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Study: Pandemic rumors may have killed hundreds of people
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
- An "infodemic" describes a dangerous time when an overload of information makes evaluating that information difficult.
- A new study found that pandemic rumors and conspiracies lead to people mistrusting governments and health agencies, leading to hundreds of avoidable deaths.
- Experts recommend that health agencies track misinformation, while individuals take steps to protect themselves from the infodemic.
The reason sanitizer kills novel coronavirus is that it contains north of 60 percent ethyl alcohol. To kill any viral invaders swarming your body, you need to drink enough alcohol to sterilize your system. According to research by Dr. John Lee Hooker, it only takes one bourbon, one scotch, and one beer to begin feeling the salutary effects.
That is, of course, utter bunkum. Dr. Hooker's field of study was the blues, not epidemiology, and a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40 percent can be fatal, a level well below antiseptic action. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), excessive alcohol consumption during the pandemic increases your risk as it can compromise your immune system.
But those facts didn't stop similar pandemic rumors from assailing social media and offline social networks. Other rumored "remedies" espoused ingesting bleach, garlic, and hot peppers or exposing the body to extreme temperatures. Such cures can have dire consequences: None of them kill the coronavirus, some are actively harmful to a person's health, and even the benign ones can provide a false sense of protection.
These pandemic rumors, and many more, are the dark side of the "infodemic," which the WHO defines as "an over-abundance of information—some accurate and some not—that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it."
Recently, an international team of researchers sought to determine the impact of this "infodemic" on public health. They combed the internet for COVID-19-related rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories, and their findings suggest that hundreds of people have needlessly died as a result of the misinformation found online.
The dark side of the information age
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
On December 31, 2019, the researchers began chronicling COVID-19-related posts circulating the internet. They examined agency websites, online newspapers, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, extracting reports until April 5, 2020. They then compiled and analyzed their data.
In total, the researchers discovered more than 2,300 reports of COVID-19-related reports. These reports were mostly classified as rumors (89 percent) followed by conspiracy theories (7.8 percent) and stigmas (3.5 percent). They came in 25 languages and from 87 countries. However, most of the false and hate-filled news spread from five countries: China, India, Spain, Brazil, and the U.S.
Of their accumulated reports, 2,276 had text ratings available, and these show the vast disparity between the dark and illuminating sides of the infodemic. False claims consisted of 82 percent of text-rated reports, while misleading and unproven claims took 8 and 1 percent, respectively. Correct claims made up a paltry 9 percent.
Their finders were published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
"Rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories have the potential to decrease community trust in governments and international health agencies. Rumors can mask themselves as credible infection prevention and control strategies and have potentially serious implications if prioritized over evidence-based guidelines," the researchers write in the study.
In their discussion, the researchers point to a telling anecdote from Iran. There, a rumor spread that ingesting methanol—non-drinkable alcohol that is even poisonous when absorbed through the skin—would disinfect the body of novel coronavirus. After the rumor gained purchase in the milieu, the country saw a 10-fold increase in alcohol poisonings. Close to 800 people died, thousands were hospitalized, and as many as 60 developed blindness. Other countries, including Turkey, Qatar, and India, have witnessed a similar, if less severe, trend.
In another story, also relayed in the study, a South Korean church told congregants they could be cleansed by spraying special saltwater into their mouths. The church soon became a viral hotspot as they used the same spray bottle on church-goers without disinfecting the nozzle. Nor are WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) societies immune to pandemic rumors. In April, the FDA issued a warning to Alex Jones, of InfoWars infamy, to stop peddling fake coronavirus cures, including a silver-laced gargle and toothpaste.
The researchers do note their study's limitations. For example, the speed at which COVID-19 information changes, especially during the study's report-gathering phase, means some report categorization could be subject to misclassification. Also, the researchers did not follow up on the misinformation, so they could not say how many people on average believe any rumor or conspiracy they came across online.
But the connection between the infodemic and real-world actions, as seen in Iran and other countries, shows the lethal implications if people cannot discern sound information from the flimsy. As we've seen with other outbreaks in the past, such as the HIV epidemic and the 2019 Ebola outbreak, when people are afraid, they will grasp for beliefs that return a sense of control to their lives. In that desperation, rubbish can be just as appealing as reality.
As Michael Shermer told Big Think in an interview earlier this year: "Whenever there's a high level of anxiety or uncertainty in an environment, your personal life or society at large, conspiracism goes up. That is to say, people find comfort in attenuating the anxiety or uncertainty they are feeling by concocting some overarching plan."
The cure for bad information is good
That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.
"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, told Yale Medicine. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."
In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages.
In the Yale Medicine article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline).
When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.
"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources."
