Hindsight 2020: Experts look back on their pre-pandemic predictions

By Molly Gluck

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There is one thing that everyone can agree on about 2020: it was completely unpredictable. For many, this year brought more uncertainty, changes and challenges than any other time period. Although every year comes with industry disruption and innovation — the global pandemic unearthed a whole new dimension of our ‘expect the unexpected’ mentality.

Before the start of this new decade — and of our ‘new normal’ — we asked Boston University experts to share their 2020 predictions for the presidential elections, the environment, and our sentiment towards businesses and brands. As one of the most difficult and historical years comes to a close, we tapped the same experts to look back and reflect on their pre-pandemic predictions. See below for 2020 predictions from cybersecurity researcher Gianluca Stringhini, political science expert Virginia Sapiro, environmental researcher Henrik Selin, and markets, public policy and law expert Kabrina Chang — and their perspectives as they revisit their projections after living through year molded the by the COVID-19 pandemic.

ELECTIONS

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Gianluca Stringhini, College of Engineering Assistant Professor

Pre-pandemic Predictions for 2020

Disinformation:

Disinformation will definitely be a serious threat in the upcoming election. We saw disinformation efforts during the 2016 and 2018 elections, and the techniques used by disinformation actors have been refined since. A worrying trend that we are observing is that, in countries like the UK, strategies that were previously used by foreign disinformation actors are now being adopted by legitimate political campaigns. For example, the Tory party’s Twitter account changed their identity into a fictitious fact checking organization during a political broadcast. Changing online identities to pretend to be reputable entities such as local newspapers is a strategy that we have observed Russian state-sponsored actors adopt during the 2016 election. There is a risk that similar techniques will be adopted by official political campaigns in the 2020 U.S. election. This would add to the risk of foreign actors interfering in the discussion with targeted disinformation campaigns.

Deepfakes:

Deepfakes — hard to detect, highly realistic videos and audio clips that make people appear to be saying and doing things they never said or did — are absolutely a threat. They can be convincing enough to make the public unsure of whether an event really happened, which is one of the main goals of disinformation. I do however think that there are simpler ways to mislead the public that are already remarkably effective, such as simply posting a picture of a politician along with a fabricated quote.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

While disinformation played a major role in the election campaign, sophisticated threats like deepfakes were not widespread. This makes sense, as simple media manipulations like photoshopping an image or even mis-captioning a photo with a fake description goes a long way in getting people engaged on social media.

The disinformation threat will definitely continue into 2021. Social networks started adding labels when information is false or disputed. This is a good development, and it will be interesting to see how people will react. At the moment, we are witnessing some backlash from advocates of free speech, calling for people to move to communities with more relaxed moderation like Parler and Gab. Observing these migration dynamics and how they will play into global disinformation dynamics will be interesting.

Additionally, with the pandemic forcing most activities to move online, more opportunities for online harassment and online fraud have emerged. An example is the threat of Zoombombing, where attackers share links to online meeting rooms and join those meetings to harass the participants. With lockdowns continuing into next year, I expect these threats to become more prominent.

Virginia Sapiro, College of Arts & Sciences Dean Emerita and Political Science Professor

Pre-pandemic Predictions for 2020

The era in which a cohort of voters enters the electorate seems to make a long-term difference. For example, the people who entered under Lyndon B. Johnson vs. Ronald Reagan vs. Bill Clinton vs. Barack Obama vs. Donald Trump are likely very different due to the events and social environments that have shaped them. Additionally, the current youngest voters (ages 18–30) have had a very different life experience from those in earlier generations. Boston University students, for example, are shocked to learn how anti-gay the culture was until recently — and they have trouble believing there were so many people who were opposed to same-sex marriage. They don’t remember when cross-race marriage was illegal in some states. They don’t remember when there was no social media. Essentially, many national events, social movements, and technological innovations are shifting our political landscape, which will definitely have an impact on the elections.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

The main development no one expected was a serious world-wide pandemic and a U.S. government that not only did little to stop it, but actually did some things to help make it worse.

CLIMATE

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Henrik Selin, Pardee Associate Professor and Associate Dean

Pre-pandemic Predictions for 2020

Climate Change Policy and Social Mobilization:

The growing social mobilization around climate change in countries all over the world is a significant political development. It has brought both young people and adults to the streets in record numbers. It will take time to develop and implement a more ambitious climate policy, but there is a strong social movement carrying over into the New Year, urging decision-makers to act.

Energy Systems:

A clean energy economy requires a fundamental restructuring of energy systems away from fossil fuels to low-carbon sources. This is both achievable and urgently needed — not to mention demanded for. The real question is not how much money this will cost, but how much climate change will cost both current and future generations if we do not undergo this transition as quickly as possible.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

The urgent need for ambitious climate change policies received more attention in this year’s U.S. elections than four years ago, not just in the presidential election but also in state and local elections. This was in part due to grassroots campaigns demanding more action. The outcomes of the two Senate run-off elections in Georgia are still uncertain, but a continued Republican-controlled Senate would make it difficult to pass comprehensive climate change legislation as part of a “green new deal” in Congress. If that turns out to be the case, social movements are likely to be more influential at city and state levels. There are vibrant social movements around issues of climate change, equity, and justice, but the process of translating these movements into policy changes continues to be slow. That, however, means that the importance of social movements remains high.

