Are new COVID variants like Omicron linked to low vaccine coverage? Here’s what the science says

The emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant of concern, Omicron, has reignited global discussions of vaccine distribution, virus mutation, and immunity against new virus strains.

Some experts have suggested the emergence of a new strain could be a result of low levels of vaccine coverage in developing nations.

So how do new virus variants emerge? And what role does vaccination play? The relationship is still unclear but here’s what we know so far.

Viruses naturally change during reproduction

A virus is life at its most simple, and essentially contains two main elements: (1) a blueprint for reproduction (made of DNA or RNA), and (2) proteins that let the virus enter cells, take over, and start replicating.

While only a few SARS-CoV-2 viruses are needed to cause an infection, replication of the virus in the lungs is explosive. Millions of virus particles are eventually produced, and some of these viruses are then exhaled to infect another host.

Importantly, the process of duplicating the virus’ RNA is imperfect. Eventually, errors will accumulate in the growing pool of viruses, causing what we refer to as virus variants.

What is a SARS-CoV-2 variant virus and why are some of them concerning?

When viruses are transmitted from one person to another, some of the new variants will be better at entering cells or duplicating themselves than others.

In these cases, the “fitter” variants are more likely to take over and become the main virus that replicates within a population.

Over the course of the pandemic, this has occurred several times. The original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged from Wuhan in 2019 was later replaced by a variant called D614G, followed by the Alpha variant and now, the Delta variant.

Every time someone gets infected with SARS-CoV-2, there is a chance the virus could generate a more fit variant, which could then spread to others.

How are vaccines holding up as the virus changes?

Our current vaccines are still highly effective against SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the Delta strain. This is because the vaccines target the whole “spike” protein of the virus, which is a large protein with a relatively small number of changes across variants.

Concerningly, some SARS-CoV-2 variants (Beta, Gamma, Lambda and Mu) have been reported to “evade” immunity from vaccination. This means the immune system is unable to recognise the variant virus as well as the original strain, which reduces the effectiveness of vaccination.

However to date, the global impact of such “immune escape” strains has been limited. For instance, the Beta variant, which showed the highest amount of immune escape, was unable to out-compete Delta in the real world.

Are low vaccination rates a risk for generating new virus variants?

For now, any relationship between vaccine coverage and new SARS-CoV-2 variants is unclear.

There are two main factors that could lead to the development of new variants.

First, low vaccine coverage might increase the risk of new variants by allowing transmission within a community.

In this case, high viral replication and person-to-person transmission provides plenty of opportunity for the virus to mutate.

Mass vaccination clinic in Indonesia.

The relationship between vaccination and new variants is still unclear.

Shutterstock

Alternatively, as vaccination rates rise, the only viruses that will be able to successfully infect people will be variants that at least partially escape the protection of vaccines.

This scenario might require continual global surveillance efforts and new vaccines to maintain long-term control of the virus, similar to the flu.

Either way, with COVID-19 almost certain to stick around, we should expect new strains will continue to be a challenge. We will need careful and active management to address this risk.

So where did Omicron come from?

The recent reports of a new variant of concern, Omicron, has raised global alarm bells.

Discovered by the impressive virus sequencing efforts of South African scientists, Omicron contains an incredible 32 changes in the spike protein alone. This includes mutations that can increase transmission and evade immunity.

So there is a risk that Omicron may spread rapidly and reduce (but not eliminate) the effectiveness of current vaccines.

With low overall vaccination coverage in southern Africa (albeit with higher population level immunity from infection), some have suggested global inequities in the supply of COVID vaccines may be responsible for the emergence of Omicron.

However, the extensive mutations in Omicron are also consistent with the virus changing over an extended time, as it replicated in a person with a compromised immune system.

Such highly mutated variants have been documented in the past but have generally not spread widely.

Global vaccine coverage benefits us all

Boy points to his bandaid, after having a vaccination.

High vaccine coverage lessens the chance a highly mutated virus can spread.

Shutterstock

Expanding global vaccine coverage by increasing supplies, ensuring equitable distribution, and combating hesitancy and misinformation remains critical.

High global vaccine coverage will limit overall viral evolution, protect immunocompromised people and lessen chances highly mutated viruses can spread, all of which can directly or indirectly lower the risks of new variants emerging.

With the global community now highly interconnected, countries will struggle to keep their citizens safe in the face of pandemic threats without embracing a framework for greater international cooperation and coordination.The Conversation

Jennifer Juno, Senior research fellow, The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity and Adam Wheatley, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

IN OTHER NEWS: 'Irresponsible!' Kayleigh McEnany erupts in anger over Biden not wearing a mask at Thanksgiving

Former White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany lashed out at members of the media on Monday www.youtube.com

We reconstructed birdsong soundscapes from over 200,000 places: and they’re all getting quieter

Imagine going to hear your favourite orchestral piece played in a world-class venue – and only the woodwind and brass sections turning up. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this sparse soundscape is similar to what we’re often experiencing when we head out to our favourite parks or nature reserves. The sounds produced by the natural world are changing, which means that the benefits we gain from being in nature are likely to be changing too.

There is growing recognition of the value of spending time in nature for human health and wellbeing. At the same time, we’re living through a global environmental crisis, with ongoing and widespread declines in biodiversity. This means that the quality of our interactions with nature – and the positive effects we receive – are also likely to be declining.

While all our senses can contribute to our experiences of nature, sound is particularly important: the sounds of nature have the power to boost mood, decrease pain and reduce stress. Our research explores how long-term biodiversity loss, as well as shifts in species’ habitats in response to climate change, are fast altering the soundscapes of the natural world.

Our research

Recordings of past soundscapes aren’t available from most sites. We needed to develop a way to reconstruct historical soundscapes so we could track how they’ve changed over time.

A nightingale sings on a branch

The common nightingale is one of the species rapidly declining in the UK.

Bernard Dupont/Wikimedia Commons

To do this, we used annual bird monitoring data collected through European and American bird surveys in over 200,000 sites across Europe and North America. These surveys, undertaken by a fantastic network of volunteer ornithologists during late spring and early summer, generate lists of which species, and how many individuals, were counted in each site each year it was surveyed.

We translated this data into soundscapes by combining them with sound recordings for individual species downloaded from Xeno-canto, an online database of bird calls and songs.

First, we clipped all the downloaded sound files to 25 seconds. Then, starting with an empty five minute sound file, we inserted the same number of sound files for a species as there were individuals counted. That means that if there were five individuals of a given species counted in the survey, we inserted five 25-second sound files of that species.

By layering the appropriate number of sound files for each species, we were able to build a composite soundscape for each site that represented what it would have sounded like to stand next to an observer as they completed their annual bird count. You can listen to one of our soundscapes, reconstructed from data collected in 1998 at a site near Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, below.

A reconstruction of bird calls at a UK site. Author provided2.29 MB (download)

Having built soundscapes for each site in each year, we used acoustic markers to measure their characteristics. These markers quantify how the acoustic energy within each soundscape is distributed across frequencies and time, allowing us to measure how acoustic diversity and intensity has changed.

Our results reveal a clear, continuous fall in the acoustic diversity and intensity of soundscapes across Europe and North America over the past 25 years, suggesting that the soundtrack to our spring is becoming quieter and less varied.

In general, we found that sites that have experienced greater declines in the number of species or total number of individuals counted also show greater declines in acoustic diversity and intensity.

The spectrogram below shows how sound energy is spread across a particular soundscape. The amplitude – meaning the energy or loudness – of bird noises is shown through colour, with dark blues corresponding to lower amplitudes (quieter sounds) and brighter colours like pink corresponding to higher amplitudes (louder sounds). The frequency, displayed on the y-axis, can be thought of as the pitch or tone of a song.

Spectrogram

A spectrogram of multiple bird species singing.

Author provided

The ways in which birds structure their communities, as well as how the call and song characteristics of different species complement each other, also play important roles in determining how soundscape characteristics are changing.

For example, the loss of species such as the skylark (Alauda arvensis) or nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), which sing rich and intricate songs, is likely to have a greater influence on the complexity of the soundscape than the loss of a raucous corvid or gull species. However, the precise effect of their loss will depend both on how many individuals were originally present and if any other species with similar songs remain.

Our results suggest that, as a consequence of these losses, one of the key pathways through which humans engage with nature is in chronic decline. Nature’s orchestra is fast losing both players and instruments.

By translating the hard facts on biodiversity loss into tangible images and recordings, we hope to heighten awareness of this tragedy and encourage support for conservation through protecting and restoring high-quality natural soundscapes: so people can access, enjoy, and benefit from nature again.The Conversation

Simon Butler, Associate Professor in Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia and Catriona Morrison, Senior Researcher in Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Joe Biden: why the US president's approval ratings have fallen so far

Ten months into his presidency, Joe Biden's poll numbers are, by any measure, lukewarm. According to the latest figures, taken on November 24, only 43% of Americans approve of his performance in office, while a majority think he is not doing a good job. In a week when he announced that he is planning to run for the presidency again in 2024, these are surely not the numbers he is hoping for.

