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How science can fight disinformation in the next crisis

Diane Davis

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As the world spiraled towards calamity with the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, the essential role of virologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, and other scientists was thrust into the spotlight. Not only were these public health experts tasked with interpreting the rapidly evolving scientific and medical data, but they were often moved from the bench to the microphone and into the 24-hour media cycle. The public was looking for answers—but where would they derive them? This is where the scientific community became so important, with the distinct ability to assess the evidence through an expert lens and deliver unbiased viewpoints on the implications.

The first task facing the scientific community was how to communicate about the virus itself—what it was, what it wasn’t, how it could be transmitted, and the true risks involved. Comparisons to other viral pathogens immediately emerged, particularly the common cold and seasonal influenza. Though these comparisons were somewhat useful to help the public understand the nature of the virus itself, they were often incorrectly extrapolated to make inaccurate, “broad stroke” assessments. Phrases like “this is just a bad flu” or “this only affects the elderly” led individuals to minimize the potential impact this novel coronavirus could wreak on the population. The truth is that scientists were learning in real time what the nature of the virus was; there was no pre-established “playbook” of recommendations. In a 24/7 news cycle, with a population accustomed to searching “Dr. Google” for health information, patience wore thin and the growing desire for answers led even non-expert views to be taken as fact vs. opinion.

Semantics and scientific accuracy matter

 In general, science was not always put into appropriate context by experts who actually knew the data—and many underestimated how quickly messaging could be spun in different directions. Most recently we saw this play out when a prominent NFL quarterback contracted COVID, leading to a widely televised debate about the semantics of ‘immunized’ vs. ‘vaccinated,’ claiming he had been immunized through an alternate therapy. We can learn from these miscues and mix-ups for future public health crises. We must identify scientific thought leaders early on and not just build messaging, but work with them to see where potential misunderstanding/misappropriation may lie—then develop strategies to address these issues head on as they arise in real time.

What went wrong—share of voice versus quality of voice

Increasingly throughout the pandemic, non-health experts including politicians, commentators and high-profile influencers began to have the loudest voice about the virus–regardless of their qualifications. Rather than strictly elevating scientific voices, empowering them to interpret the data and explain the importance of specific public health approaches, those with personal and/or political agendas used their platforms to spread misinformation. As a result, policies around mask wearing, social distancing, business regulation, the safety of vaccines, and related issues became highly charged and politicized. Opinions grew stronger, and soon an argument from even those who were unqualified characterized a “legitimate debate” rather than what it was—non-experts creating arguments against experts.

Even determining who was truly an “expert” became a laborious endeavor, with many commentators across traditional and social media failing to recognize that all scientists and medical specialists are not the same. True experts on issues related to viruses and their impact are primarily virologists, epidemiologists, and those on the front lines of treatment. Unfortunately, this stretching of the term “expert” only added further confusion and lessened the quality of scientific opinion on the situation.

To move forward, it is critical that communications professionals, including the media, elevate legitimate scientific voices for meaningful discussion, not simply those who align with specific political beliefs or unsubstantiated claims. Science and political conjecture should be separate, particularly when public health is so acutely in the balance as during a global pandemic.

What we can learn and how we can move forward

 We learned a lot over the last 20+ months that will help us be better prepared for future public health crises. There are five key lessons that can be applied in delivering accurate and impactful scientific communications to the public so that we are at the ready the next time a public health emergency strikes.

1) Use data and AI to inform a communication strategy. These tools are crucial to inform social listening and analytics early and often to recognize legitimate voices and elevate these voices through multiple channels, both traditional and digital, in order to ensure that they are heard above the cacophony of misinformation.  For instance, data and AI social listening tools allow us to uncover scientifically credible voices who may have a great message but narrow reach. We can then amplify their voice by engaging with them and increasing their digital presence, while emulating their strategies and messaging to support experts in other spheres of influence.