The approach that the incoming Biden administration and governors all over the country take toward natural gas over the next few years will be critical. If, as we switch away from burning coal, there are large investments in new and updated infrastructure around the extraction and use of natural gas, then we are locking in continued U.S. reliance on fossil fuels for decades. Rather than relying on natural gas as “a bridge fuel,” politicians and decision-makers should take much more rapid steps to shift the U.S. economy to no-carbon energy sources. This requires much more federal and state-level political backing of and financial investments in support of scaling up the generation of renewable energy. The future is not in fossil fuels, but renewables. Fortunately, many energy market dynamics and trends are already moving in that direction, often ahead of politics.

BRAND ACCOUNTABILITY

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Kabrina Chang, Questrom Clinical Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics

Pre-pandemic Predictions for 2020

Corporate Social Advocacy:

Consumers and employees look to businesses, now more than ever, to be socially conscious. This expectation includes involvement in areas outside of their core business, such as immigration (like the Wayfair walkout), white supremacy (for example, the threat of consumers boycotting Under Armour after its CEO spoke out in favor of President Donald Trump in the wake of the Charlottesville murders), and gun control (i.e. companies like Best Western and Delta Airlines cutting ties with the NRA after the devastating high school shooting in Parkland, Florida).

Corporate social advocacy has been building for many reasons over the past several years and I don’t think it is going to slow down. Whether this momentum is in response to customer demand, employee activism, or the motivation of the CEO or other executives (like Marc Benioff of Salesforce.com, as just one example of an activist CEO) — social advocacy is increasingly becoming intertwined with corporate America. Many businesses will embrace this overlap, especially those that have upheld themselves as leaders in ethical practices — not necessarily focusing on their personal ethical practices, but more likely on a higher standard of operations.

As far as navigating this expectation, companies have to think of their stakeholders. As we have seen, almost 200 companies have said their main purpose is no longer just creation of shareholder value. Today, this purpose also includes “supporting outside communities” and underscoring the link between “purpose and profit.” This purpose more and more includes issues outside of companies’ core business, so corporations should expect that they will be asked about their position on a range of social, political and environmental issues.

Consumer Privacy:

I do not think there will be new security policies regarding privacy or customer data in the U.S. Although the EU has promulgated the GDPR governing individual data protection and security, I would be surprised if the U.S. passed something similar in the near future. This doesn’t mean we don’t need something like GDPR-types of protections in the U.S. — it means despite the need, I can’t see it happening. First, where is the public outrage? There hasn’t been much public outcry for this. Yes, there have been abuses/breaches (like Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, among other companies) and certain public voices demanding change, but there hasn’t been consistent public pressure on government officials to address this. A national privacy and security policy is unlikely too, mainly because of our legislative process. It is slow, cumbersome, and influenced by powerful lobbies like the tech sector. We do not have a national agency in charge of this industry, so in turn we have a patchwork of state and local laws that provide some protections, but there is no uniform set of laws nation-wide — and I don’t think there will be any time soon.

Reflections on last year’s predictions

A global pandemic has a way of interrupting even the most predictable predictions. Many companies that were on the forefront of corporate social advocacy reacted to the human and economic impact of COVID-19 consistently with their advocacy involvement. For example, early in the pandemic Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff devised an 8-Point Plan for dealing with COVID that included working from home when possible, businesses working with the federal government to develop supply chains to get health care workers the needed PPE, and creating aggressive testing regimes. He also asked CEO’s to take a 90-day “no layoff” pledge, while he committed to no “significant” layoffs for 90 days. Salesforce.com, and other tech companies, pledged to continue to pay hourly workers even if their office was closed, and has made access to its Health Cloud product free for emergency response teams, call centers, and care management teams.

Many other companies like Anheuser-Busch, Lowe’s and Campbell’s increased the pay of their frontline employees, while Nestlé and S&P Global expanded their paid sick leave policies, and Uber began providing paid sick leave to drivers.

As with corporate social advocacy, there are ethical reasons and business reasons for expanding benefits and pay during this period.

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Prior to the pandemic, employees were one of the most powerful stakeholder groups, and they still are. The pandemic has magnified the plight of the low-wage essential worker: the custodians, grocery workers, hospital service, maintenance, and direct care workers. The balance of power and inequality has existed, but the pandemic has made it obvious to most of the public. How will businesses address this moving forward? Employee groups have been vocal throughout this crisis, demanding more PPE, hazard pay, and safer working conditions. But will anything change when we are through this?

As far as data privacy goes, the massive shift to work from home clearly increases the chances of data insecurity. Some companies like Twitter, Facebook, and Shopify plan to make working from home long term. Even French automaker Groupe PSA plans to allow non-production staff to work from home indefinitely and has even remodeled workspaces to reflect this. This change will require tighter data security for sure. Whether that results in actual changes in the law is another question. There was no public outcry before the pandemic, and I’m not sure this change in workplace structure will make a difference.

For additional commentary by Boston University experts, follow us on Twitter at @BUexperts. Follow Gianluca Stringhini at @gianluca_string and the College of Engineering at @BUCollegeofENG on Twitter. Follow the Political Science Department at @BU_PoliSci on Twitter. Follow Henrik Selin at @SelinHenrik and the Pardee School of Global Studies at @BUPardeeSchool on Twitter. Follow Kabrina Chang at @ProfessorChang and Questrom School of Business at @BUQuestrom on Twitter.

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