There are a number of explanations for Biden's low approval rating, but some context is useful. While he is recently polling lower than his three Democrat predecessors at this point in their presidency, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were not faced with a pandemic in an era of dangerously toxic partisanship.

Also, the storming of the Capitol in January 2021 by violent supporters of the outgoing president, Donald Trump, ensured that Biden's ascension to power later that month took place at a time when American democracy appeared to be in peril.

Connecting with the 47% of the public who had voted for his opponent was always going to be difficult – not least as the election outcome was – and still is – contested by many influential officeholders.

Bearing this tumultuous start in mind, there are some factors in particular that may help to explain where Biden has found himself politically. The point at which his poll numbers crossed from positive to negative was just before the final withdrawal date for US troops from Afghanistan in late August 2021.

While the president's position on America's presence in the region was no secret – and most of the public were in favour of bringing the troops home – the bloody and chaotic reality of how this played caused shock both at home and abroad.

Pandemic partisanship

In the ensuing weeks, Biden's poll numbers continued to slide. But Afghanistan was not the only source of voter dismay. Despite campaign-trail promises and concerted presidential efforts to get COVID under control, the pandemic has raged on. The public health and economic toll have remained substantial as a hefty 40% of the population (aged 12 and over) have not yet been vaccinated.

Some Americans may never get on board with the science. One route to surmount this obstacle was to introduce vaccine mandates for federal workers, associated contractors and employees of large companies. Such a solution brought its own set of problems, as government mandates do not sit well with Americans.

Most unfortunately for the president, and arguably through no fault of his, COVID is a polarising issue. It has become possible to find out a person's political leanings based on their adherence – or lack thereof – to wearing a mask.

Pandemic partisanship has allowed Biden's opponents to make political hay with the situation. After 22 months of disruption, it is easy for voters to forget that COVID began and rapidly spiralled out of control during the Trump presidency. His was an administration that showed zero interest in planning for distant risk. As a result, his successor inherited a monumentally challenging public health crisis.

This has been continually exacerbated by pushback from various opponents keen to score political points with their conservative base. Governors in some Republican states, for example, have rejected Biden's vaccine policies, refusing to implement mandatory vaccinations or testing.

The result is a continuing pandemic, fearful citizens, and the ongoing politicisation of a public health emergency. Additionally, the disappointing economic recovery is damaging to the president as the anticipated bounce-back has to date not materialised sufficiently to turn the tide of unemployment and rising inflation.

Family squabbles

Added to the president's political headaches are problems in his own party. Democrat family squabbles are nothing new, but Biden has to spend precious political capital on reining in frisky progressives while dealing with the disproportionate influence of specific conservative individuals. West Virginia Senate representative Joe Manchin showed his power in the 50/50 deadlocked Senate by challenging the central tenet of Biden's climate agenda, on the eve of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. The result was a US president heading to a crucial climate conference with an agenda undermined by a recalcitrant member of his own party.

Presenting as a moderate Democrat was always going to bring challenges for Biden. On one level, it is a sensible strategy as traditionally, voters tend to veer to the centre at general election time. Clearly many did, as the centrist Democrat won with 51% of the vote. However, the flipside of such an approach is that the middle-of-the-road position may satisfy nobody.

Hence, in his early days in office, Biden tacked to the left of his traditional position on certain issues including climate, immigration and committing to trillions in expenditure, which pleased progressives and showed, however fleeting, party unity.

The political challenges facing Biden remain daunting. He leads a deeply divided country that has been unable to unite in a crisis. Fake news abounds and undermines civil discourse. It is difficult to imagine how any president might fare well in the polls under such circumstances. A less centrist leader that Biden could make the situation worse. His 51% disapproval rating still equates with 43% approval. Under the circumstances, this constitutes a political glass that is (almost) half full. But it will need to be fuller if he really does plan to run in 2024.The Conversation


Clodagh Harrington, Associate Professor of American Politics, De Montfort University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The world’s largest organism is slowly being eaten by deer

In the Wasatch Mountains of the western US on the slopes above a spring-fed lake, there dwells a single giant organism that provides an entire ecosystem on which plants and animals have relied for thousands of years. Found in my home state of Utah, “Pando" is a 106-acre stand of quaking aspen clones.

Although it looks like a woodland of individual trees with striking white bark and small leaves that flutter in the slightest breeze, Pando (Latin for “I spread") is actually 47,000 genetically identical stems that arise from an interconnected root network. This single genetic individual weighs around 6,000 tonnes. By mass, it is the largest single organism on Earth.

Aspen trees do tend to form clonal stands elsewhere, but what makes Pando interesting is its enormous size. Most clonal aspen stands in North America are much smaller, with those in western US averaging just 3 acres.

View across a valley with trees highlighted in green

Aerial outline of Pando, with Fish Lake in the foreground.

Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando, Author provided

Pando has been around for thousands of years, potentially up to 14,000 years, despite most stems only living for about 130 years. Its longevity and remoteness mean a whole ecosystem of 68 plant species and many animals have evolved and been supported under its shade. This entire ecosystem relies on the aspen remaining healthy and upright. But, although Pando is protected by the US National Forest Service and is not in danger of being cut down, it is in danger of disappearing due to several other factors.

Deer are eating the youngest 'trees'

Overgrazing by deer and elk is one of the biggest worries. Wolves and cougars once kept their numbers in check, but herds are now much larger because of the loss of these predators. Deer and elk also tend to congregate in Pando as the protection the woodland receives means they are not in danger of being hunted there.

Three deer in an aspen forest

Well-disguised deer eating Pando shoots.

Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando, Author provided

As older trees die or fall down, light reaches the woodland floor which stimulates new clonal stems to start growing, but when these animals eat the tops off newly forming stems, they die. This means in large portions of Pando there is little new growth. The exception is one area that was fenced off a few decades ago to remove dying trees. This fenced-off area has excluded elk and deer and has seen successful regeneration of new clonal stems, with dense growth referred to as the “bamboo garden".

Diseases and climate change

Older stems in Pando are also being affected by at least three diseases: sooty bark canker, leaf spot and conk fungal disease. While plant diseases have developed and thrived in aspen stands for millennia, it is unknown what the long-term effect on the ecosystem may be, given that there is a lack of new growth and an ever-growing list of other pressures on the clonal giant.

The fastest-growing threat is that of climate change. Pando arose after the last ice age had passed and has dealt with a largely stable climate ever since. To be sure, it inhabits an alpine region surrounded by desert, meaning it is no stranger to warm temperatures or drought. But climate change threatens the size and lifespan of the tree, as well as the whole ecosystem it hosts.

Although no scientific studies have focused specifically on Pando, aspen stands have been struggling with climate change-related pressures, such as reduced water supply and warmer weather earlier in the year, making it harder for trees to form new leaves, which have led to declines in coverage. With more competition for ever-dwindling water resources (the nearby Fish Lake is just out of reach of the tree's root system), temperatures expected to continue soaring to record highs in summer, and the threat of more intense wildfires, Pando will certainly struggle to adjust to these fast-changing conditions while maintaining its size.

The next 14,000 years

Yet Pando is resilient and has already survived rapid environmental changes, especially when European settlers began inhabiting the area in the 19th century or after the rise of 20th-century recreational activities. It has dealt with disease, wildfire, and grazing before and remains the world's largest scientifically documented organism.

Trees at sunset

Pando has survived disease, hunting and colonisation.

Lance Oditt / Friends of Pando, Author provided

Despite every cause for concern, there is hope as scientists are helping us unlock the secrets to Pando's resilience, while conservation groups and the US forest service are working to protect this tree and its associated ecosystem. And a new group called the Friends of Pando aims to make the tree accessible to virtually everyone through 360 video recordings.

Last summer, when I was visiting my family in Utah, I took the chance to visit Pando. I spent two amazing days walking under towering mature stems swaying and “quaking" in the gentle breeze, between the thick new growth in the “bamboo garden", and even into charming meadows that puncture portions of the otherwise-enclosed centre. I marvelled at the wildflowers and other plants thriving under the dappled shade canopy, and I was able to take delight in spotting pollinating insects, birds, fox, beaver and deer, all using some part of the ecosystem created by Pando.

It's these moments that remind us that we have plants, animals and ecosystems worth protecting. In Pando, we get the rare chance to protect all three.

Keep reading... Show less

Cuba: five years after Fidel Castro’s death, how fares the revolution?

If recent events in Cuba are anything to go by, the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez is facing significant challenges as the country marks five years since the death of its revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, on November 25 2016.