2) Activate scientific influencers globally and locally. We commonly think about scientific leaders of national government agencies as the ideal scientific influencer. But many of the most important scientific voices include community physicians and public health leaders that can have influence at a local level and with traditionally underserved communities. We learned during the vaccine rollout that the messaging varied in clarity depending on demographics and zip codes, in the US specifically. We also learned that we needed to identify relevant scientific voices for communities of color where there was skepticism based on historical injustices. For example, New York City did a great job boosting vaccinations in diverse neighborhoods by featuring local health experts of color with multilingual messages across many platforms—on social media, at sports events, and in bus terminals, to name a few. Hyperlocal efforts like this can be much more effective at driving change in underserved communities than national or global campaigns that lack the same level of personal relevance.

3) Scientific experts must have a voice—online and offline. We cannot underestimate the importance of ensuring scientific experts have a voice on the right channels to communicate the right messages to the right audiences. Given digital is the foundation of most of our communications today, an active online presence is needed now more than ever.  Although traditional publications and data presentations at medical meetings will continue to be a vital forum for science communications, being engaged in scientific dialogue via social media channels and other digital platforms is critical to ensure accuracy among key stakeholder audiences, other physicians and healthcare professionals, as well as consumers and patients. Some of best at doing this are virologists, epidemiologists and scientists from institutions like Mount Sinai School of Medicine, the University of North Carolina and Yale University, among others. These medical and public health experts have hundreds of thousands of followers and actively engage them on social media on a daily basis.

4) Accuracy, simplification and context are critical. Messaging should be carefully orchestrated to maintain accuracy while simultaneously providing important context, simplification of messages, and counter-messaging as needed. Thorough vetting and scenario planning should be executed so that any messaging can be immediately clarified upon questioning. Messaging is just the start—it is the objections and the argumentation that will be perpetual.

5) Catch and correct, early and often. Monitoring messaging in real time, again through social media and analytics, is the best way to see if incorrect information is gaining traction and quickly employ a bench of scientific experts to clarify and help contain the misinformation. The scientific community’s fast reaction to faulty theories around experimental uses of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin as COVID cures is a prime example of the need for agile and coordinated responses to dispel false information. Peter Hotez, M.D., Ph.D., the Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, specifically, has become one of the leading scientific voices during the pandemic to dispel these myths while bringing other experts in to create a united front against misinformation. In today’s digital age, where information, both correct and incorrect, moves at the speed of light, we must help the scientific community stay one step ahead to ensure scientific expertise and analysis rule the day.

Jennifer Gottlieb is global president of Real Chemistry, a firm that leverages data, tech and digital solutions to deliver communications and marketing services to the health care community.  Dr. Alexander Ploss is an associate professor of molecular biology at Princeton University and pioneered the development of alternative animal models for potential COVID-19 therapeutics.


Technology & Innovation

The Download: Trump’s potential climate impact, and the end of cheap helium

Diane Davis

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This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Trump wants to unravel Biden’s landmark climate law. Here is what’s most at risk.

President Joe Biden’s crowning legislative achievement was enacting the Inflation Reduction Act, easily the nation’s largest investment into addressing the rising dangers of climate change. 

Yet Donald Trump’s advisors and associates have clearly indicated that dismantling the landmark law would sit at the top of the Republican front-runner’s to-do list should he win the presidential election. 

If he succeeds, it could stall the nation’s shift to cleaner industries and stunt efforts to cut the greenhouse-gas pollution warming the planet. The IRA’s tax credits for EVs and clean power projects appear especially vulnerable. But lots of other provisions could also come under attack. Read the full story. 

—James Temple

The era of cheap helium is over—and that’s already causing problems

Helium is excellent at conducting heat. And at temperatures close to absolute zero, at which most other materials would freeze solid, helium remains a liquid. That makes it a perfect refrigerant for anything that must be kept very cold.

Liquid helium is therefore essential to any technology that uses superconducting magnets, including MRI scanners and some fusion reactors. Helium also cools particle accelerators, quantum computers, and the infrared detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope. 

“It’s a critical element for the future,” says Richard Clarke, a UK-based helium resources consultant. However, it’s also played a critical role throughout the history of technology development, while remaining in tight supply. 

