A noisy effect on brain health

Britt Donahue –Photo Editor

In 2017 Alzheimer’s disease was the fifth leading cause of death in the United States. An estimated 5.7 million Americans are currently living with the disease. Currently, there is no cure.  

This issue is personal for me, as it is for many people in our country. My best friend’s mother, an amazing woman who was loving and supportive to me all through my teenage years, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s about four years ago. Watching her memory continue to fail her and her quality of life decline has been heartbreaking.

Scientists are unsure of the exact causes of Alzheimer’s, apart from aging and possibly genetics as risk factors, but a recent study out of China may point to another possible answer: chronic noise exposure.

The team of scientists studied the effect of gut bacteria on cognition, and whether or not noise could have long-term effects on the gut microbiome and the brain by using genetically modified mice that are prone to accelerated aging. They had an interest specifically in the gut’s effect on the brain. In order to test their theories, the scientists trained the mice for a variety of spatial and memory tasks before exposing different control groups to varying volumes of noise.

They found that the mice who were older and exposed to higher volumes performed their tasks more slowly, and had reduced levels of two chemical messengers which are produced by friendly gut bacteria and are essential for maintaining the brain’s cognitive function. The changes in the guts microbial makeup also led to a deterioration in the gut lining itself.

More research is required before these findings can be confirmed and applied to humans, but researches are hopeful that this will lead to a deeper understanding of this disease and the ways risk factors can be mitigated.

Love, actually

Samantha Malley – Art Director

Ever find yourself snuggled up with your favorite fuzzy blanket, scooping Ben & Jerry’s ice cream straight out of the carton and thinking to yourself, “what is love?”

Scientists ranging from anthropology to neuroscience fields study this thing called love, finding that it can be equally simple and complex. But I’m sure most of us already know that. So here, I’d like to further explain what really happens.

According to Helen Fisher, an American biological anthropologist, love is broken down into three categories: lust, attraction and attachment. Each category has its own set of hormones stemming from the brain.

Lust is the desire for sexual gratification run by the testosterone and estrogen hormones; it has always been a big part of our lives due to the human need to reproduce. Passing on our genes and contributing to the perpetuation of our species has been an evolutionary basis since the dawn of time. When you see somebody that makes your palms sweaty and your speech jumbled, you can thank the hypothalamus in your brain. The hypothalamus stimulates both these hormones, playing a big role in this category. And, putting all stereotypes aside, testosterone and estrogen increase sexual desire in both the male and female body.

The second category, attraction, is quite similar to lust, but one can happen without the other. Attraction involves the brain pathways designated for reward behavior which can help to explain why relationships can deviate between being exhilarating and consuming. Dopamine and norepinephrine, commonly known as the ‘feel good’ chemicals are released. However, you have to be careful here, because although these chemicals have you feeling giddy and elevated, they can lead to decreased levels in appetite and insomnia. In fact, the regions of your brain that light up when you’re feeling attraction also light up when a drug addict takes cocaine. So in a way, attraction can sometimes lead to being literally addicted to another human being.

Lastly, attachment is the category relating mostly to long-term, intimate relationships. The primary hormone that appears during this stage is called oxytocin. Oxytocin is often nicknamed the ‘cuddle hormone’ due to the fact it’s released during times of bonding. All in all, it’s simply a hormone reinforcing the positive feelings we already have towards people we love.

Though in “simple” terms it’s all up to hormones and chemicals, there isn’t a right or wrong formula for love. In fact, there are still many questions that scientists and everyday people have yet to answer.

Instead of asking all the questions, maybe it’s better to snuggle that fuzzy blanket and enjoy that Ben & Jerry’s — we get plenty of oxytocin and dopamine from these, anyway.

A word on consuming food safely during the government shutdown of 2019

Samantha Scetta – Editor-in-Chief

In a few words, food is not considered “safe” to eat during the government shutdown.