At least one leading dissident, journalist Guillermo Farinas, was taken into custody ahead of a protest planned for November 15, while, according to some reports, others were placed under house arrest. Yunior García, one of the organisers of the protest – which was shut down by authorities – was placed under house arrest but allowed to leave Cuba for Spain.

It's tempting to view protests – and the idea of constant internal crisis – as the defining feature of contemporary Cuba. But critique and protest have been a part of Cuba's history since independence. And – more importantly – Cubans are taught that it is their revolutionary duty to question and critique constructively.

Debates are not confined to the intelligentsia either – most Cubans have an opinion on how to improve their country. But, on the whole and despite the undeniable hardships that still face the Cuban people, the majority continue to demonstrate a commitment to maintain the system – albeit while working to improve conditions.

The way in which the death of Castro was commemorated in Cuba tells us much about the complexity of Cuban society. The Caravana de la Libertad (Caravan of Freedom) that carried his ashes to the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba mirrored the route that the triumphant guerrilleros took in early 1959 as they returned to Havana, having ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Two women, one with face painting honouring the late Cudan president Fidel Castro.

'Yo soy Fidel'.

Sonia Almaguer, Author provided

In 2016, just as in 1959, Cubans lined the central highway along the length of the island to pay their respects, many of them holding images of Fidel Castro, waving the Cuban flag or displaying the hashtag #Yo soy Fidel (I am Fidel). Some outside commentators interpreted this unusual commemoration as evidence of an authoritarian – or, at least, coercive – system which demands loyalty and obedience. Others noted varying responses from different generations, whose expectations have changed as those with direct memories of pre-revolutionary Cuba have begun to die out.

Those who closely follow Cuban society recognised a complex range of responses and emotions by Cubans of all generations across the island. Some were there to mourn a figure who had improved their lives, others to commemorate the end of a historical period, and yet others to witness a historical moment that captured the world's attention.

From Obama to Trump to Biden

Five years on, that complexity is very much still in evidence, but the context has changed immeasurably and in ways that could not have been anticipated. The rapprochement between Cuba and the US during the Obama administration was reversed – and sent into punitive overdrive – by the raft of 243 sanctions implemented by Donald Trump's administration to restrict Cuba's economic activity. Joe Biden has yet to reverse these sanctions, which have hit Cuba particularly hard in terms of income from tourism – the island's economic mainstay since the collapse of trade with the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s.

Cubans, some holding portraits of the late Fidel Castro, mourning the death of the president in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución, November 2016.

Cubans mourn the death of Fidel Castro in the Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, November 2016.

Sonia Almaguer, Author provided

Currency reforms in December 2020 – the Tarea Ordenamiento or “fusion" of the dual currencies that had existed since the 1990s as a response to the end of trade with the Soviet Bloc – brought increased salaries for public sector workers, but led to rising inflation. This, coupled with the restrictions of life under the pandemic and the negative impact of the heightened US embargo, created further economic instabilities, inequalities and precariousness.

Meanwhile Castro's death, the retirement from office of his brother Raúl Castro, and the election of a new generation of leader in the shape of party stalwart Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez in 2019 have created additional unknowns – not least since the “historic generation" that led the revolution in 1959 has all but disappeared.

The impact of COVID

On the face of it, data shows that Cuba has handled the pandemic very well: with just 8.5% of the population infected and 0.73 deaths per thousand in Cuba (compared to 15% and 2.13 respectively in the UK). In addition, figures sourced from the University of Oxford's Our World in Data project shows that Cuba has fully vaccinated 80% of its population. This places the country third in the world behind UAE and Brunei.

Cuba's renowned biotech sector has also produced five COVID-19 vaccines – the first Latin American country to produce a vaccine. Meanwhile the tradition of medical internationalism, for which Cuba is famous, continued with the Henry Reeve International Medical Brigade, which sent medical professionals to 40 countries.

But COVID has also created social divisions – largely between those who followed the rules and those who didn't. Early on in the pandemic, debates raged about how Cubans depended on the coleros (queuers). These are people who wait in line for now-precious basic commodities and often re-sell at increased prices. There were criticisms that some of these people were compromising collective pandemic discipline and social equality.

Who decides the nature of change?

It is against this backdrop of political and economic insecurity and COVID restrictions that the protests of July and November must be seen. In effect they are not greatly dissimilar to similar demonstrations in the US, the UK or Europe. But in Cuba these protests have an additional component. There is evidence of clear, sustained and organised interference from organisations in the US.

Since 1959, Cubans have been emphasising that revolution is a constant process, not an event. Current discussions by Cubans of all generations, including the leadership, focus on the revolutionary duty to “change everything that needs to be changed" – a reference to Fidel Castro's 2000 definition of revolution as a constant concept underpinning the Cuban revolution. In this sense, the real issue at stake is the concept of change and who decides to implement it.

In 2021, as in 1959, the key issue is who controls Cuba. Cuba gained its independence in 1898, almost a century after many other Spanish colonies in the Americas. Another century on, and – thanks to US intervention – Cuba's destiny as a sovereign nation – the right to make its own mistakes as well as celebrate its own successes – is still not entirely in its own hands.The Conversation

Parvathi Kumaraswami, Chair in Latin American Studies, Faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Conspiracy theories about the pandemic are spreading offline as well as through social media

A consistent feature of the pandemic has been the presence of a relatively small but vocal number of conspiracy theorists who resist attempts to tackle COVID-19. Their views might seem marginal and extreme but recent research suggests that we should take them seriously.

Survey data shows that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with a lack of confidence in steps aimed at addressing the pandemic and risky health behaviours and that conspiracy adherents are more likely to refuse to socially distance, wear a mask or get vaccinated.

One reason for this is that conspiracy theories work differently to other forms of misinformation. Rather than simply trading in inaccurate or misleading information, conspiracy theorists believe they have discovered the hidden truth that world events result from the deliberate actions of unseen, malevolent actors.

This might mean blaming the emergence of COVID-19 on “big pharma" or believing that social distancing measures form part of an attempt by a hidden “world government" to restrict civil liberties. This kind of thinking provides a simple explanation for complex and unpredictable events. In a time of widespread uncertainty and fear it is easy to see the appeal in claims that the pandemic is deliberate and controlled.

When we think about how conspiracy theories like these spread, there is a tendency to focus on the role of social media. We've become accustomed to seeing fact checking and moderators working in these spaces to manage to problem.

But with colleagues, I've been exploring the offline space through an analysis of the Light, a monthly newspaper (and self-described “truthpaper") delivered free of charge across the UK. It provides sceptical coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and we've concluded that a significant proportion of its content can be seen as conspiracist in nature.

What is a 'truthpaper'?

In terms of style and layout, the Light looks like a conventional newspaper. It has a masthead and banner headlines and each article is laid out in columns. The content varies in both style and topic, with opinion pieces and interviews appearing alongside news items.

Conspiracist articles are presented alongside other, unrelated material, so that overall, readers experience the variety of content that might be expected in a mainstream source of news. For instance, the same issue might include an article suggesting COVID vaccines could be used for mind control and a more conventional news item on Russian shipping.

As an example of the offline dissemination of conspiracy theories related to the pandemic, the Light is important for a number of reasons. It seemingly has a wide reach, with claims of a print run of over 100,000 copies for each issue. It is produced and distributed by a network of activists, drawing on a closed Facebook group of more than 8,000 members.

An edition of The Light newspaper with the front page headline '2021: The Year of Liberty'.

A front cover of an issue of The Light.

Author provided

Conspiracy and activism

However, the Light's real significance is that it appears to be encouraging a highly participatory engagement with its content. Readers are encouraged to seek out, disseminate and act on the issues they are reading about rather than simply passively receiving the information. This approach means that the Light doesn't just aim to broaden readers' knowledge but to engage them in a process of discovery, revelation and action.

We found this happens in a number of ways. There are direct calls for action, for example, through articles encouraging readers to attend rallies and events, or promoting the refusal to wear face coverings.

Other articles promote the importance of “doing your own research", directing readers to seek out content that challenges mainstream opinion on the pandemic. There are even puzzle features that require the reader to conduct research into conspiratorial content in order to be successfully completed.

Being “awake" is a central theme in conspiracist content. Readers are invited to join an in-group of conspiracy adherents who refute the “official narrative". The state of being “awake" is often put across as being virtuous and exceptional, and readers are frequently encouraged to view their knowledge of the pandemic's “true" nature as a motivating factor to action.

Alongside this are frequent moral appeals to action which play upon readers' emotions to drive them to act. This includes content written in language that draws on themes of war and conflict and emotive articles warning of the effects of public health measures on children.

Why it matters

These calls to action are taking place in the context of an increasingly dangerous atmosphere. We already know that conspiracy theories have the potential to promote political polarisation, extremism and violence. Recent months have seen numerous examples of COVID-19 conspiracy theories influencing real-world activism.

