Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
The 'worm' with the potential to determine elections by manipulating your vote
It has become commonplace to see a "worm" based on the reactions of a tiny sample of audience members running across our screens during televised presidential debates. Psychologists tested whether the worm can influence our voting intentions and the results are worrying in the extreme.
In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment that changed the way we think about conformity. By placing a naive individual in a room with seven confederates who were all actors, Asch manipulated the majority of participants into stating at least once that the line (on the left, below) was not the same length as a line (on the right), that it absolutely, indisputably, blindingly obviously, is.
Fast-forward over half a century, and it could be possible that today you are being manipulated in a way not dissimilar to the subjects in Asch's experiment, but which would have far more severe consequences.
It has become commonplace before an election for the leaders of political parties to hold public televised debates. Across the television screen, we may now expect to see a line, dubbed "the worm," which typically represents the live responses of a very small sample of undecided voters to what is being said on screen. In the recent leaders' debates in the run-up to the UK general election, the worm's sample consisted of 50 undecided voters; in the US in the 2008 Presidential debates CNN's worm was formed using a sample of only 30 voters. This contrasts to thousands of respondents used in traditional political polling. The worm has also been adopted in New Zealand and Australia.
"So what?" you might say. Surely something as serious and complex as your voting choices isn't vulnerable to manipulation by something as simple and arbitrary as a line on a television screen, constructed by a few faceless individuals whom you've never met. This exact premise was tested exquisitely in a 2011 study by Colin Davis, Jeffrey Bowers, and Amina Memon and the results are as fascinating as they are shocking.
The researchers had two groups of 75 students watch live broadcasts (in real time for added realism) of the 2010 UK electoral debates. Without the knowledge of the students, Davis secretly manipulated the worm seen by the students in real time. For one group, whenever the then-Labour leader Gordon Brown spoke, Davis commanded the secretly superimposed worm to respond in his favor with the push of a button. For the other group, whenever the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg spoke, the worm was manipulated in his favor instead.
The students were led to believe the experiment was about memory and were asked questions including: "Putting aside your own party preferences, which party leader do you think ‘won’ this debate?" and which candidate would be their preferred prime minister. Just like in Asch's study, the students conformed to join the group, except in this case the "group" was simply a horizontal line on a screen.
In the Brown-biased group, 47% of the students answered that Brown had won the debate (compared to Clegg on 35% and [David] Cameron on 13%). While in the Clegg-biased group an astounding 79% of the students decided that Clegg had won (compared to Brown on 9% and Cameron on 4%):
The extent of the effect of the manipulation didn't end at who the students thought had won the debate. The student's preferred choice of prime minister was similarly swung substantially in the direction of the manipulation. The worm manipulation even had a powerful effect on students who claimed they disagreed with the worm's verdict.
This research was not the first time the worm has been demonstrated to have a worrying effect. A paper published in 2007 found that people watching recordings of the 1984 US Presidential debates could be manipulated through the use of a biased worm into saying they'd have voted for either Walter Mondale or Ronald Reagan. In 2010, during the UK general election leaders' debates, The Guardian newspaper accused the Liberal Democrats of trying to manipulate their independent worm by submitting masses of votes which were identified as originating from "Lib Dem HQ":
In a talk last week in Bristol in the UK, lead researcher Davis argued that the worm has such a powerful effect on our perceptions that it should be abolished outright. Personally, I find the worm, and what it represents, can be almost (if not far more) interesting than the contents of the debates themselves — so I'd be sorry to see it go. If it were based on a sufficiently large and balanced sample, it represents a fascinating insight into the attitudes of the population we live in, which I personally believe can provide useful and important genuine democratic feedback to politicians, with a higher degree of finesse than the blunt instrument that is the vote currently allows.
What we can all agree on, however, is that the use of the worm in its current form is extremely problematic. It would only take a chance extremist-heavy sample of voters to swing the worm, which could manipulate the whole population en masse. This alone should be cause for concern; no one wants to see our elections swung by the whims of a random handful of undecided voters in a television studio. In a world where media companies are unabashed about their intentions to influence elections, placing the control of something as powerful as the worm into the hands of media companies is nothing short of idiotic. The risk is not that Rupert Murdoch is secretly pulling a Colin Davis and manipulating the worm from his basement. All it would take to manipulate a worm formed from only a few dozen audience members is a slightly skewed selection process. As Bowers, one of the study's co-authors explains:
“Given the small sample of undecided voters that generate the worm, just one or two persons could influence the worm by voting for one candidate no matter what. The system is cute, but open to abuse.”
The fact that something as simple as the selection of a smattering of button-pushing studio audience members could influence how we all vote should make us very worried. That something as demonstrably influential as the worm is based on such absurdly tiny sample sizes as 30 in the United States and 50 in the United Kingdom is nothing short of scandalous.
Davis C.J. Bowers J.S. Memon, A. (2011). Social Influence in Televised Election Debates: A Potential Distortion of Democracy, PLoS ONE, 6 (3) e18154. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0018154
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
A new study finds that some people just want privacy.
- Despite its reputation as a tool for criminals, only a small percentage of Tor users were actually going to the dark web.
- The rate was higher in free countries and lower in countries with censored internet access.
- The findings are controversial, and may be limited by their methodology to be general assumptions.
