the case with the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the world was disrupted, people turned to technology as a tool to help them cope with the new normal. Technology helped the world continue working away from the office, get shopping and supplies delivered to homes, maintain social distance, monitor vaccine rollout, perform contact tracing, share news about the spread of the virus, keep students learning, and many more. Without tech solutions, it would have been harder for the world to cope.

However, there are some downsides to the use of technology in mitigating the impacts of Covid-19 and helping people cope. We look at how tech-driven solutions were applied after Covid-19 and some of the dangers that they pose to users.

Privacy Concerns

Contact tracing and social distancing apps have been used to help monitor people for contact with people infected with the virus. This is a key step to curbing the spread of Covid-19, considering that the primary means of spread is through exposure to infected persons. Since it was hard to know if the people you came into contact with were carrying the virus, the apps would let one know if they had come into contact with a person who later turned positive. This is a useful piece of technology helping with contact tracing.

However, the use of these tools has not been without a downside. There was a lot of concern about user privacy with these tech-driven solutions. First, the Big Tech has not been known to be very privacy-conscious, unless when pushed to do be so. Some of the business models employed by tech companies are dependent on not being very stringent on privacy, and privacy concerns have majorly been implemented as afterthoughts. This raises concern that most tech companies cannot be trusted to make decisions that put users first, as far as privacy is concerned.

Tech-driven solutions helped to offer information and contact tracing service

Would these tech-driven solutions compromise privacy? Already, we have seen people raise concerns that tools that are logging location and sharing it with third parties could be a concern. However, technology companies worked to assure people that their data was safe. Would people believe that? Not everybody.

This was about contact tracing, but there are other areas of concern when it comes to privacy. A different application is tools that have been used to monitor exams remotely. While these have made it easier for remote learning to continue, most users were not aware of how such tools work. The tools are invasive and users should have been educated on how to ensure that their privacy is catered for during and after the exams.

Exclusion and Digital Divide

In the world today, technology seems to be everywhere, especially when we look from the perspective of tech-savvy people and digital natives. However, this is not a very accurate depiction of the world today. There are still many people who lag behind in terms of technology adoption.

In Kenya, it is not easy to implement digital technologies in rural areas. Some areas are limited by infrastructure. Digital literacy is also low and income levels are also wanting. These are some of the hindrances that tech driven solutions to Covid-19 would need to overcome.

With this background, it is evident that some people will not benefit from many tech driven interventions. People without smartphones cannot use contact tracing apps. People without mobile phones may not be alerted when their second dose of vaccine is due. Those without power may not be aware about the spread of Covid-19 because they do not have access to the news.

Technology could easily lead to exclusion because people do not have access to the same resources. A classic example is the education sector, where there were attempts to make learning online in Kenya, but with mixed results. Children from wealthy backgrounds have access to the internet and computers, making it easy for them to keep learning even when schools are closed. On the other hand, students from poor backgrounds couldn’t afford to be online. The longer the schools were closed, the poorer children continued to be disadvantaged. While technology was hailed as a game changer in the age of Covid-19, the same technology was helping widen the inequality levels.

Making Tech Driven Solutions Work

The problems highlighted above are unintended consequences of technology-driven solutions. This means that they can be worked around so that tech solutions can be more accessible and inclusive, and the welfare of users is taken care of.

One of the approaches is to control the influence and participation of for-profit companies in designing and implementing these tech solutions. Public health solutions need to be spearheaded by the institutions that primarily deal with public health and not tech companies. This will ensure that commercial interests do not override the safety concerns of the users.

The use of tech driven solutions should not be taken as a master fix in solving Covid-19 related problems. They need to be supplemented with other solutions so that not part of the society will be excluded due to lack of resources, connectivity or skills. For example, the approach to remote learning involved the use of different technologies and tools. Teachers could use WhatsApp because more students had it. Learning programs were also put on radio and TV, increasing the reach. That was also not enough because some people would still be left out. At one point, the government was asking teachers to teach in their estates and villages. This was an attempt to get all students covered.

