Muslim nations block gay groups from attending United Nations AIDS/HIV meeting.

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Muslim nations block gay groups from attending United Nations AIDS/HIV meeting.

A group of 51 Muslim states has blocked 11 gay and transgender organizations from attending a high-level meeting at the United Nations next month on ending AIDS, sparking a protest by the United States, Canada and the European Union.

Egypt wrote to the president of the 193-member General Assembly on behalf of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to object to the participation of the 11 groups. It did not give a reason in the letter, which Reuters saw.

Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote to General Assembly President Mogens Lykketoft and said the groups appeared to have been blocked for involvement in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy.

“Given that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, their exclusion from the high-level meeting will only impede global progress in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” Power wrote.

U.N. officials said the European Union and Canada also wrote to Lykketoft to protest the objections by the OIC group, whose members include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Sudan and Uganda.

The issues of LGBT rights and participation in events at the United Nations have long been contentious. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has advocated for LGBT equality but faced opposition from African, Arab and Muslim states as well as Russia and China.

“We are deeply concerned that at every negotiation on a new General Assembly gathering, the matter of NGO (non-governmental organization) participation is questioned and scrutinized,” Power wrote.

“The movement to block the participation of NGOs on spurious or hidden grounds is becoming epidemic and severely damages the credibility of the U.N.,” she said.

In 2014, Ban said the U.N. would recognize all same-sex marriages of its staff, allowing them to receive its benefits. Russia, with the support of 43 states including Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, India, Egypt, Pakistan, and Syria, unsuccessfully tried to overturn the move last year.

In February, the 54-member African Group, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the 25-member Group of Friends of the Family led by Belarus, Egypt and Qatar protested six new U.N. stamps promoting LGBT equality.

The Group of Friends of the Family promotes the traditional family. It launched a photo exhibit, “Uniting Nations for a Family Friendly World,” at the U.N. on Tuesday, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia.



How Corporations Profit From Black Teens’ Viral Content.

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Black Teens Are Breaking The Internet And Seeing None Of The Profits.

Kayla Newman started her Vine account to record herself commenting on the minutia and mundanity of high school life. This was nearly two years ago, when she was 16. For her handle, Newman chose a nickname made up during an annual visit to her grandmother in Georgia: “Peaches Monroee.” She added the extra “e” because it looked playful, she explained over email.

Like a diary, Newman began filming herself daily, though she has since slowed down to meet the stresses of senior year. When she’s riffing as Peaches, Newman takes videos of herself from the passenger seat of her mom’s car in her neighborhood of South Chicago. She and her mom dance at a stoplight in one early Vine; she offers an impromptu speech on self-confidence in another. In the video everyone knows, uploaded on June 21st, 2014, Kayla admires her precisely arched eyebrows: “We in this bitch. Finna get crunk. Eyebrows on fleek. Da fuq.”

I know the line by heart. Such is the nature of internet virality. As of this writing, Kayla’s original “On Fleek” Vine has generated over 36 million “loops,” or replays. That’s where any sensible person stops the tabulation. A month after Newman’s upload, someone named Kevin Gadsden reposts her Vine to YouTube, where it acquires around 3 million views. The expression “on fleek” passes through the clutches of Ariana Grande, who vines herself singing it in August 2014 for another 9 million loops, and then through those of seemingly every other social media-literate celebrity outfit that fall; corporate entities like IHOP and its rivals employ the phrase in an effort to feign cultural relevance; talk show host Andy Cohen and Anderson Cooper exchange vaguely unpleasant jabs about its meaning. “On fleek” ascends to near-officialized language.

It’s impossible to track the chain of ownership from there on out. In fact, the chain becomes more like a swarm. Put plainly, there is no recognized ownership. The phrase Newman gave the world was used to sell breakfast foods and party cups, but it only belongs to her in an intangible sense, on the rare occasions in which people choose to give her credit.

“I gave the world a word,” Newman said. “I can’t explain the feeling. At the moment I haven’t gotten any endorsements or received any payment. I feel that I should be compensated. But I also feel that good things happen to those who wait.”

What things come to those who innovate? And who can be called an innovator? When we talk about technology, the designation of “digital innovator” is usually reserved for the engineers who create platforms or the entrepreneurs who instruct them to. Rarely do we see that language applied to the users populating those platforms, though they are tech’s bread and butter. A cursory glance at the user-generated content rising to the top of the internet heap reveals how much of it is produced by black teens, members of a burgeoning Generation Z who experiment with the iPhone gaze.