As part of MIT technology Review’s 125th anniversary series, we looked back at our coverage of how helium became such an important resource, and considered how demand might change in the future. Read the full story.

—Amy Nordrum

How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

“This is one of the least visited places on planet Earth and I got to open the door,” Matty Jordan, a construction specialist at New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica, wrote in the caption to the video he posted to Instagram and TikTok in October 2023. 

In the video, he guides viewers through the hut, pointing out where the men of Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 expedition lived and worked. 

The video has racked up millions of views from all over the world. It’s also kind of a miracle: until very recently, those who lived and worked on Antarctic bases had no hope of communicating so readily with the outside world. 

That’s starting to change, thanks to Starlink, the satellite constellation developed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX to service the world with high-speed broadband internet. Read the full story. 

—Allegra Rosenberg

Wikimedia’s CTO: In the age of AI, human contributors still matter

Selena Deckelmann is the chief product and technology officer at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that hosts and manages Wikipedia.

There she not only guides one of the most turned-to sources of information in the world but serves a vast community of “Wikipedians,” the hundreds of thousands of real-life individuals who spend their free time writing, editing, and discussing entries—in more than 300 languages—to make Wikipedia what it is today. 

It is undeniable that technological advances and cultural shifts have transformed our online universe over the years—especially with the recent surge in AI-generated content—but Deckelmann still isn’t afraid of people on the internet. She believes they are its future. Read the full story.

—Rebecca Ackermann 

The two stories above are from the next issue of MIT technology Review, all about hidden worlds. It’s set to go live on Wednesday—subscribe now to get your copy!

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The Supreme Court will decide whether states can control social media 
It’ll start hearing arguments today about whether laws aimed at controlling online platforms in Texas and Florida are constitutional. (WP $)
Here’s what you need to know. (NYT $)
Texas’s law is dangerous. Striking it down could be even worse. (The Atlantic $)

2 Celebrities are being ‘deepfaked’ for adverts
AI-generated videos have them endorsing and promoting things they’ve never even heard of. (BBC)
+ These companies show why the next AI wave won’t revolve around chatbots. (Fast Company)

3 Inside TikTok’s live money-making machine
Live streaming can be hugely lucrative—for both the creator and TikTok itself—but there’s a dark side too. (ABC)
+ Influencers are getting younger and younger. (NBC)

4 A vending machine was secretly scanning undergrads’ faces
As privacy violations go, this is a pretty insidious and unnecessary one. (Ars Technica)
Computer scientists designing the future can’t agree on what privacy means. (MIT technology Review)

5 China is set to dominate the future of electric cars 
Thanks, at least partly, to years of careful investment and planning by its government. (Insider $)
Why the world’s biggest EV maker is getting into shipping. (MIT technology Review)

6 People are reporting cracks in their Apple Vision Pros
Bad news about these headsets just keeps on coming. (Engadget)
Apple is exploring developing even more wearable devices. (Bloomberg $)

7 Digitally resurrecting your loved ones might be bad for you
Researchers claim it could create unhealthy dependence on the technology. (New Scientist $)
technology that lets us “speak” to our dead relatives has arrived. Are we ready? (MIT technology Review)

8 Could you endure living on Mars? 
Physical concerns aside, it’d wreak havoc on most people’s minds. (NYT $)
These scientists live like astronauts without leaving Earth. (MIT technology Review)

9 A man allegedly made $1.8 million eavesdropping on his wife’s calls 
US regulators claim he traded on confidential information he overheard during her remote meetings. (The Guardian)

10 Meet the man whose job is to keep an ice cream factory cool ????
Engineering challenges don’t come much more delicious than this. (IEEE Spectrum)

Quote of the day

“I understand that SpaceX is possibly withholding broadband internet services in and around Taiwan — possibly in breach of SpaceX’s contractual obligations with the U.S. government.”

—Republican Representative Mike Gallagher makes an explosive claim in a letter to Elon Musk, CNBC reports. 

The big story

ChatGPT is about to revolutionize the economy. We need to decide what that looks like.