She recommends following health agencies like the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's COVID-19 mythbusters page. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, take a mental break.
We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.
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Scientists find routes using arches of chaos that can lead to much faster space travel.
- Researchers discovered a route through the Solar System that can allow for much faster spacecraft travel.
- The path takes advantage of "arches of chaos" within space manifolds.
- The scientists think this "celestial superhighway" can help humans get to the far reaches of the galaxy.
Humanity could be making its way through the Solar System much faster thanks to the discovery of a new superhighway network among space manifolds. Don't get your engines roaring along this "celestial autobahn" just yet, but the researchers believe the new pathways can eventually be used by spacecraft to get to the outer reaches of our Solar System with relative haste.
The celestial highway could get comets and asteroids from Jupiter to Neptune in less than a decade. Compare that to hundreds of thousands or even millions of years it might ordinarily take for space objects to traverse the Solar System. In a century of travel along the new routes, a 100 astronomical units could be covered, project the scientists. For reference, an astronomical unit is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun or about 93 million miles.
The international research team included Nataša Todorović, Di Wu, and Aaron Rosengren from the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory in Serbia, the University of Arizona, and UC San Diego. Their new paper proposes a dynamic route, going along connected series of arches within so-called space manifolds. These structures, coming into existence from gravitational effects between the Sun and the planets, stretch from the asteroid belt to past Uranus.
The most pronounced of these structures are linked to Jupiter by its strong gravitational pull, explained UC San Diego's press release. They influence the comets around the gas giant as well as smaller space objects called "centaurs," with are like asteroids in size but exhibit the composition of comets.
This animation shows space manifolds over a hundred years. Each frame of the animation shows how the arches and substructures appear over three-year increments.
Credit: Nataša Todorović, Di Wu and Aaron Rosengren/Science Advances
"Space manifolds act as the boundaries of dynamical channels enabling fast transportation into the inner- and outermost reaches of the Solar System," write the researchers. "Besides being an important element in spacecraft navigation and mission design, these manifolds can also explain the apparent erratic nature of comets and their eventual demise."
A closer image of the manifolds showing colliding and escaping objects.
Credit: Science Advances
The researchers discovered the structures by analyzing collected numerical data on the millions of orbits in the Solar System. The scientists figured out how these orbits were contained within known space manifolds. To detect the presences and structure of the space manifolds, the team employed the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used to detect chaos. The scientists ran simulations to compute how the trajectories of particles approaching different planets like Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune would be affected by possible collisions and the manifolds.
While the results are encouraging, the next step is to figure out how these arches can be used by spacecraft for much speedier travel. It's also not clear how similar manifolds work near Earth. Also unclear is how they impact our planet's run-ins with asteroids and meteorites or any of the man-made objects floating up in space near us.
Check out the new paper "The arches of chaos in the Solar System" in Science Advances.
A new episode of "Your Brain on Money" illuminates the strange world of consumer behavior and explores how brands can wreak havoc on our ability to make rational decisions.
- Effective branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Our new series "Your Brain on Money," created in partnership with Million Stories, recently explored the surprising ways brands can affect our behavior.
- Brands aren't going away. But you can make smarter decisions by slowing down and asking yourself why you're making a particular purchase.
How Apple and Nike have branded your brain | Your Brain on Money | Big Think youtu.be
Brands can manipulate our brains in surprisingly profound ways. They can change how we conceptualize ourselves and how we broadcast our identities out to the social world. They can make us feel emotions that have nothing to do with the functions of their products. And they can even sort us into tribes.
To grasp the power of brands, look to Apple. In the 1990s, the company was struggling to compete with Microsoft over the personal computer market. Despite flirting with bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, Apple turned itself around to eventually become the most valuable company in the world.
That early-stage success wasn't due to superior products.
"People talk about technology, but Apple was a marketing company," John Sculley, a former Apple marketing executive, told The Guardian in 1997. "It was the marketing company of the decade."
So, how exactly does branding make people willing to wait hours in line to buy a $1,000 smartphone, or pay exorbitant prices for a pair of sneakers?
Branding and the brain
For more than a century, brands have capitalized on the fact that effective marketing is much more than simply touting the merits of a product. Some ads have nothing to do with the product at all. In 1871, for example, Pearl Tobacco started advertising their cigarettes through branded posters and trading cards that featured exposed women, a trend that continues to this day.
It's crude, sure. But research shows that it's also remarkably effective, even on monkeys. Why? The answer seems to center on how our brains pay special attention to information from the social world.
"In theory, ads that associate sex or status with specific brands or products activate the brain mechanisms that prioritize social information, and turning on this switch may bias us toward the product," wrote neuroscience professor Michael Platt for Scientific American.