Technology is good and goes a long way in helping the world cope with the pandemic. However, the possible negative and unintended consequences must be put into consideration for a better experience.

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How Covid-19 will Reshape Technology and Innovations in the Future

It is hard to imagine how the world would have coped with the Covid-19 pandemic if science and technology had not come to the rescue.

From the onset of the pandemic, different technologies and innovative solutions have been deployed to help people navigate through life and work. Monitoring social distancing and isolation, managing testing and vaccinations, facilitating remote work, keeping people connected, and keeping children in school, are some of the areas where technology has come to the rescue. The impact of this will continue to be felt even in the post-pandemic world.

We look at how the pandemic has shaped technology and innovations and how this will look like in the future.

Homegrown Technologies

The global ventilator shortage meant that even those who had resources could not access the crucial equipment that was needed to treat Covid-19 patients. This extended to other equipment for medical care both at the hospitals and home-based care use.

The result of this was that people started making their own ventilators and other tools that were necessary. Cloth manufacturers like KICOTEC in Kenya quickly switched to manufacturing masks and other PPEs. University students designed ventilators to help cope with the shortage. Some local artisans started to make hospital beds. There were numerous cases of innovative hand washing stations popping out in different places.

In the ICT sector, different solutions made it possible to social distance, track people in self-isolation, manage vaccine rollout, or even help people shop remotely.

This spike in innovation is something that will continue even in the future. The Covid-19 pandemic gave rise to entrepreneurs and innovators who found a market for their novel inventions. The wave of this new breed of innovators will continue to be felt even in the future.

Accelerated Adoption

Many people find it hard to believe that Zoom existed before the pandemic. The option to work remotely was not available in many organizations. Running whole conferences virtually was a rare thing. Paying for groceries using mobile money was not a very common thing.

During the pandemic, so much has changed within a short period of time. Technologies that were largely ignored became a lifeline. People learnt that they can work remotely and deliver just like in-person jobs. The need to travel around the world to attend a conference that can be attended virtually is no longer there.

This changing world is making it easy for people to adopt new technologies and creating a market for the same. Remote collaboration tools now have a wider market, and more people are investing in them. The access control system that also take temperature measurements are now in use, and more manufacturers are focusing on them. The preference for cashless payment systems is giving a lifeline to Fintechs that are innovating in this area.

The pandemic will continue to be a catalyst for increased technology use and innovations.

Resilience in Design

Perhaps, one technology that was designed to scale and grow with demand is the internet itself. During the pandemic, we saw internet traffic increase significantly, but the systems that make it work were able to cope with the huge demand.

Behind the screens, internet pathways allow a great amount of information to be transferred and even accommodate the spike in traffic. There are redundant paths for internet traffic. There are cache servers that bring content closer to people who are accessing it. Net neutrality means that all traffic is treated equally, giving every resource that is in high demand unthrottled access. This characteristic of the internet made it possible for people to be online without needing to scale up equipment such as routers, optical fibers and other internet gateways.

The pandemic experience showed the need for systems that can scale quickly and this is going to be a standard good practice in the future. For any technology to be future-proof, it needs to be built in a way that it can handle any black swan like the Covid-19 pandemic. Covid has made this obvious.

Fostering Inclusivity

The problem of digital divide was hugely felt when learning was taken online. Many platforms could be used to keep children learning while schools were closed, but serious bottlenecks arose. Connectivity became a problem in many places. In other places, gadgets were not available. In most cases, there was limited or no internet connectivity.

This problem has found a solution in the way new technologies are helping overcome these problems. We now have solutions that are not dependent on full-time internet connection and that can work in places without access to mains electricity. Innovators have also come up with learning tools that can work in feature phones, thus allowing students from resource-constrained environments to keep learning.

The pandemic highlighted the need to have technologies that can cater to a diverse group of people who have different needs and resources. At the same time, the need to bridge the digital divide has seen more resources being allocated to undeserved communities, and we will see more innovations in this area.