Some of these might seem relatively trivial, such as sticker campaigns disputing the safety of the vaccination programme, or leaflets promoting unproven treatments posted through letterboxes. But there have also been protests at media organisations' offices, attempts to disrupt the work of vaccination centres and even footage of threats of violence being made against public figures associated with the pandemic response.

Offline material like the Light is highly potent because readers experience a sense of agency when they pick it up. They are being offered a way to actively engage in public issues which is outside of mainstream forms of political participation. And it's all happening without the automated warnings and links to more reliable sources which are now a mainstay of social media sites.

Keep reading... Show less

What’s in a name? When it comes to human fossils, it’s complicated

Homo bodoensis is the new name given to a human ancestor who lived half a million years ago in Africa. The species is named after a skull from Bodo D'ar, Ethiopia.

The finding was made nearly 50 years ago, and it has been described by several different names over the decades. The new name is the result of a new reassessment of the fossil record. Species names are frequently revised thanks to the complicated nature of biological diversity and the rules constructed to categorize it. But when it comes to human ancestors, species names can carry emotional and political baggage, which the rules don't easily account for.

Around 100,000 years ago, towards the later part of the Pleistocene epoch, modern humans shared the planet with several other human species. These included our closest relatives, the Neanderthals and Denisovans. We all evolved from a distant relative called Homo erectus, and our lineages diverged about 800,000 years ago, in the Early Pleistocene.

The intervening time period — known as the Middle Pleistocene or Chibanian Age — is particularly important because this is when our species, Homo sapiens, emerged.

A graph showing human evolution including _Homo bodoensis_ and _Homo sapiens_

A model of human evolution with Homo bodoensis positioned ancestrally to modern humans (Homo sapiens)

(M. Roksandic, P. Radović, X.J. Wu and C. J. Bae), Author provided

Unfortunately, the human fossil record from the Chibanian is sparse and poorly understood — a problem paleoanthropologists refer to as “the muddle in the Middle."

There are several human species named from this period, but since the 1980s, paleoanthropologists have tended to lump most of these fossils under one name, Homo heidelbergensis. This practice simplified things, but it obscured our understanding of variability in these humans. Many paleoanthropologists agree that it is high time to tackle this head-on.

The species problem

Species don't clearly exist in nature: they're a scientific construct. This might sound surprising — after all, dogs are dogs and cats are cats. But the closer we look into the details, the more problems emerge.

For example, how do we divide species over evolutionary time? Evolution can occur gradually by imperceptible increments, seamlessly transitioning from one “species" to the next. The boundaries between these “chronospecies" are inherently arbitrary so taxonomists — biologists whose work involves identifying and categorizing organisms — create rules to help divide living things into species when no natural boundaries exist.

These rules are called species concepts. The most popular of these, called the biological species concept, says that species are groups of organisms that can produce fertile offspring with one another, but not with other organisms. Dogs can make puppies with other dogs, but not with cats, so they are different species.

The objective criteria of this concept have made it very appealing to analytically minded scientists. But the biological species concept isn't perfect. Notably, it only works for sexually reproducing organisms, which excludes the majority of species, including bacteria and viruses. It's also not very helpful in paleontology, since we can't really crossbreed extinct animals to see if they were interfertile.

Over 30 other species concepts have been proposed, which try to account for these shortcomings. But if species are not natural categories, it probably isn't possible to create a single concept that applies to every possible scenario. Species concepts are scientific tools, and the best one depends on the questions being asked.

Strict rules

Naming species is a whole other issue. It can often be difficult to decide if a new fossil represents a new species or just individual variation within an existing species. The fossil record is constantly being reassessed: different species are combined into one or one species gets divided into two. This can lead to a lot of confusion over species names — different scientists may use the same names to describe different species and vice versa.

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature was established to help mitigate this confusion. The ICZN publishes guidelines for animal names with the goal of promoting clarity and stability in scientific communication. One of the most important ICZN rules states that if there is a conflict between the validity of two or more names, the oldest established name has priority.

This is why, as children, many of us were disappointed to learn that Brontosaurus never existed: several fossils were reassessed and combined into one species, and Apatosaurus had priority. But the same approach resurrected Brontosaurus after another reassessment in 2015.

New names

This brings us back to Homo bodoensis. Under the biological species concept, the new name is moot since we know that modern humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans all interbred. The claim that all these groups belong to a single species, Homo sapiens, is valid … from a certain point of view.

But a more pragmatic approach that defines species based on distinctive physical traits can serve us better here. From this perspective, all of the Chibanian fossils which share Neanderthal traits get reassigned to Homo neanderthalensis. This includes the fossil for which Homo heidelbergensis was named — according to the ICZN, that name becomes obsolete.

The remaining Chibanian humans in Africa and parts of Eurasia, which are ancestral to modern humans, but lack specific modern human traits, become a new species.

What should this species be named? The ICZN is unambiguous about this: the name Homo rhodesiensis has priority, since it was given to a human skull found in Zambia in 1921, although the species was poorly described at the time.

However, the name refers to the former British colony of Rhodesia and its namesake, imperialist mining magnate Cecil Rhodes. This name should be unpalatable to a scientific community interested in decolonization, but the ICZN has made it clear that it will not make provisions to allow name changes based on perceived offensiveness.

But the ICZN only maintains authority by convention — we respect it because we agree that it works. Researchers and publishers can make their own decisions about which names to accept and which to reject. Homo bodoensis represents a new option in this regard.

In the end, it's important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. Species names are meant to help us understand nature, and when they start to get in the way of that goal it's time to rethink them. Homo bodoensis may be just a name, but the names we use influence the way we perceive the world. And rules or no rules, the best names are the ones that scientists use clearly and consistently.The Conversation

Joshua Allan Lindal, PhD student, Anthropology, University of Manitoba; Mirjana Roksandic, Professor, Anthropology, University of Winnipeg, and Predrag Radović, Research Assistant, Archaeology, University of Belgrade

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ending online anonymity won’t make social media less toxic

In recent months the government has proposed cracking down on online anonymity. The idea is that attaching online posts to a person's real name will reduce abuse and increase accountability.

Online bullying and misinformation are growing problems, and government action to address them is overdue.

However, limiting anonymity alone won't make social media less toxic. It will only work combined with broader reforms to platform design and business models, which drive polarisation, negativity, abuse and misinformation.

Reforms must also protect free speech and account for power imbalances between citizens and the state. The mooted changes come alongside suggestions of public funding for defamation actions by parliamentarians. Cynics might view these two suggestions together as an effort to silence reproach.

Potential anonymity reforms

In April this year, a parliamentary committee recommended requiring users to provide ID documents before opening social media accounts.

This was not implemented, but in June the Online Safety Act was changed to empower the e-Safety Commissioner to require platforms to disclose personal information of alleged online bullies.

In September, the High Court held that media outlets can be liable for defamatory third-party comments on their social media posts.

Government comments indicate intent to further regulate online anonymity. Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently described social media as a “coward's palace", pressuring platforms to expose the identities of anonymous trolls.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also criticised platforms professing to be “vessels of free speech" while enabling users to conceal their identities.

Risks

There are risks with the proposed policy direction. First, anonymity regulation alone may be ineffective in stopping abuse and misinformation.

Second, reforms must be scrutinised to ensure they serve public rather than political interests. While the state stifling dissent may seem less of a concern in a democracy like Australia than in authoritarian regimes, it is important to ensure new measures won't unreasonably compromise free speech and privacy.

This concern is underscored by politicians issuing legal threats to citizens for voicing online critiques.

In combination with Australia's defamation laws, removing online anonymity may further expose users and chill democratic debate.

Complex drivers of toxicity

Anonymity is only one factor contributing to online toxicity.

Most current platforms are designed to maximise user engagement. Platform algorithms, in combination with human behaviour, mean negative and angry content outcompetes positive content. This promotes negativity, polarisation and extremism.

Engagement-driven business models also incentivise fake news. Mistruths attract more engagement, so falsity is 70% more likely to be retweeted than fact.

Research further shows sharing of political misinformation is driven by partisanship more than ignorance. Online polarisation therefore propels misinformation in aid of the culture wars.

For example, the COVID-19 hashtag “#Danliedpeopledied" was driven by hyper-partisan and fake accounts. An anti-vax “infodemic" now spreads online, propelled by tribal influencers and anti-vaxxer communities.

Online toxicity is exacerbated by social media's addictiveness. Each “like" and comment gives users “a little dopamine hit". Outrage and negativity equal more engagement, which means more dopamine rewarding the behaviour.

Connection

While we turn to social media for company and validation, heavy use can make us feel alone. Isolation may leave us more susceptible to tribes that foster belonging.