Yes, you read that right. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is one of many governmental organizations that has not been operating since Dec. 22 due to the shutdown, and it is one that affects every American who does not consume entirely homegrown food.

On Tuesday, Jan. 15, some high risk inspections were continued– by unpaid FDA workers. This is unethical in itself, as there are foods that will go uninspected by any FDA worker, and the food that does get inspected will be done by an individual not being compensated for it.

Catherine Donnelly, a professor at the University of Vermont and expert on the microbiological safety of food, stated that “Consumers should continue to have confidence in those brand names that they trust and the willingness of companies to do the right thing in providing them with safe food.” She adds that the responsibility mainly lies in the companies producing the food to ensure their safety.

Companies may be inspecting their food, but mistakes are ever present, especially with the recent E. coli outbreaks in 2018 which affected approximately 290 people according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The FDA being shut down for an extended period of time will only potentially increase foodborne illnesses, and perhaps be the start of an epidemic related to illnesses that result from contaminated food.

In short, the question of “So what can I eat?” poses a very long and complicated answer, entirely dependent on who you are asking. In situations such as these, common sense and being more careful with food contamination works best.

Graphics courtesy of Food Safety Magazine

As always, thoroughly wash your vegetables, be wary when consuming undercooked meat, and don’t consume anything that smells/feels questionable.

Below is a list of the most high risk foods for consumers due to their tendency to become contaminated:

  • Raw sprouts
  • Raw/Unpasteurized milk and juices
  • Pre- Packaged salads, fruits, and vegetables
  • Leafy greens
  • Ground meat
  • Raw eggs

The elegantly named Super Blood Wolf Moon: What does it really mean?

Britt Donahue – Photo Editor

If you happened to be outside and looking up last Monday night, you were lucky enough to witness a rare lunar phenomenon called a “Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse.” But you also may have asked yourself: “Why the heck is it called a Super Blood Wolf Moon Eclipse?”

Let’s start with the question: what do wolves have to do with anything? For much of history, time was tracked using the lunar calendar, and different names were associated with different times of the year. The January moon is called Wolf Moon, named after hungry packs of wolves howling in the cold winter.

Next, what is a lunar eclipse? A lunar eclipse occurs only during the full moon when the Earth, sun, and moon are all in perfect alignment. During this time, the Earth’s shadow is cast across the surface of the moon, leaving the moon cast in darkness.

Okay, well why was the moon red? This is related to a similar question, why is the sky blue? Sunlight appears white, but it is actually made up of all the colors of the rainbow. These colors travel on different wavelengths, which become scattered by the various gas molecules that make up Earth’s atmosphere. Since blue waves are the shortest, more scattering occurs and causes the sky to appear blue to the human eye. This is the same phenomenon that causes both sunsets and blood moons to appear red.  While the moon is in shadow, some sunlight still manages to sneak through and enter Earth’s atmosphere, but it has to travel farther through the atmosphere, allowing the longer red waves more time to reach our eyes.

And finally: Super Moon. What does that mean? A supermoon occurs when the moon appears significantly larger than normal, due to its being closer to Earth. The moon’s orbit around Earth is not a perfect circle, so during the month, its distance varies. A supermoon occurs when its perigee (closest distance to Earth) coincides with the full moon! Supermoons usually happen about three or four times a year.

The next total lunar eclipse visible in North America will occur on May 16, 2022, so mark your calendars now!

Clusterfackt

Mike Dwyer – Anchor Staff

Nowadays, facts come at you fast. News cycles and timelines are on overdrive. Fake news is common place. Clusterfackt is an ongoing series that asks readers to question everything. Think of it as an exercise in critical thinking. Each week readers will be given a giant clusterfackt of scientific findings meant to replicate the dizzying news loops that dominate our lives. However, there’s a catch. One statement within the clusterfackt is entirely false. Identify the falsehood and win a prize by emailing editorinchief@anchorweb.org and don’t repeat anything you read here without doing your research!

