Protocol Source Code
What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy took hold

Good morning! This Wednesday, an app that beats unemployment bureaucracy, how 5G coronavirus conspiracy theories got out of hand, and a close look at Trump's new tech task force.

(Was this email forwarded to you? Sign up here to get Source Code every day.)


This is the 50th edition of Source Code — thanks so much to all of you for subscribing! It's been so much fun getting to email with you, hear your ideas, talk to you about stories, and try to figure out why our email looks so weird in your app. (We're working on it, I promise.)

As we get rolling on our next 50, we'd love to hear what you think:

  • We want all your feedback on Source Code. All of it. We want this newsletter and podcast to be interesting, useful, fun, and hopefully the best thing you read every day. So if there's anything you want to see more / less / none of, tell me!
  • To get in touch you can reply to this email (it goes straight to me), or send a note to I'm also 203.570.8663 on WhatsApp and Signal, and @pierce on Twitter. Or add me on LinkedIn!
  • If you don't already know the rest of the Source Code team, say hi to them too: Our editor is Jamie Condliffe; and our producers are Shakeel Hashim and Sofie Kodner. They're all wonderful. And, of course, don't miss anything from the rest of the Protocol team.

We have big plans for Source Code, and we're so excited that you're part of this community of smart, talented, interesting, good-looking people all over the world.

OK, on with the news.

People Are Talking

A key part of curing coronavirus will be sharing information between and within companies, Pfizer's Lidia Fonseca said:

  • "As I think about our patients, our doctors, and our payers, and our regulators, I try to ask: 'What can we do to give them the power of knowing facts so that they can make the best decisions?'"

From Protocol: Mark Cuban said the government should get a stake in any company it bails out:

  • "If I gave a company money, I would want equity, preferential (shares), warrants, whatever we negotiate. If they don't like my deal they can go elsewhere. The same should apply for taxpayer money."

Video chat is now permanently part of online dating, IAC CEO Joey Levin said:

  • "Video has been on our road map at Match maybe several times in the last few years, and it never really stuck. People weren't as tolerant of the imperfections of video. Now you see it happening all throughout businesses. It's becoming way more acceptable in dating."

Gavin Newsom offered a six-part plan for how (though not when) to re-open California, starting with this:

  • "The ability to monitor and protect our communities through testing, contact tracing, isolating, and supporting those who are positive or exposed."
  • Safe to say he likes the Google / Apple plan, then.

The Big Story

How a 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory took off

Ever since one Belgian doctor linked 5G to coronavirus in January, the idea that the wireless technology either causes or spreads COVID-19 has quickly reached millions of people in at least 30 countries.

It doesn't, just FYI. But in the U.K., where the theory has led people to burn down phone masts and attack telecom engineers, 37% of people say they've seen online content discussing the 5G-coronavirus link in the past month. Thank you, social media.

  • Facebook and YouTube said their approach is to take down false claims about the conspiracy. YouTube will also reduce recommendations for videos that are conspiratorial about 5G networks but don't directly name coronavirus.
  • Facebook has "taken down a lot of the material we've sent them, but what we send them is only a small fraction of what is out there," Hope Not Hate researcher Gregory Davis told Protocol's Sofie Kodner. "One 60,000 member Facebook group was deleted, but given that group was growing a thousand members per day, there will be other groups taking its place relatively soon."
  • In general, social media companies haven't kept pace with the quantity of false claims popping up online, even though they've announced tough, coordinated measures on misinformation related to coronavirus.

Conspiracy theories are a staple of every event, everywhere on the internet, all the time. But what's driving this one?

  • "People want the cause of an event to sort of match the outcome in terms of importance," Davis told Sofie. "People need a bigger enemy than the actual chance events that sometimes cause these things."
  • The bigger enemy here: companies that are supposedly plotting and committing mass murder on the world's population using technology. Davis said the #1 public enemy in this conspiracy is Bill Gates.
  • "It's probably because 5G is now, and there is some kind of breakdown of trust" in society that allows the idea to flourish, Davis said. When platforms like Facebook label misinformation on the theory as fake, he added, it only fuels the conspiracy believers.
  • "My overall impression is that a huge number of people in those groups were not people who spent the last five years in conspiracy area groups," Davis said. "They are genuinely concerned citizens."



We know it's a challenging time for small businesses.
To help, Facebook created a $100 million Small Business Grants Program to provide businesses with the resources they need.

Learn more about the Facebook Small Business Grants Program.


Forget bureaucracy, just talk to the chatbot

The unemployment system is a mess. Messy enough that states are desperately in search of people who might know a 60-year-old coding language called COBOL.

Joshua Browder has a better idea. He's the creator of an app called DoNotPay, which started as a chatbot built to easily contest parking tickets but has become a sort of one-stop-shop for dealing with bureaucracy. Including, now, the unemployment office:

  • "The most requested feature over the past month has been claiming unemployment by pressing a button and answering a few questions," Browder told me. So he diverted all seven DoNotPay employees to working on it.
  • Now, users can answer questions for a few minutes on a website or in an app, and DoNotPay will automatically fill out and file the necessary paperwork.