Tribalism can encourage group attacks, reinforcing tribal connection. Social media “pile-ons" can be devastating for the target. Such bullying would probably not occur in person. But online, we have fewer physical and visual cues to encourage empathy.

While some (especially anonymous trolls) find courage on social media, others are frightened off. Negative online encounters can create a “spiral of silence", discouraging moderate users from participating. This creates more room for fringe voices emboldened by the echo chamber.

What reforms are needed?

Anonymity regulation will only help with bullying and misinformation if part of broader reforms tackling other drivers of toxicity, like engagement-driven polarisation. This means addressing platform business models and design – a complex task.

Reforms must also be fair.

First, anonymity regulation must apply equally to parliamentarians. Some politicians have used fake accounts to confect support, which undermines healthy debate.

A parliamentary code of conduct could define standards for politicians' behaviour, both online and offline. Regulating truth in political advertising may curtail dishonesty.

Second, if anonymity is regulated, it is even more crucial to ensure citizens are not gratuitously sued or threatened by politicians for voicing opinions online.

Protection of reputation and accuracy are important, but we must safeguard fair debate. Politicians enjoy free speech bolstered by parliamentary privilege and media platforms.

Social media has disrupted politicians' domination of political discourse, which helps explain the recent explosion of defamation threats and actions by politicians.

Any anonymity regulation must be balanced by free speech protections, including more robust defamation defences accounting for power imbalances between citizens and the state.

Given their positions of power, politicians should accept a higher threshold of criticism.

Keep reading... Show less

Hulu’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ casts Canada as a racial utopia

When Hulu's series The Handmaid's Tale premiered in 2017, reviewers noted its gripping drama and dystopian exploration of rape culture and misogyny at a time when both were hallmarks of Donald Trump's presidency.

The series is adapted from Canadian author Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel. It has won numerous awards and was recently renewed for a fifth season. But some commentators, including writer Ellen E. Jones, have criticized the series for its use of colour-blind casting that created inclusivity but otherwise ignored race in storylines. Others, including Noah Berlatsky, have analyzed how both the series and novel erase Black people's history.

Our research examines representations of race in speculative fiction and of Canada in U.S. literature, leading us to notice how Hulu's series represents race and national difference.

The show positions Canada as a morally superior nation that has rejected the dystopian society's repressive and exclusionist thinking. This is especially apparent in Season 4's focus on characters' escape to Canada, a theme that references older abolitionist narratives. In so doing, the show obscures Canada's history of slavery, colonialism and racism.

Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' trailer.

Atwood's dystopian world

Both the novel and show draw on U.S. history to imagine a dystopian world facing an unexplained fertility crisis. Gilead, a theocratic nation led by religious fundamentalists, has overthrown the U.S. government. Atwood's female narrator is an educated white woman forced to become a “handmaid." Each month, a commander rapes her in a religious fertility ceremony. Babies born to handmaids are raised by commanders and their wives. The sole purpose of the handmaids is to rebuild Gilead's population.

Writer Priya Nair explains that Atwood's novel draws on the historical oppression of Black enslaved women and applies it to fictional white women. For example, handmaids who are disobedient are beaten or hanged.

Despite clear parallels to slavery, Atwood only obliquely references slavery when the narrator explains that the “Children of Ham" have been relocated to the Dakotas. “Children of Ham" is a Biblical phrase that was used historically to justify enslaving Africans.

Nair also notes that the novel focuses on white women's oppression, while seemingly ignoring “the historical realities of an American dystopia founded on anti-Black violence."

A crowd of women, of white, Black and Asian identities, seen in cloaks and bonnets.

Actors are seen at the filming of Handmaid's Tale at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., February 2019.

(Victoria Pickering/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

While the novel relies on historical experiences of Black Americans, its characters are predominantly white, a feature of Gilead that Atwood maintains in the 2019 follow-up The Testaments. As reviewer Danielle Kurtzleben notes, in this second instalment: “Readers hoping to hear more about race in Gilead will be sorely disappointed."

Atwood intentionally framed Gilead as both misogynist and racist: the theocracy is interested only in reproducing white babies and, therefore, only enslaving white women.

Colour-blind casting in Hulu's adaptation

In adapting the novel, Hulu relied on a diverse cast of actors. White actor Elisabeth Moss plays June and Black British actor O-T Fagbenle portrays her husband Luke. Black actor Samira Wiley was cast as June's best friend Moira. Actors of colour portray characters of all class positions in Gilead's society.

A Black woman dressed glamorously in red lipstick is seen arriving at an event in front of a Hulu / Handmaid's Tale sign.

Samira Wiley, who plays Moira, arrives for 'The Handmaid's Tale' FYC Phase 2 Event in August 2017 in Los Angeles, Calif.

(Shutterstock)

Executive producer Bruce Miller acknowledges that he cast actors of colour in many roles to avoid creating an all-white world, which would result in a racist TV show. The show doesn't address race, he explained, because: “It just felt like in a world where birth rates have fallen so precipitously, fertility would trump everything."

The show then relies on colour-blind casting and colour-blind storytelling.

In Atwood's novel, Canada is the place to which handmaids escape, fleeing there on the Underground Femaleroad — a term that clearly invokes the Underground Railroad.

In Hulu's series, handmaids — including Moira — escape from Gilead to Canada where they find protection and safety, and are able to rebuild their lives. The series draws on older literary traditions that have been integral to maintaining the myth of Canada as free from racism.

Draws on abolitionist narratives

In the 1840s and 1850s, U.S. abolitionist authors intentionally represented Canada as a racial haven. By casting Canada as morally superior, abolitionists imagined what the U.S. might look like if slavery were abolished.

Abolitionist authors like Black songwriter and poet Joshua McCarter Simpson and white novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe celebrated Canada as a place that resisted racial violence and provided legal protection for Black refugees fleeing U.S. slavery.

Some abolitionists sought to capture the nuanced accounts of Black refugees in Canada. Abolitionist editor Benjamin Drew published oral testimonies of Black refugees, including their experiences of racism in Ontario.

Others, like Stowe, minimized the difficulties of the lived experiences of Black Canadians, focusing on stories of Black success in Canada. These celebratory narratives dominated representations of Canada in U.S. literature.

Canada as utopia?

A group of women in red cloaks and bonnets are seen walking by a cluster of trees outside.

Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' escape-to-Canada stories draw on historical narratives by abolitionists.

(Victoria Pickering/Flickr), CC BY-NC-ND

Literary scholar Nancy Kang argues these abolitionist stories constructed an “allegory of Canadian freedom reigning triumphant over American bondage."

Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale escape-to-Canada stories draw on these historical narratives. The handmaid Emily, portrayed by white actor Alexis Bledel, escapes Gilead dramatically, entering Canada by wading across a rushing river, nearly losing June's daughter. Once across, she weeps over the baby, recreating an iconic scene from Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, when the enslaved Eliza escapes slave-catchers by fleeing across a river with her child.

Later in the episode, an Asian Canadian doctor welcomes Emily to Canada, saying: “You're safe here."

On some level, Hulu's use of colour-blind casting, as Berlatsky notes, “addresses the narrative's debt to African-American history." But viewers are still watching an adaptation of a novel whose emotional horror is based on imagining violent, racist aspects of U.S. history as if the atrocities happened to white people.

Myths of Canada

The series avoids Canada's history of anti-Black racism, slavery and state violence against Black bodies, as detailed by gender studies and Black/African diaspora scholar Robyn Maynard in Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present. It also overlooks Canada's colonial violence toward Indigenous peoples. These forms of violence are intertwined with seeking control over women's reproductive rights and sexual freedom.

The series also overlooks Canada's history of racist immigration and asylum policies.

Hulu's series does explore some of the consequences of patriarchal oppression. But the show's positioning of Canada as a racial haven obscures its history and the contemporary reality of racism experienced by BIPOC women and communities in Canada.The Conversation

Miranda Green-Barteet, Associate Professor, Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies, Western University and Alyssa MacLean, Assistant Professor, Department of English and Writing Studies, Western University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What the Peng Shuai saga tells us about Beijing’s grip on power and desire to crush a #MeToo moment

Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai's apparent disappearance may have ended with a smattering of public events, which were carefully curated by state-run media and circulated in online clips. But many questions remain about the three weeks in which she was missing, and concerns linger over her well-being.

Peng, a former Wimbledon and French Open doubles champion, had been out of the public eye since Nov. 2. 2021 when she penned a since-deleted social media post accusing former Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct.

In the U.S. and Europe, such moments of courage from high-profile women have built momentum to out perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault and give a voice to those wronged. But in the political context of today's People's Republic of China (PRC) – a country that tightly controls political narratives within and outside its borders – something else happened. Peng was seemingly silenced; her #MeToo allegation was censored almost as soon as it was made.

