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Why We Keep Falling for Fake News

Once upon a time, we believed there were two kinds of news: good news and bad news. Then the 2016 election rolled round, and we got a new category: "fake news." More and more of our social media feeds were taken up by spam accounts pushing misleading information or outright lies that many nevertheless believed were true. But why did—does—this automated campaign of deceit work on so many of us? A new study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour says the bots are only partly to blame.

While "fake news" may be a buzzword, it's certainly no joke. The information we take in can change the way we think, behave, and vote. So scientists are working as fast as they can to understand, and ideally defuse, the phenomenon before it gains any more traction.

Some studies have found that viral ideas arise at the intersection of busy social networks and limited attention spans. In a perfect world, only factually accurate, carefully reported and fact-checked stories would go viral. But that isn’t necessarily the case. Misinformation and hoaxes spread across the internet, and especially social media, like a forest fire in dry season.

To find out why, researchers created a virtual model of information-sharing networks. Into this network, they dropped two kinds of stories: high-quality (true) and low-quality (fake or hoax). Then they populated the networks with actual users and news outlets and spam bots. To keep the virtual news feeds close to real life, the spam bots were both more numerous and more prolific than the genuine posters.

The results confirmed what any Facebook user already knows: Whether or not a story goes viral has very little to do with whether it's actually true. "Better [stories] do not have a significantly higher likelihood of becoming popular compared with low-quality information," the authors write. "The observation that hoaxes and fake news spread as virally as reliable information in online social media … is not too surprising in light of these findings."

Within the model, a successful viral story required two elements: a network already flooded with information, and users' limited attention spans. The more bot posts in a network, the more users were overwhelmed, and the more likely it was that fake news would spread.

Even conscientious media consumers can be taken in by false information if they're in a rush, the authors write. "The amount of attention one devotes to assessing information, ideas and opinions encountered in online social media depends not only on the individual but also on [their] circumstances at the time of assessment; the same user may be hurried one time and careful another."

So what's the solution? "One way to increase the discriminative power of online social media would be to reduce information load by limiting the number of posts in the system," they say. "Currently, bot accounts controlled by software make up a significant portion of online profiles, and many of them flood social media with high volumes of low-quality information to manipulate public discourse. By aggressively curbing this kind of abuse, social media platforms could improve the overall quality of information to which we are exposed."

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help
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iStock

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

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Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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