What do half of those words mean?<p> For those who don't spend all of their time on the internet, a few of these terms might be new to you. We'll go over them first before we continue. If you do know all of these terms, you can skip ahead to the next section.<br> <br> <em>Surface Web:</em> The regular internet that you can find with a search engine. You're on it right now; unless these articles are shared in places we don't know about. <br> <br> <em>Deep Web</em>: The part of the internet not indexed by search engines. This includes things like your email inbox; you can't get there from Google or Bing, but instead have to enter a password to find it from another page. You've probably visited the deep web today, too. </p><p><em>Dark Web</em>: A subsection of the deep web that requires special software to access. While not everything there is bad, there are social media sites, email services, hidden forums, and even puzzle games down there; this is also where you would find the places for illegal markets and other, extremely nefarious, things.</p><p> <em>Tor:</em> A kind of software that allows users to browse the internet in near-total anonymity. It does this by encrypting connection data and scrambling the route a computer takes to connect to a site, thus making it difficult, but not impossible, to find who is using a particular website. The potential value of this to criminals should be evident to you. <br> <br> While it often gets bad press for how it can be used for illicit purposes, it should be said it was created and used by the United States government for often banal purposes. The leaders of the Tor Project often remind the public that "normal people" use Tor for everyday internet activities as well.</p><p> As a personal example, I once used it to get around the <a href="https://www.wired.com/1997/06/china-3/" target="_blank">Great Firewall of China</a> when I wanted to get to the regular, uncensored internet.</p>
Back to the study<p> The study observed the final destination of a random selection of Tor users to determine if they went to surface websites or more hidden areas of the internet after connecting to the Tor network. This was done by monitoring the data from entry points in the Tor network, which would allow an observer to where someone was going, but not who.</p><p> Those going to surface websites were assumed just to be using Tor for anonymity and security, while those going into the dark web were presumed more likely to be using it for illegal reasons. <br> </p><p> Despite the popular conception of Tor as a tool for criminals looking to cover their tracks, only 6.7 percent of these users went to sites defined as the dark web, which were themselves not necessarily devoted to illegal <a href="https://www.sciencealert.com/only-a-small-fraction-of-the-dark-web-is-being-used-for-hidden-activity-study-finds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">activity</a>. </p><p> The results were further broken down by country, which revealed another layer of information. The authors noted that in countries deemed "not free" by Freedom House, the rate of possible malicious use goes down to 4.8 percent. In countries considered free, the percentage nearly doubles to 7.8 percent.</p>
What does this mean for the internet?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/MBh7K5ooF2s" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> The dark web might be a little lighter than previously suggested. While it is true that there is some horrible stuff down there, this study suggests the people getting to it using the Tor network are mostly using it for legal, and perhaps even banal, purposes. This interpretation is additionally supported by the difference in usage across countries judged free and not free. In those countries with censorship, where a variety of tools must be used to get to sites like Facebook or Wikipedia, the percentage of users going towards locations on the dark web was smaller.</p><p>The authors conclude:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> "The Tor anonymity network can be used for both licit and illicit purposes. Our results provide a clear, if probabilistic, estimation of the extent to which users of Tor engage in either form of activity. Generally, users of Tor in politically 'free' countries are significantly more likely to be using the network in likely illicit ways."</p><p> Additionally, they mention that the Tor network's infrastructure is predominately in free countries, which then see higher rates of its use to reach places that could advance illegal activities. This find may be of interest to policymakers looking to balance the promotion of autonomy and the freedom of information with the goal of preventing crime.</p>
What’s the catch?<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/2UNUMgM9Gwo" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> It has been suggested that the internet is the first thing humanity ever created that we don't fully understand. If that is true, it should surprise no one that there are objections to the methods used to study it. <br> <br> The executive director of the Tor Project, Isabela Bagueros, explained their objection to the study's methodology and assumptions to <a href="https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2020/11/does-tor-provide-more-benefit-or-harm-new-paper-says-it-depends/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ars Technica</a>:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"> <em>"The authors of this research paper have chosen to categorize all .onion sites and all traffic to these sites as "illicit" and all traffic on the "Clear Web" as 'licit.'</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>This assumption is flawed. Many popular websites, tools, and services use onion services to offer privacy and censorship-circumvention benefits to their users. For example, Facebook offers an onion service. Global news organizations, including The New York Times, BBC, Deutsche Welle, Mada Masr, and Buzzfeed, offer onion services.</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>Whistleblowing platforms, filesharing tools, messaging apps, VPNs, browsers, email services, and free software projects also use onion services to offer privacy protections to their users, including Riseup, OnionShare, SecureDrop, GlobaLeaks, ProtonMail, Debian, Mullvad VPN, Ricochet Refresh, Briar, and Qubes OS…...</em></p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>Writing off traffic to these widely-used sites and services as "illicit" is a generalization that demonizes people and organizations who choose technology that allows them to protect their privacy and circumvent censorship. In a world of increasing surveillance capitalism and internet censorship, online privacy is necessary for many of us to exercise our human rights to freely access information, share our ideas, and communicate with one another. Incorrectly identifying all onion service traffic as "illicit" harms the fight to protect encryption and benefits the powers that be that are trying to weaken or entirely outlaw strong privacy technology."</em><br> </p><p>The critique here is justified; there are legitimate websites hidden behind layers of security which were deemed "illicit" by this study's methods. Many people are just trying to protect their anonymity when using them. However, the study's authors based their assumption on previous studies that demonstrate that these hidden sites are used for illegal activities at a higher rate than other parts of the <a href="https://www.cigionline.org/sites/default/files/no20_0.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">internet</a>.</p><p>Until a more rigorous and ethically ambiguous method of determining what people using the network are doing on these dark websites is utilized, the findings of studies like this will be general and based on broad assumptions. </p><p>Despite all of this, we can take a few things from this study: most people using Tor to explore the internet aren't using it for evil, those using it in places with limited freedom of information are even less likely to use it for such purposes, and external factors can have significant impacts on how people use a tool such as the internet. <br></p>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.