Preserving truth: How to confront and correct fake news

Journalism got a big wake up call in 2016. Can we be optimistic about the future of media?

CRAIG NEWMARK: In order to have a democracy that thrives and actually that manages to stay alive at all you need regular citizens being able to get good, solid information. But, as it turns out, right now, we are suffering a lot of information warfare where a lot of bad actors, both foreign and domestic, are trying to screw things up, telling us things that aren't true, causing us to lose faith in the press, in democracy, in our institutions. So as far as I could tell, the only constructive way to deal with that is to support a trustworthy press and, as part of that, to support good research trying to figure out: Where is the bad stuff coming from? How do you disrupt that? How do you stop it from happening? And a lot of those things are happening now.

What I'd like to see is a whole bunch of news outlets first commit to being trustworthy. And they do that by signing up for the Trust Project principles. Then I'd like to see them now and then have someone serve as a watchdog, maybe via the International Fact-Checkers Network, which is basically a network of networks. I would like to see fact checkers – in the network or out – submit results that they find to the emerging database done at Tech & Check where a claim, which is fact-checked, could be registered in that manner using a standard database layout. I'd like to see nutrition labels generated by the folks there. And as that's beginning to happen, I'd like to see more and more people work together to create an ecosystem where in all these signals of trustworthiness – the Trust Project stuff, actual fact-checking, seeing if people went ahead and corrected errors that were made – if all these signals could be consolidated and then made available to anyone who wants them, particularly the social media platforms. So there's a lot coming; people are beginning to put into practice the signals of trustworthy journalism, people are beginning to consolidate them and the hope is, in the near-term, that the social media platforms, or anyone else, use those signals of trustworthiness.

I have also faith in advertisers to use them because advertisers are finding that they want their ads to be connected to reporting and other forms of entertainment, that is trustworthy and in the spirit of trustworthiness. So it is a matter of survival for the advertising business as well as the survival of a democracy, and the people pulling together these signals of trustworthiness are paying big attention to the questions of advertising and of journalistic quality. They need to do all this because if they don't to do a good job of it people will trust the advertisements less and less as they see they may be connected to untrustworthy reporting. So trustworthy reporting, when you can see that it really is trustworthy, is a big market differentiator for news outlets, but also for the advertisers who place ads in those trustworthy outlets.

I'm very optimistic about journalism because the people in the business feel that they got a really big wake up call in 2016. They're now doing an increasingly good job. There's a lot of challenges that remain but people have realized that a lot needs to be fixed and there's a lot of momentum behind fixing things. And in the case of people like me who are helping, often with dollars, we've got to get out of the way and stay out of the way. That's what the ethics of funding nonprofit journalism require.

  • "[T]o have a democracy that thrives and actually that manages to stay alive at all, you need regular citizens being able to get good, solid information," says Craig Newmark.
  • The only constructive way to deal with fake news? Support trustworthy media. In 2018, Newmark was announced as a major donor of two new media organizations, The City, which will report on New York City-area stories which may have otherwise gone unreported, and The Markup, which will report on technology.
  • Greater transparency of fact-checking within media organizations could help confront and correct fake news. Organizations already exist to make media more trustworthy — are we using them? There's The Trust Project, International Fact-Checkers Network, and Tech & Check.

Impossible Burger hits grocery stores on Friday

Can Impossible Foods beat other brands — like Beyond Meat and Tyson — in the war to dominate the alternative meat industry?

Impossible Foods
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The Impossible Burger will be available in 27 Gelson's Markets stores in Southern California starting Sept. 20.
  • Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods sell plant-based burgers in restaurants, but only Beyond Meat sells products in grocery stores.
  • Tyson could begin to edge out these smaller companies with its unique meat product that contains plant and animal components, appealing to health-conscious "flexitarians."
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.


Amazon pledges surprisingly bold climate change goals

The move comes one day before more than 1,500 Amazon employees are set to walk off the job as part of the global climate strikes.

Politics & Current Affairs
  • Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on Thursday plans to swiftly combat climate change.
  • Some parts of the plan include becoming carbon neutral by 2040, buying 100,000 electric delivery vans and reaching zero emissions by 2030.
  • Some Amazon employees say the pledge is good but doesn't go far enough.
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