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The information arms race can’t be won, but we have to keep fighting
The tactics that work now won't work for long.
Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent.
In biology, a classic example comes from cheetahs and gazelles. Over time, these species have evolved for speed, each responding to the other's adaptations. A host of weirder examples come from the biology of sex, where males and females evolve bizarre adaptations to control reproduction, ranging from sperm plugs in bats, to cork-screw penises in ducks, to vaginas filled with deceptive dead-ends (also ducks).
One hallmark of an arms race is that, at the end, the participants are often just where they started. Sometimes, the cheetah catches its prey, and sometimes the gazelle escapes. Neither wins the race because, as one gets better, so does its opponent. And, along the way, each side expends a great deal of effort. Still, at any point, the only thing that makes sense is to keep escalating.
Arms races happen in the human world too. The term arms race, of course, comes from countries at war who literally amass ever-more sophisticated and powerful weapons. But some human arms races are more subtle.
The philosopher of science Bennett Holman has argued that the interactions between pharmaceutical companies and the regulatory bodies that seek to determine if drugs are safe and effective constitute an arms race. Pharmaceutical companies deploy an ever-evolving set of tactics to influence medical knowledge. As regulators identify these tactics, and seek to neutralise them, pharmaceutical companies find new ways to shape research.
We might call this an informational arms race. One side attempts to mislead the public over a key issue – the safety of a drug, whether climate change is real, or whether vaccines are dangerous, for example. At the same time, the other side works to combat this misinformation campaign. (Please note, this would often be referred to as a disinformation campaign, because it is purposefully intended to mislead. I use the term misinformation in this article since it is often tricky to figure out whether something is misinformation or disinformation, and since disinformation often ends up being shared by true believers with no political motives.) Of course, this is precisely the sort of interaction that social-media companies such as Twitter have found themselves engaged in.
As detailed in the Mueller report – but widely known before – in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election in the United States, the Russian government (via a group called the Internet Research Agency) engaged in large-scale efforts to influence voters, and to polarise the US public. In the wake of this campaign, social-media sites and research groups have scrambled to protect the US public from misinformation on social media.
Twitter, for example, has employed algorithms aimed at identifying bots and shutting down shady accounts. By their accounts, they have recently rid Twitter of 1 million such accounts per day. But when Twitter gets smarter, so do the bots. A recent report noted a new bot network on Twitter specially designed to outwit detection algorithms. (Another new trend – pernicious actors hijacking real accounts.)
What is important to recognise about such a situation is that whatever tactics are working now won't work for long. The other side will adapt. In particular, we cannot expect to be able to put a set of detection algorithms in place and be done with it. Whatever efforts social-media sites make to root out pernicious actors will regularly become obsolete.
The same is true for our individual attempts to identify and avoid misinformation. Since the 2016 US election, 'fake news' has been widely discussed and analysed. And many social-media users have become more savvy about identifying sites mimicking traditional news sources. But the same users might not be as savvy, for example, about sleek conspiracy theory videos going viral on YouTube, or about deep fakes – expertly altered images and videos.
What makes this problem particularly thorny is that internet media changes at dizzying speed. When the radio was first invented, as a new form of media, it was subject to misinformation. But regulators quickly adapted, managing, for the most part, to subdue such attempts. Today, even as Facebook fights Russian meddling, WhatsApp has become host to rampant misinformation in India, leading to the deaths of 31 people in rumour-fuelled mob attacks over two years.
Participating in an informational arms race is exhausting, but sometimes there are no good alternatives. Public misinformation has serious consequences. For this reason, we should be devoting the same level of resources to fighting misinformation that interest groups are devoting to producing it. All social-media sites need dedicated teams of researchers whose full-time jobs are to hunt down and combat new kinds of misinformation attempts.
