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."

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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