As scholars of Chinese legal culture who have watched as the nation has become increasingly repressive under the premiership of Xi Jinping, we believe the mysterious disappearance – and brief reappearance – of Peng should be viewed within a broader sociolegal context. The episode shows that when presented with a potential pivotal #MeToo moment, Beijing is prepared to violate its own legal principles and respond with a state-media controlled operation aimed to chill any challenge to CCP authority.

Claim of a sexual assault

Peng's Nov. 2 post on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, reads like an open letter to Zhang, a retired but still powerful member of China's Communist Party elite.

In it, the tennis star alleges coercion, duress and sexual assault. Peng wrote to the 75-year-old Zhang: “Why did you have to come back to me, took me to your home to force me to have sex with you? … I couldn't describe how disgusted I was, and how many times I asked myself am I still a human? I feel like a walking corpse."

The post was quickly taken down and Peng disappeared. But it sparked widespread international outrage. Current and former athletes expressed concern over Peng's safety, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams. The hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai started trending.

Chinese state media responded by publishing a message purportedly from Peng, stating that “everything is fine." But it was met with deep skepticism across the international community. Even with her reemergence at public events, concerns over her safety remain.

Behind the saga, however, is a clear message: It is dangerous to publicly criticize even a former senior Chinese Communist Party official. The party does not want any American-style #MeToo movement in China, as it is hostile to any grassroots movements that challenge its authority.

Being 'disappeared'

Peng's disappearance also shows how authoritarian instruments of control are triggered by politically sensitive matters that contradict Communist Party narratives.

Such control of any sensitive narrative in China is commonplace with the CCP. Just ask Jack Ma, the former head of Alibaba, or movie star Fan Bingbing. Ma, who was the richest man in China and a worldwide celebrity, criticized the Chinese financial industry. This criticism led to his quick disappearance from public view. Thereafter, his ANT Group IPO was quashed and assets disassembled and appropriated by government-controlled entities. Fan also disappeared from public view and eventually resurfaced, only to be fined for tax evasion. It appeared that the Communist Party considered her conduct may have had a corrupting influence on socialist values with displays of wealth and glamour out of sync with Xi's revival of Maoist concepts such as “common prosperity."

In Peng's case, her story directly contradicted the Communist Party's official narrative of harmonious relations between people and Party. In particular, her allegations contradict the narrative that women, who purportedly “hold up half the sky in China", enjoy gender equality under this government.

Peng, for challenging this view, was given a taste of being canceled from China's history and stripped of her rights under the Chinese constitution to seek justice in relation to her serious allegations. Indeed, the Chinese government has a history of unjustly detaining people involved in contentious cases, limiting their capacity to talk freely, and forcing statements.

Under Xi, China enjoys a self-described “socialist democracy with 'Chinese characteristics'," in which “the citizens' basic rights are respected and guaranteed."

But the response to Peng, amongst others, shows that rule of law has become a ruthless, blunt force instrument wielded by party leadership.

As Cai Xia, former professor at the Central Party School of the CCP, argued in June 2021: “the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness [and] has grown ever more repressive and dictatorial."

Cai continued: “A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the Party's grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society."

In Peng's case, her “being disappeared" appears to be an attempt to kill several birds with one arrow: crush dissent, stem any Chinese #MeToo momentum and instill fear about criticizing CCP officials because, as the vanguard of the Communist Party under Xi Jinping Thought, they must always be seen as virtuous. In short, “Xi Jinping Thought" is a set of policies and ideas taken from the various writings and speeches of General Secretary Xi.

'Fight to the end'

Peng's allegations came at a particularly sensitive time for the CCP. It came just as Xi was preparing to deliver a historical resolution aimed at further cementing his grip on power.

“The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered a key phase, and risks and challenges we face are conspicuously increasing," Xi remarked, while vowing to “fight to the end" with any forces that attempt to subvert the party's leadership.

“Any forces" apparently includes anyone who criticizes or challenges the Communist Party – even one of its own international sports stars making serious allegations against a former party official.

[Science, politics, religion or just plain interesting articles: Check out The Conversation's weekly newsletters.]The Conversation

Yan Bennett, Assistant Director for the Paul and Marcia Wythes Center on Contemporary China, Princeton University and John Garrick, University Fellow in Law, Charles Darwin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

SUV tragedy in Wisconsin shows how vehicles can be used as a weapon of mass killing – intentionally or not

Police have yet to confirm what caused a driver to plow a red SUV into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Nov. 21, 2021, killing at least five people and injuring scores more. But one thing is clear: Vehicles can be a deadly weapon, whether used deliberately or unintentionally.

The suspect, identified as Darrell Brooks Jr., is expected to face charges including five counts of intentional homicide. It has emerged that Brooks was previously arrested earlier in November after being accused of hitting the mother of child with his car in a gas station parking lot. Waukesha police confirmed on Nov. 22, that the latest incident, which left 18 children between the ages of 3 and 16 in hospital, was not an act of terrorism. Nor did it follow a police pursuit, although reports suggest that the suspect may have been fleeing an earlier incident.

But the manner of the deaths conjures up recent memories of terror attacks using vehicles on perceived soft targets, such as holiday markets, as well as concern over the risk of high-speed chases ending in tragedy.

As a scholar who has researched the weaponizing of vehicles, I know that cars, SUVs and trucks can be an efficient means of mass killing, and one that can be virtually impossible to prepare against. Furthermore, it is becoming harder to prosecute the driver involved in such fatalities in some states.

'Poor man's weapon of mass destruction'

Vehicle ramming – defined by the Department of Homeland Security as the deliberate aiming of a motor vehicle at individuals with the intent to inflict fatal injuries or cause significant property damage – has been called the “poor man's weapon of mass destruction."

Members of the terrorist group Islamic State were not the first to employ this deadly innovation – in attacks on people in London, Nice and New York – but in recent years they have perhaps become most closely associated with the tactic.

The group featured “vehicle ramming" in their propaganda as one of their preferred weapons against Western targets and encouraged supporters to use vehicle ramming against crowds. Islamic State group propaganda magazine, Dabiq, even advised would-be lone actors which vehicle could do the most damage

In North America, white supremacists and other militant and terrorist groups have also rammed their vehicles into crowds. Incidents of people running vehicles into pedestrians include that of the violent “incel" – or “involuntary celibate" – Alek Minassian, who rammed his van into a crowd in Toronto in 2018, killing 10. It has also been employed by members of the far-right, such as James Fields, who was found guilty of the murder, by vehicle, of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

After the protests following the police killing of George Floyd, there was a massive uptick in the number of attacks, most of which were aimed at Black Lives Matter protests. From the day of Floyd's death on May 25, 2020, to Sept. 30, 2021, vehicles drove into protests at least 139 times, according to a Boston Globe analysis.

During the course of my Department of Defense-sponsored research on how militant and terrorist groups' use social media, I observed extreme right-wing groups on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Parler and Telegram sharing memes about the vehicular attacks in the summer of 2020. Posts minimized the civilian casualties and mocked the core message of “Black Lives Matter," turning it into the grotesque slogan “All Lives Splatter" and featuring a white SUV covered in red paint on the hood.

And it isn't only right-wing groups that have targeted protesters. Police in cities such as New York and Detroit have driven vehicles into demonstrations. And in Tacoma, Washington, at least one man was injured after an officer drove into a crowd of protesters. In Boston last year, Police Sergeant Clifton McHale was recorded on a police body camera bragging about hitting protesters with his police cruiser.

Criminal and civil immunity

In recent months, five states – Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee – have either shielded drivers who kill pedestrians from legal action or have fully decriminalized hitting a pedestrian with a vehicle if they were in the street or on a highway. Legislatures in states like Iowa, Florida and Oklahoma have passed laws granting drivers criminal and civil immunity if they “unintentionally" hit or kill a protester while “fleeing from a riot," so long as they say it was necessary to protect themselves. Kansas, Montana, and Alabama are planning similar legislation.

Many more Americans are unintentionally killed or injured as a result of high-speed pursuits involving law enforcement. Police chases often occur on public roads or in residential areas. The result of what can be multiple vehicles going at high speeds in these areas can be deadly. The Department of Transportation estimates that around 250,000 high-speed police chases occur every year, with 6,000 to 8,000 of them resulting in a collision.

Around 500 people are killed annually as a result of these police pursuits, and approximately 5,000 are injured. The Justice Department, recognizing the danger of high-speed chases, has urged police officers to avoid or abort pursuits that endanger pedestrians, motorists or the officers themselves.

The risk to the public of a driver intentionally or unintentionally causing a mass casualty event is, as the Wisconsin case shows, just too high.

[Get the best of The Conversation, every weekend. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.]The Conversation

Mia Bloom, Evidence Based Cyber Security Program, Georgia State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Prayer apps are flooding the market, but how well do they work?