""

STEPHANIE ARNETT/MITTR

March 2023

Whether it’s based on hallucinatory beliefs or not, a gold rush has started over the last several months to make money from generative AI models like ChatGPT.

You can practically hear the shrieks from corner offices around the world: “What is our ChatGPT play? How do we make money off this?”

But while companies and executives want to cash in, the likely impact of generative AI on workers and the economy on the whole is far less obvious.

Will ChatGPT make the already troubling income and wealth inequality in the US and many other countries even worse, or could it in fact provide a much-needed boost to productivity? Read the full story.

—David Rotman

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction to brighten up your day. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ If you want to be happy, fill your days with ‘firsts’
+ May these chatty cats bless your morning. 
+ Please, don’t make tea in an air fryer.
+ This writing exercise could help you to better understand what you want from life.


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How Antarctica’s history of isolation is ending—thanks to Starlink

Diane Davis

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a smiling person in a t-shirt types at a telex

Helpful hams and secret codes

By 1957,Admiral Byrd was recognized as the world’s foremost expert in Antarctic exploration and was leading America’s Operation Deep Freeze, a mission to build a permanent American presence on the continent. The US Naval Construction Battalions, known as the Seabees, were deployed to build McMurdo Station on the solid ground of Ross Island, close to the first hut built by Captain Robert Scott in 1901. 

Deep Freeze brought a massive military presence to Antarctica, including the most complex and advanced communications array the Navy could muster. Still, men who wanted to speak to loved ones at home had limited options. Physical mail could come and go on ships a few times a year, or they could send expensive telegrams over wireless—limited to 100 or 200 words per month each way. At least these methods were private, unlike the personal communications over radio on Byrd’s expedition, which everyone else could listen in to by default.

In the face of these limitations, another option soon became popular among the Navy men. The licensed operators of McMurdo’s amateur (ham) station were assisted by hams back at home. Seabees would call from McMurdo to a ham in America, who would patch them straight through to their destination through the US phone system, free of charge. 

Some of these helpful hams became legendary. Jules Madey and his brother John, two New Jersey teenagers with the call sign K2KGJ, had built a 110-foot-tall radio tower in their backyard, with a transmitter that was more than capable of communicating to and from McMurdo Sound. 

To save money, a code known as “WYSSA” offered a broad variety of set phrases for common topics. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling.”

From McMurdo, the South Pole, and the fifth Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf, ham operators could ring Jules at nearly any time of day or night, and he’d connect them to home. Jules became an Antarctic celebrity and icon. A few of the engaged couples he helped to link up even invited him and his brother to their weddings, after the men returned from their tours of duty in Antarctica. Many Deep Freeze men still remembered the Madey brothers decades later. 

In the early 1960s, continued Deep Freeze operations, including support ships, were improving communication across American outposts in Antarctica. Bigger antennas, more powerful receivers and transmitters, and improvements to ground-to-air communication systems were installed, shoring up the capacity for scientific activity, transport, and construction.  

Around this time, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions were improving their communications capacity as well. Like other Antarctic programs, they used telex machines, sending text out over radio waves to link up with a phone-line-based system on land. Telex, a predecessor to fax technology, text messaging, and email, was in use from the 1960s onwards as an alternative to Morse code and voice over HF and VHF radio. On the other side of the line, a terminal would receive the text and print it out.

The Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions sent text over radio waves and developed a special code known as “WYSSA” to save money on the expensive telex rates.

MALCOLM MACFARLANE ©ANTARCTICA NEW ZEALAND PICTORIAL COLLECTION

In order to save money on the expensive per-word rates, a special code known as “WYSSA” (pronounced, in an Australian accent, “whizzer”) was constructed. This creative solution became legendary in Antarctic history. WYSSA itself stood for “All my love, darling,” and the code offered a broad variety of predetermined phrases for common topics, from the inconveniences of Antarctic life (YAYIR—“Fine snow has penetrated through small crevices in the huts”) to affectionate sentiments (YAAHY—“Longing to hear from you again, darling”) and personal updates (YIGUM—“I have grown a beard which is awful”). 

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Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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