4 things I learned when Big Think's Facebook page was hijacked by spambots

Well, that was an eye-opener. 

In case you hadn't heard, or (for our Facebook fans) noticed in your Facebook feed yesterday a torrent of hideous clickbait coming from Big Think, please check out this post for the whole backstory. 

For 12 horrible hours, from late Wednesday night EDT through midday Thursday, we watched, helpless as hijackers kicked all administrators off of our Big Think fan page and posted sexist and sexually explicit comics to our 1.3 million Facebook fans. (In an especially ironic twist, I was blocked from even commenting on these posts because the hijackers flagged my comments as spam.)

Nothing like this has ever happened to us before, and speaking for myself, it's something I never want to experience again — the sickening feeling of having Big Think's identity stolen and knowing that some of you would believe we actually meant to share this stuff. To their credit, most commenters on Facebook figured it out immediately. And many defended us against critics who thought we'd completely jumped the shark with some crazy new editorial/business strategy, or who took us to task for pathetic internet security. ("Hey Big Think! Next time don't use 'password' as your password!!")

But not all. Many wrote us horrified at the surprising "new direction" and a few thousand, understandably, unliked the page. Honestly, given the nature of the content and its frequency (once every 10 minutes or so), I'm surprised we didn't lose more of you.

So what have I learned (or been reminded of) from all this?

1) In spite of all the selfishness and nihilism that's definitely out there, people can be and often are heroic in their everyday actions:

After hours of fruitless requests to Facebook through anonymous "report a problem" web forms, a Big Think fan we'd never met before connected us with someone at Facebook who could actually help us reclaim our page. Hundreds of other fans rushed to our defense, writing in support of Big Think, sharing my explanatory post on their social media and in the comments on our compromised page, and rallying others to do the same. Here are just a few of our favorite comments:

2) Along with the benefits of reach and community, social media as a publishing platform still has some serious, built-in perils.

Much of Big Think's audience now lives on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, rather than on our website. It's true of all modern media companies: the old model of homepage-as-home is eliding into a much more distributed, multiplatform reality. BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti captured this perfectly in a recent interview on <re/code>. But social media platforms don't belong to those of us who use them. Even recognized brands like Big Think are guests on someone else's real estate and at the mercy of their developers and internal corporate decisions. We were fortunate enough, in this case, to be rescued by a friend. But as the threads I was reading all over the web at 2 o' clock Thursday morning attest, hundreds of companies and individuals have had their accounts hijacked permanently, submitting report after report with no response. This is a dangerous state of affairs — an exponentially scaled world in which someone or something can steal your personal or brand identity, leaving you powerless to reclaim it.

3) It's worth fighting for, this thing we're trying to do.

Since 2008, we've been working nonstop at gathering the smartest, boldest ideas and thinkers on the planet and giving them an open forum for discussion and debate. We try not to take sides without strong evidence, nor to shy away from controversial topics. As a result, it seems we've made many, many loyal friends out there who understand the fragility and necessity of open discourse in a world too full of deadly certainties.

4) We need to get to know our audience better.

For me, the #1 takeaway of this ugly experience is that our fan base is full of smart, funny, good, and resilient people. People we need to talk and listen to better on the site and on social media. And we'll be devoting a lot of effort in the coming months to figuring out creative new ways of doing just that.

I am not the most touchy-feely person on the planet and words like "heroic" (or even "thank you") don't always come easily to me. But after what felt like a 12-hour sucker punch to the gut, I'm left mainly with a warm sense of gratitude. Thank you to every person who supported and stayed with us throughout this wild episode. Because of you, we're back to work, inspired with a renewed sense of purpose.

Jason Gots is Big Think's Managing Editor

@jgots on Twitter

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.