Prayer apps are not new. Silicon Valley startups popularized mindfulness and meditation apps as early as 2010, although many have criticized those apps for being spiritually shallow. Hallow's young founders – devout lay Catholic millennials – are among those who felt that mindfulness apps did not meet their religious needs and set out to create their own.

Hallow's accessible language introduces different methods of prayer, along with inspiring talks, guides to spiritual practices and notifications to encourage users to set goals and stay on track.

As a priest, I know that helping people develop healthy prayer habits is important. But both as a scholar of Christian spirituality and as someone who provides spiritual direction to others, I see limitations in what prayer apps can achieve.

Tech and faith

Churches have long adopted communications technology enthusiastically to spread their message. The Reformation started by Martin Luther and his followers in 16th-century Germany spread rapidly through the use of Gutenberg's printing press.

Currently, Catholic faith-based media include the Eternal Word Television Network, founded by Catholic nun Mother Angelica, which provides news, radio programming, live-streamed services and web-based religious instruction to an estimated viewership of more than 250,000,000 viewers.

Apps serve a purpose as well. As several surveys have shown, active membership in a religious community is declining. Religiously unaffiliated people, who are mostly young, make up about a quarter of the American population. At the same time, many of them yearn for a sense of religious belonging, and these apps appear to help in creating a faith-based community.

The kind of community that technology fosters is an important spiritual question to consider, however. Evidence suggests that the unstoppable reach of technology into all aspects of our lives is shaping how people think and relate to one another. Research has shown that while people have far more access to information, their attention span is less. Since prayer involves both the mind and emotions, this has spiritual implications.

Seeing how addicted people have become to their phones and other devices, I sometimes urge them to regain some spiritual freedom by giving up social media during Lent.

Prayer as community

Rows of Muslim women, wearing headscarfs, seated in a prayer position.

For many religious communities, prayers are part of a collective identity.

Peter Adams/Stone via Getty Images

Collective identity is baked into many religious traditions, including Islam and Buddhism.

Commitment to community also runs deep in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism give particular emphasis to the communal aspect of prayer. The praying community gathered together is at the heart of their faith and identity.

An embodied community asks people to show up regularly in real time and gather together with those they may not know well or even like. The time-consuming inconvenience and lack of choice are in fact spiritual riches because they involve the needs of others. This kind of sacrifice is not what prayer apps facilitate.

In the Catholic tradition, prayer is not primarily about finding peace, joy or reducing stress. Those can be achieved, but they aren't always present or necessary. Deepening one's prayer is often a slow process that involves passing through periods of being bored, distracted or frustrated.

People with excellent intentions can sometimes end up being confused about what they are experiencing in prayer, especially if it is unfamiliar. As a priest, I tell people a good rule of thumb is that growth in prayer leads to greater kindness to others, and less focus on oneself.

Many religious traditions, within and outside Christianity, insist that healthy spiritual growth can be aided by the personal guidance of people more experienced in prayer.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]

The “spiritual father" in monasticism is a teacher of prayer. Within Catholicism, spiritual directors, who can be laypeople or ordained, listen to people talk about their experiences in prayer, helping them relate their prayer to their everyday lives. While this tradition of spiritual guidance can help provide guidance, each person's prayer is always unique to them.

Even the best-designed algorithms are unlikely to tend to the human soul adequately.

Measuring impact

Hallow's many enthusiastic reviews insist that this prayer app is a force for good. So do the many users of other apps.

From my perspective, the measure of a prayer app's success is not the number of downloads. Jesus insists on looking at the fruit of good intentions. If any app helps people to be more patient, humble, just, and attentive to the poor, it's a good thing. But being an active member of a real community is likely needed as well.The Conversation

Dorian Llywelyn, President, Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The NRA could be winning its long game even as it appears to be in dire straits

No observer of contemporary gun politics could fail to notice a jarring disconnect between the two very different trajectories of the gun rights movement today.

On the one hand, more states are allowing Americans to carry weapons in public without permits, and the gun-rights movement could be on the verge of a major Supreme Court victory. On the other, the National Rifle Association, which advocates on behalf of gun owners, faces an existential crisis that's mostly due to the NRA's own missteps.

As a political scientist who has studied gun politics and policy for over 30 years, I'm confident that there is no precedent for this contradictory situation. Moreover, there's no reason to believe that the NRA's problems will influence how the courts treat gun-rights cases.

2 very different lawsuits are pending

The Supreme Court case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, challenges a state law that requires authorities to exercise discretion when issuing concealed-carry pistol permits. When justices heard oral arguments on Nov. 3, 2021, a majority of them appeared to be skeptical about the law's constitutionality – despite the fact that it was first enacted in 1911 and has withstood legal challenges in the past.

Meanwhile, as it marks the 150th anniversary of its 1871 founding, the NRA looks like an organization in jeopardy.

Expensive and protracted litigation exposed a pattern of lavish perks for its top officials, including private jets, designer clothes and vacations at expensive resorts – as well as plenty of cronyism and sweetheart contracts.

Many of these allegations of misdeeds were crystallized in a 160-page lawsuit brought by the New York Attorney General's office in August 2020. It called for the NRA's dissolution and the removal of Wayne LaPierre as its CEO.

A nonprofit gun-control group led by former Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived being shot at close range, is also suing the NRA. The Giffords group alleges financial misconduct and possible campaign finance law violations.

Also, some NRA board members have resigned in recent years due to their objections to the organization's track record. In September 2021, a dissident board member called for the entire board to be replaced and for LaPierre's removal.

And in November, a National Public Radio report on secret recordings of a 1999 conference call among the organization's top leaders held immediately after the Columbine High School shootings further tarnished the NRA's reputation.

The recordings revealed frank discussions of the organization's public relations strategy and derided some of the organization's more zealous members as “hillbillies" and “fruitcakes."

The organization has not released clear information about how any of this has affected membership. Because the NRA gets 40% of its annual revenue from member dues, which are reportedly stagnant, this exposure could be affecting its bottom line.

People gather at a gun-control action in front of the Supreme Court.

Former Rep. Gabby Giffords, second from right, stands with other gun violence survivors in front of the Supreme Court in November 2021.

Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Giffords Law Center

What's happening in court

The NRA's national reputation, however, might not matter that much.

First, while the NRA has long played a key role in Second Amendment litigation, many affiliated and unaffiliated organizations have taken on the task of challenging laws that restrict gun rights, such as the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association – the plaintiff in the pending Supreme Court case. Similar state-specific organizations exist throughout the country.

Second, and arguably more important, recent Republican presidents have been remarkably successful in appointing to the federal court system a large number of young and very conservative jurists. They have expressed great sympathy for an expansive reading of gun rights under the Second Amendment. Their interpretation goes further than the standard the court set out in its 2008 D.C. v. Heller ruling, when the court for the first time established that Americans have a right to own handguns for personal protection in their homes.

Even though he served for only one term, President Donald Trump was particularly successful in filling judicial vacancies, thanks in large measure to Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell's efforts.

[Like what you've read? Want more? Sign up for The Conversation's daily newsletter.]

The three conservative Supreme Court justices Trump appointed, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, had all previously expressed their support for the rights of gun owners. And Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, who have been on the court far longer, have often expressed dissatisfaction that gun rights have not received sufficient deference in prior court rulings.

Public opinion is shifting

There's another paradox that could matter too: Most Americans, especially Democrats, continue to support stricter gun laws, and yet people in the U.S. are buying guns, mostly handguns, at a record pace.

Notably, support for stricter gun control fell in the past year by 5 percentage points to 52%, according to a Gallup poll conducted in October 2021. That decline followed a 7-percentage-point drop Gallup measured a year earlier. Still, the poll reflects overwhelming support for existing gun laws: Only 11% favor making gun laws less strict.

A record-setting 1.2 million background checks, a proxy for gun sales, were conducted in two separate single weeks in March 2021. The buying spree was fanned by fears that arose during the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrations tied to the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 elections.

However, only about 20% of these purchases were new gun owners. For the most part, the nation's estimated 72 million gun owners are adding to their firearm collections.The Conversation

Robert Spitzer, Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the Political Science Department, State University of New York College at Cortland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Let’s Go Brandon’ and the linguistic jiujitsu of American politics

During an interview with NASCAR driver Brandon Brown on Oct. 2, 2021, NBC sportscaster Kelli Stavast made a curious observation. She reported that Talladega Superspeedway spectators were chanting “Let's go Brandon" to celebrate the racing driver's first Xfinity Series win.

In reality, however, the crowd was shouting a very different phrase: “F–k Joe Biden," a taunt that had become popular at college football games earlier in the fall.

The deliberate misinterpretation of the crowd's chant was a deft bit of verbal legerdemain on Stavast's part. Although she hasn't publicly explained herself, it seems likely that she was defusing the obscene, politically charged epithet so as not to offend her network's sponsors and viewers.