Since this is the last issue of Clusterfackt, there will be no lie lurking between the following lines of light-hearted research — just cold, unforgiving science.

Last week, we discussed the newest revelations and fall-out from Facebook, that Google no longer tells their employees “Don’t Be Evil,” that a long term study conducted by MIT determined that Twitter diffuses false news significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories” and that “contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that humans, not robots, are more likely responsible for the dramatic spread of fake news.”  We ended last week’s clusterfackt with a promise to spend this final issue analyzing the specific ways that Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and others have hijacked the human brain and compromised our free will.

Many of the highest paid techies working for Google and Facebook have studied in undergraduate and graduate programs that combine the science of technology with the science of persuasion. Leading the pack is Professor BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab, who has coined a term for this hybrid field of study- captology. He has created a behavior model which asserts that a behavior occurs when three factors converge at once – ability, motivation and triggers – leading to his motto “place hot triggers in front of motivated people.” According to his website, Fogg “teaches innovators how to use his models and methods in Behavior Design. The purpose of his research and teaching is to help millions of people improve their lives.”

And what is the result of this education? Using behavior change, students learn how to make social media users addicted to the platform — in a very literal sense of the word “addicted.” Without question, addiction is the behavior that they are provoking. Apps, social media platforms and devices are designed to hold our attention, which is how the company makes money. The more time and attention a user devotes to their product, the more money the company makes. The way tech companies do this is not always ethical. One such example is their peppering of intermittent variable rewards into the code of their products – the same design that can be found in slot machines and other forms of video gambling – which can ultimately lead to legitimate addiction.

For example, when you first log on to Facebook or Twitter there is a brief pause before your notifications appear. This pause causes anticipation in the user, resulting in a surge of dopamine. According to the current director of the US Institute on Drug Addiction Nora Volkow, it is not the reward itself which gets users addicted, but the anticipation of the reward. According to her research, users often report feeling a decreased pleasure in the reward over time and yet cannot stop themselves from seeking out that reward.

Through positron emission tomography, Volkow discovered that the surge in dopamine upon receiving the reward decreased over time whereas the surge that coincides with the phase of anticipation increases. It is that surge of dopamine when the user is anticipating the reward that gets them addicted and explains why addicts report less pleasure and satisfaction with the reward yet cannot stop themselves from seeking it out.

So, are social media and technology users similarly chasing the dragon? Every time your phone dings or beeps or buzzes, you get a little surge of dopamine as you anticipate the reward: a message from a potential love interest, an event invite, a like or thumbs up, a catchy news story that excites your emotions. You may stay logged on because of a notification, but then something in your news feed caught your attention and long after receiving the reward you’re still engaged with the product. Why were you brought to the news feed first? That’s the choice they gave you and once they have you- the motivated user- they will continue to place hot triggers in front of you to keep you logged on.

Additionally, the tech giants exploit universal social anxieties. Each time someone interacts with you there is a feeling that the gesture must be reciprocated. Facebook and others exploit this need for social decorum by including such features as informing others when you’ve read their message and telling them when you’re online. Your profile pic? According to BJ Fogg it’s your brand and the most important thing on your profile page. Comments, hyperlinks, autoplay, suggestions, tags- all of these hot triggers are a product of captological study.

These are just a few of the techniques being used right now but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books, labs and programs that teach techniques like this to a very small and homogenous group of individuals who will go on to affect the behavior of more than two billion people globally. That’s more than any single government, religion or ideology, and it should concern us enough to put down our phones, even if for just a moment to look up, notice our surroundings and see we are not alone.

For more information on this subject and possible opportunities to volunteer and advocate for a more humane design to technology, please refer to the non-profit organization Time Well Spent, founded by Tristan Harris, a former tech insider turned cyber crusader.

At home genetic testing: Is it worth the cost?

Samantha Scetta – Editor-In-Chief

Now that the gift giving season is practically in full force, I know what you’re thinking– What better gift to give than the gift of knowing where your roots stem from? Who doesn’t want to find out that they’re six percent German and have a genetic predisposition to cystic fibrosis? Tis’ the season for ancestry kits and genetic testing.