Post-Pandemic

In the post-pandemic world, we expect to see the world moving at a faster pace in terms of technology and innovation. We have already seen barriers being broken and what would be considered bleeding technologies being normalized. A world that has been exposed to new technologies will see more tech solutions at all levels, and from different innovators. The world will also need to be ready for the next pandemic and here again, technology takes a leading role.

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How Much can you Make from a Website in Kenya?

You’ve probably heard about this person who runs a website and is making thousands of shillings every day by placing ads on their website. The next thought that comes to mind is that you can also do the same and earn some extra income. It is supposed to be passive income which you will make even when you are sleeping.

How true is this, and how easy is it for someone to make money from a blog? How much money can one expect to make?

We take a look at this question which many people have considered, and others have tried with mixed level of success (or failure).

Online Advertising

Online advertising has provided website owners and creatives with an opportunity to make money using their online content. Advertisers pay ad platforms such as AdSense to place their ads on various websites or apps, and these ad platforms share the revenue with the owners of the websites. The unique thing about this arrangement is that advertisers are often charged only when someone clicks on the ad. This means that if an ad is shown and it is not clicked, the advertiser will not pay anything (in most cases).

This advertising strategy is attractive because ideally, the advertiser is assured of value. On the other hand, the ad platforms try to march the ads with the audience that is most likely to click the ads. These ads are dynamically inserted into a website when one accesses the website, and the ads differ from one person to another. The ads you see on this website is not what someone else sees.

By allowing ads to be placed on their websites, websites owners can make some money.

How Much can you expect to Earn?

The amount of money that one can earn through ads is dependent on a number of factors. These include the number of views, the ad density – which is the number of ads showing on the page, the type of content, and even the source of the traffic.

The more the views that a website has, the more one is likely to earn because it means that there are more people who are likely to click an ad. Success here requires one to have a website that has a high traffic.

The number of ads displayed per page will also be another factor. Website owners usually decide how many ads appear on a page, and the higher the number of ads, the more the earnings. This is because there are higher chances of ads being clicked. However, too many ads negatively impact the user experience.

The source of your traffic also matters, and the earnings per click vary from one country to another. A website with visitors from the US will earn more per click than one with visitors from Kenya. This is because advertisers in those country pay more for the ads, hence more payment per click.

The quality of traffic also matters. If you have some niche traffic, like the legal profession, you are likely to get higher returns as opposed to websites with a general audience. This is because an advertiser targeting lawyers is likely to pay more than one targeting the general population.

How Much are People Making in Kenya?

How much money do website owners make in Kenya?

Based on the factors discussed above, it is extremely hard to tell a general figure for everybody. The amounts vary. However, from experience, I can share a few figures that I have seen people making from three different websites.

Type of WebsiteEarnings (KShs) per 1000 page views
News website300
Entertainment website115
Topical blog380

Based on above figures, one needs to have quite a huge traffic to make meaningful money from online ads. Even on YouTube channels, 1000 views will give you something in the neighborhood of KShs 75. A more realistic conclusion is that ad supported website is not a viable business in Kenya, for the amount of input required is too high, compared to the returns. (I wish people with websites and YouTube channels can share what they earn to give a better picture).

How then can one make meaningful amount of money from a website? How do the existing ones survive?

In my opinion, one needs to have a greater objective than just making money from ads. This way, a website can be sustainable since money from the ads will be a minor motivation for having the website.

A good source of income from website is the promoted posts, where website owners publish marketing content on a website at a fee. Popular websites charge anything from KShs 15,000 per single article, with niche website earning more to publish content that is industry related.

If you have some good traffic, this could be a good starting point.

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Impact of Covid-19 on the Emerging Technology Development

One of the positive outcomes of the Covid-19 pandemic is the accelerated the uptake of new technologies that would have taken longer to be adopted. For both corporations and individuals, the technological leap has been remarkable.

