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Satire is under attack, but are the fears justified?
Facebook recently announced that it will display warnings beside satirical content. In this post we look at the flaws and implications of recent research on the spread of false information on Facebook.
Facebook recently announced that it will display warnings beside satirical content. In this post we look at the flaws and implications of recent research on the spread of false information on Facebook.
In an ideal world, we would all get our science news from well-informed, impartial discussion of replicated, double-blind, randomised, controlled trials published in peer-reviewed journals. You don't need me to tell you that we don't live in an ideal world. Facebook made headlines recently by testing a warning label that would inform users that an article may contain content that is meant to be satirical. The move has been broadly criticised for spoiling everybody's fun. According to a series of papers published this year however, a staggering proportion of people are really quite terrible at identifying the difference between genuine news, misinformation and outright trolling. The researchers are concerned that what begins as a harmless hoax can form the foundations for full-blown conspiracy theories. This isn't the first time we've looked at research that suggests satire regularly flies over the heads of its intended audience: five years ago a paper was published that suggested many conservative viewers of the Colbert Report believe that "Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said."
This year, a team of researchers led by Walter Quattrociocchi set out to investigate online misinformation by analyzing publicly available data from 2.3 million Italian Facebook users. The researchers found that posts from mainstream news sources, alternative news sources and political movements reverberate online for a similar amount of time and accrue a similar amount of traction in terms of comments and likes on posts. So far so good: the fact that alternative news sources and political movements are able to compete with mainstream news sources for our attention in the online space has to be a good thing. The information becomes more concerning, however, when we consider that the researchers' definition of "alternative news" included not only news sources covering material neglected by mainstream agencies but also pages promoting bogus cancer cures, debunked conspiracy theories, and extremist content.
One of the most dangerous pieces of misinformation addressed in the research is AIDs denialism, a conspiracy theory that has resulted in an incalculable number of deaths. Only recently this blog looked at how Natural News, a mind-bogglingly popular alternative medicine website, pushes this conspiracy theory to an audience of millions of Facebook users. The resulting online footprint dwarfs reliable resources such as the US government's website on alternative medicines. This particular conspiracy theory resulted in 330,000 premature deaths and 35,000 babies born with HIV in South Africa between 2000 and 2005 when the nation's president Thabo Mbeki was taken in by misinformation that appeared online.
Quattrociocchi's team addressed political misinformation by looking at users who responded to "troll" posts by an Italian Facebook page that exclusively posts demonstrably false information, much of which lacks any obvious display of humour. The researchers concluded that individuals who shared "troll posts" were more likely to interact frequently with "alternative information pages." Unfortunately, what isn't clear from the research is whether these users understood the joke they were sharing, which renders these findings by themselves not particularly meaningful. Indeed, we have absolutely no way of knowing what proportion of users liked a post because they appreciated the satire. Both of my Italian friends who helped me translate the content from the "troll" page thought it would be near impossible for someone to believe any of the posts were actually true. The posts consist of obviously false news stories and blatantly misattributed quotes scattered between viral memes of fluffy animals and bad Photoshop jobs. One of the latest posts, for example, claims that Idaho and Washington have left the United States. I find it hard to imagine how anyone could fail to realise such a post was not factual, but I'd be intrigued to see a similar study conducted on better disguised operations such as The Onion or The Daily Currant. Preliminary evidence appears in a blog that charts amusing instances of people falling for satirical stories on The Onion:
Many of the stories have comment threads with multiple different commenters falling for the hoax en masse:
It's very easy to poke fun at anonymous individuals on the internet, but the list of "mainstream" news agencies The Onion has fooled is extensive. Fox News reported that President Obama sent a rambling 127 page long email to the nation, Iran's Fars News Agency reported Iranian president Ahmadinejad was more popular among rural white Americans than Obama, and China's Communist Party newspaper reported Kim Jong Un was voted the "Sexiest Man Alive." Two Bangladeshi newspapers even reported that Neil Armstrong held a press conference in which he admitted the moon landings were a hoax. It seems Poe's Law might need updating:
"Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won't mistake for the real thing.