Despite states now having digital tools for unemployment systems, Browder said DoNotPay isn't using them to file claims. "We're not burdening the state system because I don't even trust that it works properly," he said.

  • Instead, the company is using paper, by plugging into a direct mail API called Lob.

The biggest challenge so far, though, is how different each state's system is.

  • The worst? Alaska, Browder said: "It's this disorganized online system, without any paper filing, and all these random requirements and exceptions and things like that."

In general, DoNotPay has seen a huge change in usage over the past few weeks. Everyone's suddenly trying to cancel their gym membership (a feature DoNotPay offers) and get refunds for things like plane and concert tickets — while absolutely nobody is getting parking tickets.


What to make of Trump's tech task force

The announcement didn't quite get Apprentice-like fanfare, but President Trump's Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups is a big deal nonetheless. (It's also quite a name — though the acronym, GAERIG, leaves something to be desired.)

Perhaps most fascinating is who made the cut. The tech task force line up is similar to the group Trump met with in June 2017:

  • TimCook, Mark Zuckerberg, Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai are all on the list. Jeff Bezos is on the retail task force.
  • The chip world is well-represented: IBM's Arvind Krishna, Intel's Bob Swan, Qualcomm's Steven Mollenkopf, Broadcom's Hock Tan, AMD's Lisa Su and Micron's Sanjay Mehrotra are all on the list.
  • Elon Musk, Mike Sievert and a few other big-name tech CEOs are on separate task forces.

But there are some notable names missing:

  • We put together a list of surprising snubs, which includes Peter Thiel, Michael Dell, Randall Stephenson (in fact AT&T is nowhere to be found), and entertainment companies in general.
  • A few others that jumped out at me: Jack Dorsey, Dara Khosrowshahi, and Alex Karp.

In related news: China announced a national blockchain committee on Tuesday, including Huawei, Tencent, Baidu and others.

Making Moves

WeWork is planning yet more layoffs. According to audio heard by Bloomberg, new CFO Kimberly Ross said that "with or without COVID, we need to run a more disciplined business."

David Thacker is now a general partner at Greylock. He worked at Greylock previously, from 2009-2011, and most recently was a VP of product management and user experience at Google. It sounds like he'll be particularly interested in remote-work and productivity tools.

Groupon is furloughing or laying off 2,800 people — about 40% of the company — and said that business has dropped as much as 80% in some areas.

In Other News

  • Today in coronavirus: Apple Maps will now show you nearby testing locations. Raspberry Pi sales are soaring for education and at-home uses — and one $5 model could help power ventilators. Cisco put $2.5 billion toward a customer-financing program during coronavirus. GM's first ventilators are ready to ship. And movie theaters are hoping to open again by late summer.
  • Washington state sued Facebook, saying the company "repeatedly and openly violated" the state's campaign finance laws. The state requires more than typical disclosure about how ads are paid for and spread; state Attorney General Bob Ferguson previously sued Facebook in 2018 for not following the rules, and said it still doesn't.
  • Github made virtually all of its basic features free for everyone. CEO Nat Friedman told TechCrunch this had been the plan all along, ever since the company was acquired by Microsoft.
  • From Protocol: Layoffs are a huge cybersecurity threat for companies. Adam Janofksy talked to a number of experts on how to manage Slack, email and more for a constantly shifting workforce.
  • Google is dumping Qualcomm to build its own chips, Axios reported. It's working with Samsung to build a custom processor for Pixels and Chromebooks, in part to improve the performance of Google Assistant and various other machine learning technologies.
  • Customer service is being crushed by demand, and with so much of the world in shutdown, companies don't even really have a way to improve their call centers. Where are all those bots when you need them?
  • The Trump administration is offering billions of dollars in grants "for U.S. innovators developing tech to combat COVID," U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios tweeted. GeekWire has a good rundown of the specifics.
  • Fitbit, Scripps and Stanford are working together to study how wearables can help predict the onset of infectious disease. It's similar to Oura's existing project, and there's some encouraging early evidence.

One More Thing

This is graduation. I'm Ira Glass.

Nobody's wearing caps and gowns this year, or at least not in public. But graduation goes on, apparently. On May 15, iHeartRadio is launching a new podcast called "Commencement: Speeches for the Class of 2020," which will feature presumably rousing calls to live a better life and make the world a better place and something something this is water from a remarkable group of people. So technically, every senior this year can say Hillary Clinton, Pitbull, Stanley McChrystal and John Legend spoke at their graduations. Not bad.



We know it's a challenging time for small businesses.

Learn more about Facebook's $100 million Small Business Grants Program.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me,, or our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Recent Issues

The best of Protocol

The confessions of SBF

Your holiday book list

A tale of two FTXs