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Anti-vaxx groups spend nearly $1 billion on social media
Fear-mongering is now a billion-dollar industry.
- The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that anti-vaxx groups reach 58 million users on social media, earning the platforms roughly $1B in revenue.
- The Center's founder, Imran Ahmed, says giving anti-vaxxers attention feeds the algorithms, further perpetuating the noise.
- In this interview with Big Think, Ahmed says the best thing we can do is offer credible information to change the algorithms.
Disinformation is rampant. On Monday, a group named "America's Frontline Doctors" held a press conference outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to tout the miracles of hydroxychloroquine, despite contrary evidence. Videos from the event are flooding social media, with the expectable "these doctors are being silenced" rhetoric. This "conspiracy" was boosted when Twitter restricted Donald Trump Jr's account after he shared the doctors claim that masks are unnecessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Who are these doctors wearing branded white coats?
The founder of this group is Simone Gold, a Burbank-based physician with ties to rightwing groups such as ALEC, FreedomWorks Foundation, and Tea Party Patriots (which backed this event). The group's website was launched 12 days ago and has since been taken down. There's Stella Immanuel, a Houston doctor that believes in world leaders are secretly lizards and having sex with witches and demons, and that dreaming has negative consequences. James Todaro also spoke, who, despite claiming to be on the frontline, hasn't seen a patient since 2018. An event of this magnitude wouldn't be complete without one of the Bakersfield doctors, Daniel Erickson.
The follow-up question: How do you even begin to counter such disinformation?
"If you see misinformation, ignore it, because engaging with it helps the platforms accomplish the goal of further spreading it," says Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. "Block the person that sent it, then find some good information and share it to try to balance out the algorithmic logic that underpins it."
Ahmed knows the dangers of internet rabbit holes. He founded the CCDH in 2017 to study the proliferation of identity-based hate in digital spaces, though he recently told me they began to focus solely on the coronavirus in early March. The stakes during a pandemic are too high to ignore.
The first result of that effort is the publication of a 34-page report, "The Anti-Vaxx Industry: Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation." After months of investigation, the team discovered anti-vaxx organizations reach 58 million people on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have earned nearly $1 billion in revenue from these groups—and Ahmed was lowballing that sum.
"If we were wrong and our calculations were bad, they would have gone after us. I suspect that because we're incredibly conservative, we may have underestimated it. If they challenged it, they would have to give a real number, and that real number could be substantially higher."
Anti-vaxx organizations earn social media platforms $1B
When I ask Ahmed why these groups spend so much money promoting anti-vaxx disinformation, he laughs while claiming he's not a psychologist. Though he attended medical school, he focuses on the dangers that platforms pose to society. Right now, Big Tech has found a strange bedfellow in the anti-vaxx movement.
"These platforms were not designed for free speech. The timeline is not about reading the most recent thing. It's an algorithmic list of content which prioritizes that information which is most engaging."
The report does reveal interesting clues on the men behind these efforts. The most influential anti-vaxx organizations are funded by osteopath Joseph Mercola, who runs a dietary supplement and medical device company and gives financial support to the National Vaccine Information Center and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as by fund manager Bernard Selz, who ponies up three-fourths of the money that supports the Informed Action Consent Network.
Mercola is easy: he uses fear-mongering to sell supplements, which has put over $100 million into his bank account. Since the start of the pandemic, Mercola has claimed at least 22 vitamins and supplements prevent or cure COVID-19. Vaccines misinformation is just one of his techniques. Previously, he's stated that microwaves alters the chemistry of food, mobile phones cause cancer, and pasteurized milk causes negative health effects.
Selz is harder to figure out. His philanthropic work is extensive thanks to his management of a $500 million fund. His anti-vaxx efforts, including $1.6 million given to discredited physician Andrew Wakefield, which he used to fund the movement's opus, "Vaxxed," appear to be a passion project. Since the Selz family avoids media contact, other reasons may be obscured.
Anti-vaxx sentiment is not new, but social media has given it steroids. As Ahmed notes, anti-vaxxers use the same tactics as other hate groups: don't trust authorities; disseminate conspiracy theories to create confusion; claim to be the sole authority on a topic.
Shortly after quarantine began, health misinformation actors merged with a hardcore group of committed anti-vaxxers to create what Ahmed calls "a coalition of chaos." Over the preceding months, this coalition has tested out a number of ideas: 5G causes COVID-19, which had a moment and then faded; track and trace is part of a global effort to microchip you, which never really caught on; and coronavirus vaccines are part of an elite capitalist conspiracy. The latter is persistent and having real-world consequences.
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), holds up a model of COVID-19, known as coronavirus, during a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images
Vaccine hesitancy in the UK is around 30 percent, according to Ahmed. In the U.S., he pegs it at 40 percent, though one poll found that only half of Americans are confident that they'll get a vaccine (if one is created). Enter the danger: herd immunity is different for every virus, though certainly over 50 percent. Ahmed says that confusion over a COVID-19 vaccine could result in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
As more people turn to social media for medical advice, Ahmed reminds us that platforms are part of the problem. You might think you're doing a public service by debating your anti-vaxxer friend. In reality, you're confirming algorithmic bias.
"The biggest mistake we've made is thinking that public opinion will change their views. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Google don't care about your opinion, because you're not their customer. You're their product."
