The Jack Black "Mis-Informant" Video Campaign: Can It Counter False Rumors about Health Care?

Research indicates that unique among major news outlets, Fox News viewing is significantly related to belief in false rumors and misinformation, especially for conservative viewers predisposed to accept these claims. Examples include the persistent post-invasion belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and the belief today that the proposed NYC mosque has ties to terrorist organizations.

Progressive organizations, Democratic leaders, and academics have debated the best way to counter these false beliefs.  Research, unfortunately, shows that attempting to engage audiences predisposed to accept these claims by providing factually correct information can actually backfire.  On the topic of weapons of mass destruction, when researchers provided conservatives fact-based refutations (citing a post-invasion report concluding that Iraq had no such weapons), the refutation actually strengthened belief in the original misinformation.

But what about comedy and satire?  Researchers have been tracking the growing influence of political parody, as captured in the multiple impacts for The Daily Show and similar "fake news" programming. Can parody be an effective antidote to false beliefs and the spread of misinformation?

The Jack Black "Mis-Informant" Campaign: Who Does It Impact? What is the Goal?

This week, the progressive organization Health Care for America Now has launched the Stop Spewman: Stop the Lies campaign featuring comedic actor Jack Black in a viral video series playing Nathan Spewman "The Mis-Informant."  Spewman infiltrates elementary schools to spread Fox News-style false rumors about health care, including that "Obama care" takes choices away from doctors and that Obama is setting up death panels to kill Grandma.

In the second video in the series, Black's influence turns an 8 year old girl into a youthful Glenn Beck, who sends her teacher running from the classroom after calling her a communist.  You can watch the Hollywood style videos below.

But what impacts are the videos likely to have? Who are they likely to influence and with what outcomes?

  • First, it's unlikely that the videos will influence conservatives or even independents who lean Republican.  These segments are unlikely to see the videos and if they did, are likely to reject the message.
  • Second, where impact is likely to occur are among young people who lean liberal but who have not been following the health care debate closely, may have heard some information about various claims, and remain either disinterested or ambivalent. The Jack Black videos are likely to gain their attention and be influential.  The videos may also have spill-over effects to the mid-term elections, crystallizing among younger voters a sense of both emotional excitement and greater perceived relevance, similar to the feelings of engagement experienced in 2008.
  • Third, the Jack Black videos are also likely a base mobilizer among older liberal voters.  Featured prominently at The Huffington Post, through humor, the videos trigger both anger but also positive emotions and a sense of hope that progressives are effectively fighting back against the perceived juggernaut of conservative media. 
  • Importantly, the videos end by directing viewers to the Stop Spewman web site, where upon entering the site, visitors are asked for their email and cell phone numbers to receive texts.  The next window immediately opens asking visitors for donations to the campaign and the first text messages satirically ask recipients if they would like to become "Professional Mis-informants" and if they would like to help spread local misinformation.

    See also:

    Ohio State Study: Fox News Contributes to Belief in False Rumors about NYC Mosque

    The Rally to Restore Sanity: A Growing Influence for Political Parody?

    What Viewers Learn about Politics from The Daily Show

    Researcher Examines Daily Show's Impact on Political Culture

    Follow Age of Engagement on Twitter.

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    Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

    Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

    Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
    Surprising Science
    • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
    • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
    • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

    The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

    But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

    What's dead may never die, it seems

    The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

    BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

    The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

    As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

    The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

    "This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

    An ethical gray matter

    Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

    The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

    Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

    Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

    "This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

    One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

    The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

    "There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

    It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

    Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

    The dilemma is unprecedented.

    Setting new boundaries

    Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

    She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

    Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

    The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

    Image source: Pixabay
    Surprising Science
    • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
    • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
    • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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