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Today's webinar took the form of a conversation between Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI’s Director-General, and Steve Hatch, Facebook’s Regional Director for Northern Europe. Given Steve’s expertise, much of the discussion revolved around technology and its uses during the coronavirus pandemic, but we also touched on various other issues. Here are the key takeaways:
- The government’s made progress, but there’s more still to come
- The importance of restart planning
- The distinction between real-world harms and free speech
- What Facebook has learnt during the crisis…
- …and what it’s thinking about for after the crisis.
Progress, but more still to come
As we’ve said in most of our recent webinars: this has been, in Carolyn’s words, “a really big week” for the government’s business support schemes.
Monday saw the introduction of the online portal for the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), through which businesses can claim money for furloughed employees. The money is meant to take six working days to come through – which means a deadline of midnight tonight for business who want to receive the cash for 30 April.
On the same day, the scheme that was previously known as CBILS+, but which now goes by the acronym CLBILS (the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme), was also launched. This is a loan scheme for businesses that are too big for the main CBILS and too small for the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility (yet another acronym: CCFF).
And there was also the launch of the Future Fund to support start-ups that were previously prevented from applying for emergency finance because they haven’t yet become profitable. This amounts to £500 million of funding for loans ranging from £125,000 to £5 million, dependent on equal funding from investors.
Alongside the Future Fund, another £750 million has been made available – through Innovate UK – for SMEs that are focussed on R&D. This was, as Carolyn pointed out, “a specific recommendation from the CBI”.
So, a long list of new funds and systems! As Carolyn said, it’s been mostly “so far, so good” for all of them. The CBI has heard from many businesses who find the JRS portal easy to use. We have also spoken to a major regional employer who regards CLBILS as a “lifeline” – as they would have had to make redundancies without it. And Carolyn described the start-up funding as a “very good solution”.
However, there are some caveats. The JRS portal does have some glitches – one Cumbrian business told us that it took them 5 hours to furlough only 8 workers. And there are still some practical questions about how National Insurance Contributions factor into the calculations; around employees seconded to the UK; and around domestic workers with no tax returns.
The CBI is pushing for answers to these questions, but a large part of our focus remains on the main CBILS scheme. “If you’re [a] small [business], the loans are proving hard to get,” said Carolyn. “We are looking to put concrete proposals to the Treasury. You will hear more from us in the next 24 hours.”
Carolyn raised another question about the JRS: partial furloughing. “Whether firms can bring their people back on a partial basis,” she said, “is going to be an increasingly important issue” as we approach the restart phase of the crisis.
And yet there is no guidance from the government so far. As it stands, “the definition of a furloughed employee is someone who’s not allowed to work” – there is no accommodation for employees who might work one or two hours a day, or perhaps a few days a week. “We will very much be on the case about that,” said Carolyn.
In fact, Carolyn called for a clearer approach to the restart in general: “Of course, public health should be at the heart of all of this… [but] we do want the kind of partnership with government that sets a timetable for when business can start to plan.” The CBI has already been talking with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), among others, about setting up a council or commission to help with this process.
Carolyn added: “We mustn’t lose sight of what can be done now.” The publication of sector-by-sector health and safety guidance has been incredibly useful for businesses who are thinking about reopening already. We have heard from an upholstering company in Hampshire, for example, that “closed for three weeks; they implemented the guidance; and now they’re open again”.
Of course, personal protective equipment (PPE) will be crucial for the restart phase. There is currently a massive shortage in the NHS – and that should be dealt with as a priority. However, as Carolyn observed, “there is not a plan in place to get that supply chain working for the business community for the restart”.
That’s why the CBI is continuing its effort to source PPE from within the business community. If there’s any way you can help, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Real-world harms vs free speech
This is a momentous time for Facebook: not only are many more of us at our computers, on social networks, but there’s also the problem of misinformation spreading at a time when people need trustworthy information about the pandemic and its effects.
Steve drew an important distinction to explain how Facebook is tackling this problem. There are, he said, posts that the company identifies as a cause of “real-world harms” – for instance, “cures that don’t exist, treatments that actually have a dangerous effect”. The company has allocated a large portion of its moderating capabilities – which now “gets to 99% of terrorism content before it’s reported” – to take those posts down either quickly or even pre-emptively.
Then there is the realm of “conspiracy theory” and “speculation”. Here, a balance needs to be struck between “debunking stuff that’s not going to cause real-world harm but that is clearly not good” and allowing freedom of speech. Facebook’s approach is to have these sorts of posts highlighted by fact-checkers, and then signposted as “inaccurate”, with a link to the accurate information.
This also requires some on-the-spot pivoting, Steve explained: “We do change some of our policies, such as the ones relating to the 5G conspiracy theories – because that changed from one type of risk to another type of risk.”
What Facebook has learnt during the crisis…
The lockdown isn’t creating new trends so much as it’s causing “very rapid acceleration of previous trends,” said Steve. “Working from home isn’t something we’ve just started. All businesses have been building this muscle, but now it’s necessary.”
Given that it’s a global company, Facebook has had to exercise this muscle at different paces in different places. They’ve found that the fourth and fifth weeks of lockdown can be “potentially the toughest weeks,” when “you’ve gone through the novelty phases but there’s still uncertainty about what happens next.”