Virtual meetings have been normalized and there has been an increase in uptake of cashless transactions. Remote working and cloud solutions are now common words. For corporates, the leap has been huge. Reports show that corporates have accelerated the digitization of their internal operations by up to three or four years. In creating digitally enhanced offerings, some companies have made leaps of up to ten years. It is like the world has made a ten-year leap in the form of technology adoption. All this is thanks to the pandemic.

Tech Adoption Fueling Development

How did the increased uptake of different technologies during the pandemic impact the development of the same?

Usually, user adoption is one of the factors that dictate the speed of development of new technologies. One classic example is the cloud meeting service provider Zoom which existed before the pandemic. Zoom was a little-known company before the pandemic struck. Once Covid-19 hit, social distancing measures and limits on physical gatherings meant that people could not meet as often as was necessary. Zoom had its big moment when it emerged as the market leader in cloud meetings.

But that was just a start. The Zoom that was before the pandemic is not the Zoom that we have today. It has undergone a lot of changes to suit mass usage. It is now more secure to use. Zoom can allow conferences to run smoothly. It has mechanisms for registration and to prevent meeting gate crashing (Zoombombing). Other meeting cloud meeting providers such as Meet, Skype, Teams and others have also undergone intensive development to make them easier to use. All this has been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 and Emerging Technologies

The rapid development of new technologies triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic is not limited to cloud meeting solutions. Individuals and corporates have been looking for solutions in the areas of education, healthcare, production, business, productivity, research and development, among others.

This has led to rapid use of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Big Data. Today, we see the Big Tech rushing into the world of virtual reality and increasingly talking about the metaverse. This is in anticipation that the world will need to embrace virtual reality even more, with Covid-19 having acted as a dry run.

The supply of goods and services was also widely disrupted by Covid-19, with both manufacturing and supply chain systems taking a direct hit. Consequently, more firms are embracing increased automation to guard against such disruptive events. Labor shortage is being mitigated by the use of cobots and this has opened an opportunity for the growth of the automation industry.

Robotics has also found useful applications and accelerated development. A case example is Boston Dynamics creating robots that helped reduce exposure of frontline health workers to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Another technology that has received a shot in the arm from Covid-19 is the 5G technology. As people moved to work from home and cloud meetings became more necessary, robust communication networks were necessary to ensure that people remained connected. One such technology is the 5G network, which allows for better internet speeds and more devices to be connected to the internet. The period after the pandemic marked a huge growth in the adoption of 5G technologies.

There are many other cases of technology application driven by Covid-19. Online civic education has accelerated. Online entertainment services such as Netflix had tremendous growth. Ecommerce and food delivery services peaked. Chatbots have been used to provide Covid-19 related information, as well as for mental health support. Hospitals started using robots to minimize human contact. 3D printing helped to quickly produce components for ventilators. Drones have found a place in delivery services. The list is long.

Kenyan Context

Locally, EdTech startups are experiencing momentous growth. Parents and schools are finding it necessary to employ AI-based learning platforms that can provide an individualized learning plan for their children. AI-based learning platform M-Shule has experienced remarkable growth. In areas where skills and resources have not enabled remote learning, people are working on simple solutions that can work on basic phones and do not consume a lot of resources. A case example is the growth of the M-Lugha app which is helping students in Northern Kenya to continue learning even when schools are closed.

In the health sector, startups like AfyaRekod employ AI and various blockchain modules to help health facilities work around health data. Covid-19 pandemic made their services even more necessary as people adopted e-health, something that was picking up sluggishly before the pandemic. As this happens, more health startups are focusing on the same.

Conclusion

The impact of all these is people are exposed to new technologies, and developers start to focus on these people since they have increased capacity to use different technologies. The other direct impact is that prompted by the pandemic, there are more venture capitalists committed to investing in the same areas. This further fuels the adoption of several of these emerging technologies locally and globally.

It is not easy to precisely quantify the extent to which Covid-19 has impacted the development and adoption of many of these emerging technologies, but there is a clear indication that it has increased both adoption and development. Technologically, the pandemic has helped the world leapfrog several years ahead.

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