Well, maybe not for everyone. At-home genetic testing kits have evolved massively from the days of ancestry.com, which was founded on the basis of creating a family tree and potentially meeting some long lost cousins.

Nowadays, you can do much more than simply discover you have a cousin Jimmy from California and great aunt from Swahili. You can actually send in a sample of your DNA to get tested to find out exactly which countries your own DNA is matched to, and to find out if you have a predisposition to certain genetic diseases.

The most popular of these testing kits are ancestryDNA and 23andMe, which analyzes your DNA by looking at genetic variants in your genome that distinguish you from another person, and can issue a “Genetic Health Report” letting you know which genetic diseases you are most likely to be diagnosed with, and which diseases you are a carrier of.

The way DNA analysis works is not magical, it is based on an algorithm. In simplest terms, the algorithm reads each chunk of your genome, compares that to a reference data set of DNA, and gives a probability based on which genes yours are most closely related to.

So if your test says that you are 40 percent Vietnamese, 40 percent of your DNA pieces match similar DNA to what the ancestryDNA or 23andMe gene library has labeled as “Vietnamese.”

Although these techniques are revolutionary, and the libraries of genomes are kept rather secretly, they are not completely perfect and accurate. The more people with known ancestry submit DNA samples, the larger their library will become, and the more closely people’s results will be to what country they originate from.

There is also always the issue of privacy and rights to your own DNA. Before submitting a sample to any genetic testing company, doing extensive research into each company’s privacy policy is recommended. Each company has different measures of security, and for some you may have to go deeply into your account settings to ensure that your DNA is tossed after being tested, and not shared with any of the company’s partners.

For example, more than 80 percent of 23andMe users agreed to have their DNA results shared with research partners…I would ask you to ponder how many of that percentage is actually aware of this sharing?

Checking your state policy of genetic information sharing is also advised, as these laws vary from state to state. There has also been much talk and investigation of life insurers having access to your “Genetic Health Report” from 23andMe, which could cause an increase in the amount of money you pay for life insurance depending on your genetic predisposition.

Although “genetic discrimination” from life insurance companies is still just purely theoretical, it raises an interesting thought about who has access to your genetic information– certainly one to consider before sending off your spit to a genetic testing facility.

Graphic courtesy of Financial Time

Your health in the hands of the FDA

Jessica Gauthier – Managing Editor

Most people take food precautions, such as washing their produce or cooking their foods thoroughly. But what happens when that’s not enough?

With the recent outbreaks of E. coli, how can we be sure that our food is safe? While taking precautions might be necessary, there needs to be a conversation about mass-food production. Everything you see in your grocery store is mass-produced—from your processed foods, to your meat, to your produce.

Not only does mass-producing food create social and environmental concerns, but it also creates a health concern.

According to economics journalist Larry Elliott, with the population steadily increasing, food demand is projected to increase up to 50% by 2030. Mass-production is already being pushed to its limits and with no doubt, consumers will be running into more foodborne illnesses. The answers to safer food sourcing is not as much in the hands of the consumers as it is in the hands of both growers and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Currently, the FDA’s regulations don’t require growers to test their water supply past the sprouting stage of their produce. According to the Food Safety Modernization Act’s produce safety standards, “the FDA does not intend to enforce the agricultural water requirements for covered produce other than sprouts,” which can cause a slew of health issues including the spread of viral, bacterial, or parasitic organisms. This poses a problem with growers who mass-produce their crop, which is then shipped to different parts of the country.

While consumers can take precautions to prevent foodborne illness, we should be asking how the FDA can prevent foodborne illness. This would require stricter regulations by the FDA as well as cooperation and compliance from growers.