Change agents target weak points, such as advertisers. Ahmed suggests a ruthless, sustained push, similar to the orchestrated effort that resulted in hundreds of brands pulling advertising from Facebook and Instagram. This month-long boycott is over unenforced hate speech policies.
Far from bucking the system, anti-vaxxers are fueling the capitalist greed they claim to decry. Discussing anti-vaxx sentiments, Eula Biss writes in "On Immunity" that, "wealthier nations have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford." She compares vaccine refusal as a form of civil disobedience to the trappings of capitalism: anti-vaxxers are more like the 1 percent than the 99 percent. They're looking out for their own self-interest instead of the good of the herd, relying on propaganda promoted by wealthy donors with vested interests as their "research."
This coalition of chaos, in cahoots with the platforms they fund, is capitalizing on vaccine disinformation. The farther from science they lead us, the better. The more enraged we become, the more attention they capture, which is where this new economy thrives.
- 7 reasons to be very wary of "The Plandemic" - Big Think ›
- How a 22-year-old fabricated vaccine study affects us today - Big Think ›
- Fight online misinformation by drowning it with the truth - Big Think ›
While legalization has benefits, a new study suggests it may have one big drawback.
- A new study finds that rates of marijuana use and addiction have gone up in states that have recently legalized the drug.
- The problem was most severe for those over age of 26, with cases of addiction rising by a third.
- The findings complicate the debate around legalization.
Cannabis Use Disorder, is that when you get so high you can’t figure out how to smoke anymore?
Cannabis use disorder, also known as CUD or cannabis/marijuana addiction, is a psychological disorder described in DSM 5 as "the continued use of cannabis despite clinically significant impairment." This includes people being unable to cut down on their usage despite wanting to, those who often use it despite finding it severely impairs their ability to function, or those who are putting themselves in danger to secure access to the drug.
While an understanding that marijuana can be addictive has existed for some time, and the image of the pothead who smokes so much they can hardly function is prevalent in our society, the effects of legalization on addiction rates have somehow gone understudied until now. Importantly, previous studies had failed to consider usage rates amongst populations over the age of 25.
In the new study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, focused on self-reported data on monthly drug use in four states where marijuana is now legal, Colorado, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon, from both before and after the drug was legalized in each state and compared it to others which have not yet legalized.
The data gave insights into the drug use habits of the respondents and specifically gave information about if they had smoked at all in the last month, the frequency of their drug use, and if they had ever had issues with how much they were using drugs.The researchers ultimately considered the responses of 505,796 individuals.
The increase in cannabis usage they found was considerable. The number of respondents over the age of 26 who claimed to have used the drug in the last month went up by 23% compared with their counterparts in states that have yet to legalize. Abuse of the drug by this group rose by 37%.
Teen usage rose by 25%, and addiction rates rose as well. This increase was small, though, and the authors have suggested it may be due to an unknown factor. The rate of usage or abuse for respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 did not increase at all.
After breaking the results down by demographics, the primary finding held; adults over the age of 26 are using marijuana more often when it is legalized, and they are starting to use it too much.
The grain of salt
As in any study where findings are self-reported, the exact numbers you see here should be taken with a grain of salt. They could be slightly higher or lower. As this study relies on people self-reporting their usage of a drug that is still illegal in many places, it is very possible that the apparent spike in addiction rates is caused by more accurate reporting, as people who live in an area where pot is still illegal may be less likely to report smoking it every day.
And it should be repeated a thousand times over that correlation and causation are not the same thing. There could be some unknown factor causing these increases in each case.
Despite these qualifications, the study is still useful in giving us a general sense of what may happen in states that have yet to legalize.
What does this mean for society and drug users?
While claims of "reefer madness" are greatly exaggerated, marijuana has several well established and thoroughly studied side effects. While occasional use isn't terribly harmful, addiction can be. Lead author Magdalena Cerdá of New York University explains in the study that heavy marijuana use is associated with "psychological and physical health concerns, lower educational attainment, decline in social class, unemployment, and motor vehicle crashes."
A substantial increase in the number of people who are addicted to the stuff will incur costs to society down the line.
Of course, a 37% increase in problematic usage means that the percentage of adults smoking too much went from .9% to 1.23% of the population responding to the survey. This makes it far less prevalent than issues with alcohol, which affected around 6% of all Americans in 2018.
Recently, Big Think's Philip Perry wrote a piece about how legalization could improve the health of millions by allowing the government to regulate the purity of commercially sold marijuana. This remains true. However, it must be weighed against the findings of this study, which suggests that at least some of these health gains will be wiped out by increased addiction rates.
What does this mean for legalization efforts?
The legalization steamroller will undoubtedly keep rolling along. While health concerns are one factor in the debate over marijuana, it is only one of many. In Illinois, where I live, weed will become legal on January 1st of 2020. The legalization campaign and legislation were more concerned with issues of social justice, the failures of prohibition, and finding a new source of tax revenue (since we're half broke) than with matters of potential addiction.
As Vox reports, the authors of the study aren't suggesting that legalization shouldn't take place; that is another, broader debate. They merely wish to present the fact that legalization has a particular side effect that we should be aware of.
While this study is unlikely to change anybody's stance on if weed should be legalized or not, it does show us a critical element to be considered when discussing drug policy. No drug is perfectly safe, and we have reason to believe that legalizing marijuana will mean that more people will have a hard time with it. Let's hope that legalization proponents keep that in mind as they rack up their victories.
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.