Back to the Quattrociocchi study, another important issue is the vague application of the term "alternative news." The researcher's alternative news category includes everything from political extremism to groups simply aiming to share information that isn't widely reported. If the sources were divided based on the reliability of the content rather than the status of the news source, the results would be more meaningful. As regular readers of this blog will know, the implication that mainstream news is necessarily more reliable than an "alternative news" source is a fallacy. This was most recently demonstrated by the media furore around the alleged hoax of the three-breasted girl, which was debunked by an "alternative news" website.
In another paper, Quattrociocchi's team looked at the polarisation of Facebook activity among readers of scientific news and alternative news. Polarized users were defined as users for whom 95% of their "like activity" was on one category of page. The researchers demonstrated how polarised followers of science news occasionally comment on alternative news, but polarised followers of alternative news hardly ever comment on science news, suggesting they reside within a very narrow echo chamber:
The researchers again looked at online satire and "trolling" intended to mock followers of conspiracy theories. For example, the researchers cited the false claim that Viagra could be found in "chemtrails" and the idea that a source of "infinite energy" had been discovered. The researchers again found that the majority of these types of posts were liked by polarised followers of alternative news sources whilst only a minority of these posts were liked by polarised followers of science news. The results suggest that much of the satire shared on social networks may be from people who are oblivious to the satirical nature of their own posts. Unfortunately, the results of the study are not clear enough to let us know if this is actually what is going on.
The next study looked at the effects of trolling on conspiracy theorists compared with the effects of legitimate debunking efforts. The researchers looked at 1.2 million Italian Facebook users and again sorted the sample, this time isolating users for whom 95% of their likes were on either conspiracy posts or science posts. The researchers determined that 225,225 users were polarised consumers of science news whilst a whopping 790,899 users were classified as polarised consumers of conspiracy theories. This number seems staggeringly high, which raises the question of how the researchers defined conspiracy theories. (I've emailed the researchers and will update this post if I get a response). The researchers concluded that efforts to satirise, troll and debunk conspiracy theories all in fact bolstered conspiracy theorists' commitment to their narrative:
"The more a user is engaged, the more a contact with a troll post will reinforce the probability to remain a polarized user in his category."
The conclusion above provides further evidence for the backfire effect - a phenomenon we recently looked at in quite some depth on this blog. While this conclusion is hardly controversial, the next conclusion is one I'm not so sure about:
"Conspiracy theories seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jump the credulity barrier, mainly because of the unsubstantiated nature of conspiracy related information [sic]."
I have not yet seen any convincing evidence that content originating in satire has spawned lasting conspiracy theories. I am certainly not convinced the harm done by satire to the overly credulous part of its audience (presumably a tiny fraction of the population) is greater than the power satire has to encourage us to think critically and improve our understanding of the world. Satire and hoax news are good business because it gets people clicking and gets them engaged in discussions—which, in my eyes, can only be a good thing. The latest studies are interesting as a proof of concept. They are also evidence of the birth of a new era of research on how we come to believe what we believe, enabled by the massive amounts of data becoming available to researchers from social networks such as Facebook.
As for understanding how misinformation really originates and why it tends to spread like wild fire, I'm inclined to come down on the side of the king of satire himself, John Cleese:
Update (8th Oct 2014 16:19): I have received a response from Walter Quattrociocchi stating: "I read your post on the blog and some points you claim as misleading have been corrected during the peer review process." In response to my inquiry whether the preprints discussed in this post have been accepted for publication I received the response: "Collective attention in the age of (mis) information is currently under review to Computers in Human Behavior (publication expected for the end of the year), Science Vs Conspiracy in the age of (mis)information is currently under review on Plos One (publication expected for the end of the year), Social determinants of content selection in the age of (mis)information has been accepted at Socinfo 2014".
Related Post: When Evidence Backfires
Image Credit: Shutterstock, Quattrociocchi et al, 2014.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.
How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.