Brands can burrow themselves deep into our subconscious. Through ad campaigns, brands can form a web of associations and memories in our brains. When these connections are robust and positive, it can change our behavior, nudging us to make "no-brainer" purchases when we encounter the brand at the store.
It's a marketing principle that's related to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist and economist who won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow", Kahneman separates thinking into two broad categories, or systems:
- System 1 is fast and automatic, requiring little effort or voluntary control.
- System 2 is slow and requires subjective deliberation and logic.
Brands that tap into "system 1" are likely to dominate the competition. After all, it's far easier for us as consumers to automatically reach for a familiar brand than it is to analyze all of the available information and make an informed choice. Still, the most successful brands can have an even deeper impact on our psychology, one that causes us to conceptualize them as something like a family member.
A peculiar relationship with brands
Apple has one of the most loyal customer bases in the world, with its brand loyalty hitting an all-time high earlier this year, according to a SellCell survey of more than 5,000 U.S.-based smartphone users.
Qualitatively, how does that loyalty compare to Samsung users? To find out, Platt and his team conducted a study in which functional magnetic resonance imaging scanned the brains of Samsung and Apple users as they viewed positive, negative, and neutral news about each company. The results revealed stark differences between the two groups, as Platt wrote in "The Leader's Brain":
"Apple users showed empathy for their own brand: The reward-related areas of the brain were activated by good news about Apple, and the pain and negative feeling parts of the brain were activated by bad news. They were neutral about any kind of Samsung news. This is exactly what we see when people empathize with other people—particularly their family and friends—but don't feel the joy and pain of people they don't know."
Meanwhile, Samsung users didn't show any significant pain- or pleasure-related brain activity when they saw good or bad news about the company.
"Interestingly, though, the pain areas were activated by good news about Apple, and the reward areas were activated by bad news about the rival company—some serious schadenfreude, or "reverse empathy," Platt wrote.
The results suggest a fundamental difference between the brands: Apple has formed strong emotional and social connections with consumers, Samsung has not.
Brands and the self
Does having a strong connection with a brand justify paying higher prices for their products? Maybe. You could have a strong connection with Apple or Nike and simultaneously think the quality of their products justifies the price.
But beyond product quality lies identity. People have long used objects and clothing to express themselves and signal their affiliation with groups. From prehistoric seashell jewelry to Air Jordans, the things people wear and associate with signal a lot of information about how they conceptualize themselves.
Since the 1950s, researchers have examined the relationship between self-image and brand preferences. This body of research has generally found that consumers tend to prefer brands whose products fit well with their self-image, a concept known as self-image congruity.
By choosing brands that don't disrupt their self-image, consumers are able not only to express themselves personally, but also broadcast a specific version of themselves into the social world. That might sound self-involved. But on the other hand, humans are social creatures who use information from the social world to make decisions, so it's virtually impossible for us not to make inferences about people based on how they present themselves.
Americus Reed II, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told Big Think:
"When I make choices about different brands, I'm choosing to create an identity. When I put that shirt on, when I put that shirt on — those jeans, that hat — someone is going to form an impression about what I'm about. So, if I'm choosing Nike over Under Armour, I'm choosing a kind of different way to express affiliation with sport. The Nike thing is about performance. The Under Armour thing is about the underdog. I have to choose which of these different conceptual pathways is most consistent with where I am in my life."
Making smarter decisions
Brands may have some power over us when we're facing a purchasing decision. So, considering brands aren't going away, what can we do to make better choices? The best strategy might be to slow down and try to avoid making "automatic" purchasing decisions that are characteristic of Kahneman's fast "system 1" mode of thinking.
"I think it's important to always pause and think a little bit about, "Okay, why am I buying this product?" Platt said.
As for getting out of the brand game altogether? Good luck.
"I've heard lots of people push back and say, "I'm not into brands,"" Reed II said. "I take a very different view. In some senses, they're not doing anything different than what someone who affiliates with a brand is doing. They have a brand. It's just an anti-brand brand."
Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- Powerful branding can not only change how you feel about a company, it can actually change how your brain is wired.
- "We love to think of ourselves as rational. That's not how it works," says UPenn professor Americus Reed II about our habits (both conscious and subconscious) of paying more for items based primarily on the brand name. Effective marketing causes the consumer to link brands like Apple and Nike with their own identity, and that strong attachment goes deeper than receipts.
- Using MRI, professor and neuroscientist Michael Platt and his team were able to see this at play. When reacting to good or bad news about the brand, Samsung users didn't have positive or negative brain responses, yet they did have "reverse empathy" for bad news about Apple. Meanwhile, Apple users showed a "brain empathy response for Apple that was exactly what you'd see in the way you would respond to somebody in your family."