According to an FDA analysis, however, growers would save $12 million per year without water regulations but would cost consumers $108 million per year in medical expenses. Many growers are averse to strict water regulations, such as water testing, since it would result in more money out of their pockets. The FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, Steven Ostroff, reassured attendees at a meeting in February that they will create, “requirements that are less burdensome while protecting public health,” to benefit both farmers and consumers.

Stricter regulations are not something that can happen overnight, nor does it guarantee to eliminate foodborne illness completely. With a growing population and a higher demand for food, mass-production shows no signs of stopping.

In the meantime, you can support local growers. With faster farm-to-table harvesting, there’s less chance of your food being contaminated and is a great way to support your local economy.

K-Beauty wave takes America by storm: skincare can be both stylish and sustainable

Lucille DiNaro – Business Manager

If you’ve walked by the K-Beauty aisle in Sephora and laughed at products containing snail oil and donkey milk, you may want to think again. South Korea is currently the eighth largest cosmetics market in the world, with a market size of nearly $8.5 billion. South Korean Skincare, more widely known as K-Beauty, refers to beauty products originating from and manufactured in Korea. These products are often branded with a focus on high quality ingredients, and unilaterally leverage comprehensive skin care above all else.

Similar to many other items exported from Korea, K-Beauty is easily identifiable due to its novelty packaging and unique product offerings. Whether it be the mildly grotesque crying baby rubber mask from Dr. Jart+ or the effortlessly cute watermelon set offered by Glow Recipe, it can be difficult as a skincare novice to determine whether these items are more than just a trend.

Graphic courtesy of Sephora

K-Beauty retailers provide a stark contrast against American retailers in that they place a significant emphasis on quality ingredients. Dr. Jart+’s Cicapair line, despite its vibrant, comic book packaging, is amazingly simple and comprehensible. The hallmark ingredient of this line, centella asiatica, has served as an essential ingredient in Eastern skincare for centuries due to its nutrient rich properties. Packed with amino acids, beta-carotene, fatty acids and phytochemicals, the Cicapair line will effectively firm, repair, and soothe skin.

Another industry leader, Glow Recipe, utilizes fermented botanicals in their face masks to aid in more efficient absorption of moisture. These fermented botanicals release enzymes that break down molecules into raw material, allowing for the creation of newer, more beneficial substances for your skin. These are just some of many obscure ingredients that South Korean cosmetics companies have pursued towards the development of more natural and effective skincare.  

The growing need for safe and healthy cosmetics may have resulted from several high profile toxicology scandals that have occurred over the past decade, such as the talc settlements made by Johnson & Johnson or the hair fallout caused by WEN Cleansing Conditioners. Celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow have been chided in the past for their attention to detail when it comes to safe and effective cosmetics, but a heightened sense of awareness of what comprises beauty products has contributed to the value of K-Beauty.

American cosmetic companies currently operate under regulations set by the Food and Drug Administration that were last updated in 1938. Kourtney Kardashian notably met with Congress last month to discuss the Personal Care Products Safety Act, which aims to tighten the power of review that the FDA has over cosmetics companies with regards to ingredients, facilities management and product labeling. Products labeled as ‘organic’ by cosmetics companies are not certifiably organic, as there is no governing body in the makeup industry with the capacity to grant ‘organic’ status.

K-Beauty is rooted in centuries of tradition, transparency and hands on skincare, and as such has caught the consumer eye. In a country where the cosmetics industry regulates itself, it is understandable that the average American is able to find worth in a product that is backed by attention to detail. Next time you enter Sephora, make sure to give K-Beauty a second look.

A new wave of sustainability on campus with Sustainability Coordinator Jim Murphy

Marisa Lenardson – Online Media Manager

Making a change could be as simple as shutting lights off when you leave a room, using a metal straw, or throwing food you don’t eat into compost bins. Small changes to our daily lives may seem insignificant, but in large numbers, are substantial to maintaining a sustainable environment.

