Wednesday Briefs – 27 May 2020

A weekly commentary on current events. Follow populyst to receive notification.

This week: The shrinking pandemic; Second wave – Virus mutation; Is Twitter a utility?

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The shrinking pandemic

The pandemic is fading quickly, in particular in New York State, where the daily death count (seven-day average) has fallen 86% in six weeks from 760 on 15 April to 103 yesterday. Elsewhere in the country, the average has declined from 1,706 on 25 April to 904 yesterday. These trends may reverse moderately and temporarily as more states reopen, but most experts do not see a significant resurgence before the fall season, if at all.

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Second wave – Virus mutation

It is prudent to assume that there will be a second wave and that it could be more dangerous than the first for having started earlier in the season (September instead of March) and lasting longer (seven months instead of two), were it not for our expected higher state of preparedness by then.

The second wave of the 1918 pandemic was far deadlier than the first because the virus had mutated and adapted during the late spring and summer. Could the same occur with the present-day coronavirus? While experts agree that the coronavirus is already mutating and changing, there is no consensus on whether it is becoming more or less deadly, or more or less transmissible.

Is Twitter a utility?

A row erupted when Twitter put a fact check warning on one of President Trump’s tweets. Conservatives clamored for the first amendment and protested that it was typical of social media to try to silence them. The President threatened to regulate social media.

We argued previously that Twitter should charge heavy users who have a very large number of followers. That Twitter has not done so and now faces possible regulation shows the error of its strategic positioning and gives more credence to the unfortunate dictum that no good deed goes unpunished. Failure to invoice big users has made Twitter look like a utility.

The protesters have a weak case. The first amendment does not guarantee freedom of speech on someone else’s proprietary platform. You cannot demand, based on the first amendment, to publish your own op-ed in the New York Times if the publisher, or in this case the social media platform, does not want it. As to regulation, one would have to make a case that expressing one’s own views on social media (as opposed to consuming other people’s views) is an indispensable utility like water or electricity. This argument is unlikely to gain traction but you never know.

Twitter is not a utility but, to use a closer analogy, it is a billboard service that allows the famous to promote their work and ideas through tweets that are de facto personal ads. There is no question therefore that Twitter should charge them. The irony is that today, it may need to do so, if only to kill the notion that it is a utility.

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