The company’s solutions are varied – but, as we’ve heard in so many cases in these webinars, they hinge on communication. “We’re learning: what are the things that really work in this context. Making sure that you’re including everyone; making sure that updates are available to everyone immediately; video-calling; having people bonding together.”
Steve even admitted to a “mistake” he made in the earlier weeks of the lockdown, which he has now corrected: “I let a couple of meetings overrun by five or ten minutes because they were such good meetings – and that, actually, was a big mistake. That was a moment when someone was going to get a bite to eat. That was when someone was going to check in on their kids.”
… and is thinking about for after
Steve highlighted another important aspect of communication: “It’s not too early to start asking your employees, what do they think [about how work should be done in the months and years ahead]? What do they want? Technology can play a very key role in that. Every business needs to recognise that they are now an e-commerce business in one way or another.”
And, when it comes to Facebook itself, he dwelt on the question of people’s newfound neighbourly feelings towards each other. “We’ve got to think differently about how we help communities to come together,” he admitted. There’s a strength to our local connections now – “you’re the one telling them that the eggs are back in stock in Londis” – that will be “hard to undo”. “This has big implications for us as a company, about how people are using our tools.”
Key questions we answered:
- This crisis has brought the role of technology into sharper focus – what lessons and opportunities are there?
- Digital technologies an invaluable tool – both for business continuity and for crisis response.
- For society: data and new digital innovations at the heart of helping governments to tackle the coronavirus.
- UK using AI to help the NHS to predict demand and allocate resources
- For businesses: remote working enabled by tech adoption – from allowing teams to stay in touch, to helping firms deliver goods or services via online routes.
- Hearing an increase in concern about cyber threats from firms.
- See our dedicated cybersecurity webinar & other resources on the CBI Coronavirus hub.
- For individuals: huge amounts of information being communicated through social media.
- Vital channel for public health information.
- Crucial tool for maintaining connection with friends and family – so important given the impact isolation can have on mental health and wellbeing.
- To Steve, how has Facebook been handling this crisis?
- Globally, we have almost everybody working from home. That transition was a logistical challenge for us.
- We have a small number of people still going into work. These are people running our data centres or security operations.
- Their health and safety is at the forefront of our minds. Going into work can be very challenging for those who have to.
- We have created a remote-working toolkit for everyone. We are learning what works in this current context and what doesn’t.
- We are trying to ensure that critical updates are sent rapidly to everyone.
- Do you think it is harder to run a large working from home operation than a smaller to medium-sized business?
- Smaller businesses tend to have a much closer connection between their employees. So, the challenge for larger organisations is how to create that sense of connection and belonging at scale.
- Technology has a huge role in this process. Using videoconferencing to check in with people is key.
- We also think that routine is very important to give people a sense of consistency. People’s routine is important, and one of the biggest disruptions to their daily lives has been the removal of regularity in their daily routine.
- So, at Facebook, to address this, Mark Zuckerberg conducts his Q&A every week, so every Facebook employee sees him and gets the latest update.
- How is Facebook tackling misinformation, and ensuring public information is credible and accurate?
- Our approach is designed to ensure that when we look back on this period after it has subsided, we can say we did everything we could to tackle misinformation and ensure public information is credible.
- For example, we have been working directly with the NHS since mid-February
- We also put processes in place to ensure that when people searched for Covid-19-related content, they were directed to either the WHO or NHS content.
- After that first month of engagement with the NHS, we found that the NHS received 2 million visits to their website via Facebook.
- In the interim period, we have found that figure has increased to 2 billion site visits. To clarify, this is for either the NHS or other countries equivalent health authorities.
- The challenge of misinformation hasn’t gone away. We gave immediate focus to what we call ‘real world harms’. This relates to cures that don’t exist or dangerous treatments that could physically harm people. We paid a lot of attention to ensuring such information was detected and removed as quickly as possible.
- The AI systems are now taking down hundreds of thousands of those damaging pages.
- There is also a delicate balancing act between identifying general discussions that would take place between people in real life, which may involve the dissemination of conspiracy theories, and the promoting of misinformation.
- We have flagged 40 million posts that promote false theories with 60 fact checking teams around the world.
- We also have the capability to target people who have seen those misinformed posts and correct the information they have seen.
- Do you feel that Facebook is dealing with this challenge at a proper scale and resource to deal with the chronic problem of misinformation?
- We turned our attention and resources to this at scale after the 2016 US election.
- For example, last year, we spent more on security and integrity on our platform than our entire company revenues in the year that we IPO’d (Initial Public Offering).
- 40,000 people now operate on this area for us now. It means we can now address this issue at a much greater speed and scale than previously.
- The systems do improve. For example, we have been working on terrorism content, which we now get to more than 99% of it, proactively, before it is reported.
- This challenge means we have to be continuously adapting to the latest misinformation trend. For example, the conspiracy that 5G is spreading the coronavirus.
- Have you seen anything that marks a clear step change in business activity during this lockdown?
- A very rapid re-acceleration of previous trends. Whether this is about working from home. Now it is seen as a necessity to companies.
- A return to work will not look like its current form. how much travelling we will do is a serious question to address.
- It is not too early to start asking your employees what they think about this period? How are they beginning to reimagine different kinds of working?
- All businesses now realise they are e-commerce businesses in one way or another. Every business needs to have a strategy to have a direct relationship with their customers regardless of their channels of distribution.