Jim Murphy is the first person at Rhode Island College to have the title of “Sustainability Coordinator.” He oversees green initiatives on campus. “I’m definitely having fun” he says, noting that this is his sixth or seventh year in the position. He eagerly provided information about the progress RIC has made.

There has been an addition of new trash, recycling, and compost receptacles in Donovan Dining Center. Murphy describes Donovan as “a great partner to green initiatives.” One of the biggest challenges to come is changing behavior in Donovan to nurture people into separating their food waste. Starting in January, a team of students will be employed to advise other students, faculty and staff on what items go in each receptacle.

From our compost bins, food waste will be supplied to an anaerobic (without oxygen) digester that will start running in January/February. This machine will convert waste into a slurry which a certain bacteria consumes and thus emits methane. The methane gas is captured and converted into electricity. Food waste collected from the college will create enough renewable energy to power 5,000 homes. Additionally, this also eliminates food waste from going into the landfill which will free up about 20% of space.

Food prep scraps–all fruits and vegetables that Donovan uses for the salad bar–are also being composted in a bin at the greenhouse. In addition to these scraps, leaves, dead plants from the campus garden, and shredded old Anchor newspapers are used in the compost. The Environmental Club hopes to use that compost in the campus garden next year.

Overall, Donovan is very keen on being green. Donovan switched to paper straws in September and are slowly transitioning to compostable cutlery. The paper plates in Donovan are compostable and brown bags used for take-out meals are made from recycled materials.

While recycling is critical, the elimination of waste is a greater task. Plastic water bottles are one of the most notable examples of this problem. Across the campus, 25-30 water bottle filling stations have been installed and continue to be any time a water fountain needs to be replaced. All stations feature a counter to keep track of bottles saved. So far, 500,000 water bottles have been saved on campus.

Donovan has been a big proponent of solar panels placed on top of the building which were connected to power sources last Friday, Nov. 23. A final inspection and sign off from utilities are all that is left before the panels go live in a week. The 110 Kilowatt array will produce about $25,000 a year in electricity.

RIC’s campus captured via drone, photo courtesy of Dr.Charles McLaughlin

Jay Jerue, the Director of Facilities and Operations, explained the need to leverage savings in order to pay for energy conservation projects. This compensates for the installation of LED lights, motion sensors, solar panels and more which has around a four and a half year payback. RIC has spent $15 million in energy projects in the last two years.

The Environmental Club aspires to turn the campus into an Arbor Foundation Tree Campus. This recognition of dedication to campus environment would consist of having a tree advisory committee and a plan for placing, maintaining, and removing trees. Many of the facets need for an Arbor Foundation Tree Campus have already been developed by green initiatives.

Murphy lit up with excitement while talking about the incredible year with RIC’s bees. There are three hives: Queen Latifah, Queen Beeatrice, and Queen Elizabeeth.

At their lowest population per hive, there are normally about 10,000 bees. However, when they came out in April this year, they were about 20,000 strong, the healthiest Murphy has ever seen them. Around 275 lbs of honey have been pulled from these hives. Some of the honey has been given to Donovan, which they use to make a honey mint salad dressing for the salad bar. (The mint comes from the garden behind Fogarty Life Science.)

Dean Faiola is executive chef at Donovan and co-advisor to the Environmental Club. He was involved in pilot study with other colleges in state to test a software called “Phood.” This program allows Donovan to track what food they’re making at specific times and what is left over. The data can be reviewed and used to reduce food waste. For example, on Thursday mornings, Donovan was making a surplus amount of scrambled eggs. Now they make less. It is about the prevention of creating excess and saving money on food and labor.

Students need to know about sustainability. “When you graduate, the information that you have acquired in your major is going to be very useful for whatever job you have. But also, being sustainability minded is also a factor,” Murphy says. “Students right now don’t necessarily need to worry about what kind of lights they have or what that temperature set point is – but when they start paying that bill,” he laughs, “it becomes extremely important to them.”