Likewise, the US government needs to take social-media misinformation seriously as a threat to public health, and to our democracy. This means devoting significant government resources to combatting it, especially since the character of an informational arms race means that there are no easy patches. It is beyond alarming that the current administration is taking a see-no-evil approach to online misinformation – ignoring pleas from the (now resigned) homeland security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to pay attention to increasingly sophisticated Russian efforts to sway US politics. (The European Union has done much better with its East StratCom taskforce, created in 2015.)
The arms-race character of online misinformation means that we must also think of creative ways for broader social-media usership to get involved in efforts to protect public belief. Twitter, for instance, has added a bot-reporting function. This leverages the full range of abilities that humans can use to detect potential bots – abilities that can adapt as the opposition does.
Could we implement prizes or prestigious contests for independent research teams that identify new attempts at social-media misinformation? Or who come up with the best new ideas for fighting these attempts? Instead of growing victory gardens, the patriots of today can hunt down bots. We shouldn't expect to win the informational arms race, but if we want to protect our democracy, we have to keep fighting new threats as they emerge.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
The design of a classic video game yields insights on how to address global poverty.
Poverty can be a self-sustaining cycle that might require an external influence to break it. A new paper published in Nature Sustainability and written by professor Andrew Bell of Boston University suggests that we could improve global anti-poverty and economic development systems by turning to an idea in a video game about a race car-driving Italian plumber.
A primer on Mario Kart
For those who have not played it, Mario Kart is a racing game starring Super Mario and other characters from the video game franchise that bears his name. Players race around tracks collecting power-ups that can directly help them, such as mushrooms that speed up their karts, or slow down other players, such as heat-seeking turtle shells that momentarily crash other karts.
The game is well known for having a mechanism known as "rubber-banding." Racers in the front of the pack get wimpy power-ups, like banana peels to slip up other karts, while those toward the back get stronger ones, like golden mushrooms that provide extra long speed boosts. The effect of this is that those in the back are pushed towards the center, and those in front don't get any boosts that would make catching them impossible.
If you're in last, you might get the help you need to make a last-minute break for the lead. If you're in first, you have to be on the lookout for these breakouts (and the ever-dreaded blue shells). The game remains competitive and fun.
Rubber-banding: A moral and economic lesson from Mario Kart
In the real world, we see rubber-banding used all the time. Welfare systems tend to provide more aid to those who need it than those who do not. Many of them are financed by progressive taxation, which is heavier on the well-off than the down-and-out. Some research suggests that these do work, as countries with lower levels of income inequality have higher social mobility levels.
It is a little more difficult to use rubber-banding in real life than in a video game, of course. While in the game, it is easy to decide who is doing well and who is not, things can be a little more muddled in reality. Furthermore, while those in a racing game are necessarily antagonistic to each other, real systems often strive to improve conditions for everybody or to reach common goals.
As Bell points out, rubber-banding can also be used to encourage sustainable, growth programs that help the poor other than welfare. They point out projects such as irrigation systems in Pakistan or Payments for Ecosystems Services (PES) schemes in Malawi, which utilize positive feedback loops to both provide aid to the poor and promote stable systems that benefit everyone.
Rubber-banding feedback loops in different systems. Mario Kart (a), irrigation systems in Pakistan (b), and PES operations in Malawi (c) are shown. Links between one better-off (blue) and one worse-off (red) individual are highlighted. Feedback in Mario Kart (a), designed to balance the racers, imprAndrew Bell/ Nature Sustainability
In the Malawi case, farmers were paid to practice conservation agriculture to reduce the amount of sediment from their farms flowing into a river. This immediately benefits hydroelectric producers and their customers but also provides real benefits to farmers in the long run as their soil doesn't erode. By providing an incentive to the farmers to conserve the soil, a virtuous cycle of conservation, soil improvement, and improved yields can begin.
While this loop differs from the rubber-banding in Mario, the game's approach can help illustrate the benefits of rubber-banding in achieving a more equitable world.
The task now, as Bell says in his paper, is to look at problems that exist and find out "what the golden mushroom might be."
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."