The phrase, however, quickly took on a life of its own. It provides an interesting example of how language and politics make strange bedfellows – for conservatives and liberals alike.

Making the unacceptable acceptable

Judging from recordings of the interview available online, it is unlikely that Stavast misheard the crowd's chant. If she had, her error would be classified as a mondegreen, which is a slip of the ear. Examples include mishearing Elton John's “Tiny Dancer" as “Hold me closer, Tony Danza."

The enthusiastic adoption of the phrase by President Joe Biden's detractors suggests that “Let's go Brandon" is best described as a minced oath. These are euphemisms used in place of a taboo or blasphemous expression.

Such oaths have a long history in English; an early example is “Zounds," a euphemism for “God's wounds" that started being used around 1600. “Darn" in place of “damn" emerged by 1800, while “heck" and “shoot" became popularized by the 1870s and the 1930s, respectively.

Minced oaths have also been used extensively on television. In these cases, the goal is to circumvent constraints imposed by a network's standards and practices, with certain terms used by characters in place of profane language, whether it's “frack" in “Battlestar Galactica, "fork“ in "The Good Place" or “fudge" in “South Park." Even Homer Simpson's oft-repeated cry of dismay – “D'oh!" – is a minced oath for “damn."

Taking language back

The “Let's go Brandon" phenomenon also illustrates the process of linguistic reappropriation or reclamation.

Some Biden supporters are turning the phrase into one of support for him. And as a variant, some of the president's supporters have begun to employ, “Thank you Brandon."

This is itself a callback to the earlier “Thanks, Obama." Republicans often used the phrase to sarcastically criticize the 44th president, but it was later reappropriated by Democrats who used the phrase literally. The dizzying linguistic arms race eventually rendered the phrase meaningless.

Image of TV host next to image of Joe Biden.

Comedian Bill Maher jokes about President Biden taking linguistic appropriation to the extreme.

Real Time with Bill Maher/YouTube

As with minced oaths, there's an equally long history of insults being adopted by the groups being disparaged.

During the English Civil Wars, for example, Parliament supporters mockingly referred to the backers of Charles I as “Cavaliers." In a feat of verbal judo, the royalists adopted the moniker to refer to themselves. By doing so, they drained away the epithet's negative connotation.

A similar process has occurred for the use of the word “queer." Once a highly offensive slur directed at gay people, the LGBTQ+ community adopted and rehabilitated it.

Several other cases of linguistic appropriation have recently occurred in U.S. politics. A good example is “Nevertheless, she persisted." Republican senator Mitch McConnell first used it to rebuke Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren, who read from a letter by Coretta Scott King during a confirmation hearing after McConnell had warned her not to.

Warren's supporters quickly seized upon the slogan, proudly using it to celebrate women who resist being silenced. Chelsea Clinton went on to publish a series of books honoring women entitled “She Persisted."

Republicans have proved just as adept at this as Democrats. In 2016, when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that half of Donald Trump's supporters could be put in a “basket of deplorables," the Trump campaign released commercials using it. Clinton's words were played over clips of Trump's admiring supporters.

A universal phenomenon

These phenomena aren't limited to U.S. politics. Citizens in repressive societies employ coded criticism as a way to challenge authority.

Following the crackdown on dissent after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, demonstrators in China smashed glass bottles in public places to protest the policies of leader Deng Xiaoping. Although the connection is lost on those who don't know Chinese, “Xiaoping" and “little bottle" are pronounced the same way in Mandarin.

NASCAR's concern with its family-friendly image has caused its president, Steve Phelps, to distance the organization from the ongoing “Let's Go Brandon" imbroglio. And a Southwest Airlines pilot is under investigation for using the phrase while airborne.

Others, however, have been happy to make use of the association. On Nov. 18, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, made a point of signing bills outlawing COVID-19 vaccine mandates in an unincorporated community nearly 300 miles from the state capital.

Its name?

Brandon, Florida.The Conversation

Man stands at podium surrounded by supporters.

Florida governor Ron DeSantis' decision to hold a bill signing ceremony in Brandon, Fla., was no coincidence.

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Roger J. Kreuz, Associate Dean and Professor of Psychology, University of Memphis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The thousands of vulnerable people harmed by Facebook and Instagram are lost in Meta’s ‘average user’ data

Fall 2021 has been filled with a steady stream of media coverage arguing that Meta's Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram social media platforms pose a threat to users' mental health and well-being, radicalize, polarize users and spread misinformation.

Are these technologies – embraced by billions – killing people and eroding democracy? Or is this just another moral panic?

According to Meta's PR team and a handful of contrarian academics and journalists, there is evidence that social media does not cause harm and the overall picture is unclear. They cite apparently conflicting studies, imperfect access to data and the difficulty of establishing causality to support this position.

Some of these researchers have surveyed social media users and found that social media use appears to have at most minor negative consequences on individuals. These results seem inconsistent with years of journalistic reporting, Meta's leaked internal data, common sense intuition and people's lived experience.

Teens struggle with self-esteem, and it doesn't seem far-fetched to suggest that browsing Instagram could make that worse. Similarly, it's hard to imagine so many people refusing to get vaccinated, becoming hyperpartisan or succumbing to conspiracy theories in the days before social media.

So who is right? As a researcher who studies collective behavior, I see no conflict between the research (methodological quibbles aside), leaks and people's intuition. Social media can have catastrophic effects, even if the average user only experiences minimal consequences.

Averaging's blind spot

To see how this works, consider a world in which Instagram has a rich-get-richer and poor-get-poorer effect on the well-being of users. A majority, those already doing well to begin with, find Instagram provides social affirmation and helps them stay connected to friends. A minority, those who are struggling with depression and loneliness, see these posts and wind up feeling worse.

If you average them together in a study, you might not see much of a change over time. This could explain why findings from surveys and panels are able to claim minimal impact on average. More generally, small groups in a larger sample have a hard time changing the average.

Yet if we zoom in on the most at-risk people, many of them may have moved from occasionally sad to mildly depressed or from mildly depressed to dangerously so. This is precisely what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen reported in her congressional testimony: Instagram creates a downward spiraling feedback loop among the most vulnerable teens.

A teen watches an Instagram post of a young woman applying makeup

Large-scale population studies can miss effects experienced by a subset of people; for example, vulnerable teen girls on Instagram.

AP Photo/Haven Daley

The inability of this type of research to capture the smaller but still significant numbers of people at risk – the tail of the distribution – is made worse by the need to measure a range of human experiences in discrete increments. When people rate their well-being from a low point of one to a high point of five, “one" can mean anything from breaking up with a partner who they weren't that into in the first place to urgently needing crisis intervention to stay alive. These nuances are buried in the context of population averages.

A history of averaging out harm

The tendency to ignore harm on the margins isn't unique to mental health or even the consequences of social media. Allowing the bulk of experience to obscure the fate of smaller groups is a common mistake, and I'd argue that these are often the people society should be most concerned about.

It can also be a pernicious tactic. Tobacco companies and scientists alike once argued that premature death among some smokers was not a serious concern because most people who have smoked a cigarette do not die of lung cancer.

Pharmaceutical companies have defended their aggressive marketing tactics by claiming that the vast majority of people treated with opioids get relief from pain without dying of an overdose. In doing so, they've swapped the vulnerable for the average and steered the conversation toward benefits, often measured in a way that obscures the very real damage to a minority – but still substantial – group of people.

[Get our best science, health and technology stories. Sign up for The Conversation's science newsletter.]

The lack of harm to many is not inconsistent with severe harm caused to a few. With most of the world now using some form of social media, I believe it's important to listen to the voices of concerned parents and struggling teenagers when they point to Instagram as a source of distress. Similarly, it's important to acknowledge that the COVID-19 pandemic has been prolonged because misinformation on social media has made some people afraid to take a safe and effective vaccine. These lived experiences are important pieces of evidence about the harm caused by social media.

Does Meta have the answer?

Establishing causality from observational data is challenging, so challenging that progress on this front garnered the 2021 Nobel in economics. And social scientists are not well positioned to run randomized controlled trials to definitively establish causality, particularly for social media platform design choices such as altering how content is filtered and displayed.

But Meta is. The company has petabytes of data on human behavior, many social scientists on its payroll and the ability to run randomized control trials in parallel with millions of users. They run such experiments all the time to understand how best to capture users' attention, down to every button's color, shape and size.

Meta could come forward with irrefutable and transparent evidence that their products are harmless, even to the vulnerable, if it exists. Has the company chosen not to run such experiments or has it run them and decided not to share the results?

Either way, Meta's decision to instead release and emphasize data about average effects is telling.The Conversation

Joseph Bak-Coleman, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Happy Holidays!