Clusterfackt

Mike Dwyer – Staff Writer

Nowadays, facts come at you fast. News cycles and timelines are on overdrive. Fake news is common place. Clusterfackt is an ongoing series that asks readers to question everything. Think of it as an exercise in critical thinking. Each week readers will be given a giant clusterfackt of scientific findings meant to replicate the dizzying news loops that dominate our lives. However, there’s a catch. One statement within the clusterfackt is entirely false. Identify the falsehood and win a prize by emailing editorinchief@anchorweb.org and don’t repeat anything you read here without doing your research!

It’s our penultimate edition of Clusterfackt and as things wind down for these last two issues I want to focus on the question I raised last week: why is it that humans engage in fantasy and what purpose does it serve? I would like to additionally ask, how has the preeminent medium of our era- the Internet- met and exploited our need for make believe and can anything be done to right our thinking? These questions are vital to the future state of our nation and rest at the intersection of science, ethics and public policy- human constructions that are only as good as the people who build them.

Easy and unscrupulous access to technology has allowed Americans, if they so choose, to immerse themselves in a near continuous dream state of false news and questionable science. Once again, it is important to note that this state of affairs is by no means exclusively American. However, the model did arise from the American tech industry, where it still persists and transmogrifies daily, allowing a small group of individuals to affect the behavior of more than a billion people worldwide.  

This past week the New York Times released a damning indictment detailing the public relations campaigns adopted by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and how the pair managed to control the public discourse to downplay the company’s involvement in the spread of fake news and hate speech online using unsavory political rhetoric and tactics.

In one instance the company conducted focus groups, with both liberals and conservatives, to test approaches to the controversy before bringing their message to lawmakers, including whether or not to bring other social media platforms into the fray by accusing them of similar wrongdoings.

YouTube and Twitter are likewise awash with bots, bad-actors and malarkey. Google has engaged in similar data-sharing deals and about a year ago quietly dropped their slogan “Don’t Be Evil” from their employee code of conduct. Just over a decade ago these platforms promised to bring people together and provide them access to real-time information, yet it seems they have done just the opposite, saturating humanity with nonsense while alienating us from each other and from ourselves.

How did this happen? For starters, the business model is designed to reward such behavior. Since social media comapnies generate revenue based on how much time users engage with the platform they have no incentive to tame our darker impulses that keep us tuned in. Furthermore, policing fake news and hate speech is a politically sensitive issue that could cause backlash. Zuckerberg managed to parry difficult questions during his congressional testimony but the coaching and rhetorical preparation he underwent beforehand made him come off as mechanical which, ironically, led to fake news stories that Zuckerberg is in fact a robot.

On the other hand, is it wise for congressional leaders to delegate the task of policing language to the tech giants? Fake news is not some bug in the system- it is a product of human agency and can’t be changed with a quick system update. A recent study by MIT into the differential diffusion of all the verified true and false news stories on Twitter from 2006 to 2017 found that “falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper and more broadly than the truth in all categories” and that “contrary to conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that humans, not robots, are more likely responsible for the dramatic spread of fake news.”

Our constitution is simply not prepared to handle this situation and any amendment to free speech is meant to be the responsibility of elected lawmakers. Should the social media agents choose to weigh in on free speech they risk alienating wide swaths of their consumer base, which is why executives are so reluctant to tackle the issue or even acknowledge that the problem exists in the first place. Essentially, Facebook and others have tried to establish themselves as the providers of an open platform that is not subject to the more stringent obligations of a publisher.

In next week’s final issue we will continue to ask why it is that we engage in fantasy and what purpose it serves by analyzing the specific ways that Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube and others have hijacked the human brain and compromised our free will.

Mike Dwyer is a 2013 graduate of CCRI’s school of nursing and has since worked as a registered nurse in and around his hometown of Newport, Rhode Island. Writing has been a life-long passion (Re: obsession) and in 2016 Mike enrolled at RIC to pursue a BA in English literature. He is a senior planning to graduate next Spring, after which he will stay local, stay weird and stay learning.