In an article for The Guardian, writer Hannah Giorgis argued that content-sharing among black users and consumers constitutes a “21st century meta-language” that gives place to dances, songs, memes, and other “sociolinguistic phenomena” that are compelling enough to make the leap from the producer’s specific context to even the most corporate of marketing campaigns. Evidence teems. In August 2015, Dancing with the Stars shot a promotional campaign featuring mostly white celebrity has-beens doing Silento’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” a song and attendant dance popularized on Vine. In one breathless appearance on Ellen, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton tried it too. In those moments, black teens’ internet production becomes a means for communication and entertainment. Their names as creators are harder to find.

Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia.

Denzel Meechie, 20, was physically spent when he called me. After we talked, he headed back to an Atlanta dance studio to record a video of himself and his crew improvising to songs from Drake and Future’s just-released mixtape. Meechie is a dancer, first by habit and then by trade. He’s influenced by Les Twins and the fluid lines of ballet, but he isn’t inclined to rehearsing. In his videos, his preferred backdrop is the chrome of industrial spaces. He likes inventing dances that follow songs he’s moved by, something he posits elevates the impact of any given track. The Vines on his account, @SheLovesMeechie, have been viewed over 200 million times; his choreography has influenced the way many people move.

“It’s never planned,” Meechie said. “[We] just go for it, and after we have a lot of takes, me and my director will cut in and put the best six seconds on Vine. If we got a good longer take, we’ll put it on YouTube.” His first big break came as a surprise. “I went to the gas station one time, and I danced to this one song. It went viral, and all of a sudden my social media started growing because I was flooding it with dances.” The song was “Plug Snitchin” by the Houston group Yung Nation. It hadn’t been close to a hit before Meechie danced to it; afterwards, the crew found traction.

In mid-September, YouTube shut down Meechie’s channel, which had accrued hundreds of thousands of subscribers. “I had too many copyright strikes,” he said, referring to his use of songs without explicit legal permission from labels. According to Meechie, labels contact YouTube and demand his videos be taken down, often without the knowledge of their own artists, some of whom pay him directly to help boost their buzz. “And it’s crazy, you know, because the artists ask me to put the videos up.”

As prolific and internet-known as Meechie and his crew are, they are multiple steps removed from owning, in a tangible sense, their art, leaving them vulnerable to both YouTube’s whims and to having their creativity lifted by outsiders. Atlanta, where Meechie is from, is legendary as a place where teens generate culture, and then go uncompensated as their style and tastes are usurped by a corporate machine hungry for Black Cool. Cultural sharing is ancient. That the speed and relative borderlessness of the internet makes cross-platform, global dissemination seem like a consequence of tech is a convenient amnesia. The propensity to share predates the young black creators doing so online. But they ought to claim lineage. Remember, for instance, the blues.

K.J. Greene’s 2008 essay, “Lady Sings the Blues: Intellectual Property at the Intersection of Race and Gender,” published in The Journal of Gender, Social Policy & The Law, situates the American conundrum of race and proprietorship at the specific moment of blues music production. Blues leans on an unpredictable meld of instrumental prowess and rapid improvisation, and not on a premeditated, capitalist-conscious calculus. “Black artists had no input in [copyright law], and examination reveals that it is in some respects incompatible with Black cultural production in music,” writes Greene, arguing that multiple copyright standards were specifically structured to preclude black blues artists, especially women, from claiming ownership. “The idea/expression dichotomy of copyright law prohibits copyright protection for raw ideas,” Greene wrote. “I contend that this standard provided less protection to innovative black composers, whose work was imitated so wildly it became ‘the idea.’”

Intangible things like slang and styles of dance are not considered valuable, except when they’re produced by large entities willing and able to invest in trademarking them.

Part of the reason the originators of viral content are stripped from their labor is because they don’t technically own their production. Twitter does, Vine does, Snapchat does, and the list goes on. Intangible things like slang and styles of dance are not considered valuable, except when they’re produced by large entities willing and able to invest in trademarking them.

Dana Nelson, founder of D.F. Nelson PLLC, a New York City firm specializing in copyright and music law, says outmoded intellectual property law needs updating for the digital age. “Copyright law and intellectual property in America does not follow the creative production of artists. Rather, it protects the interests of companies,” she says. “I think it is now harder to distinguish a non-commercial (fair) use from a commercial one.” Whereas Meechie’s dance videos are considered a threat to record companies’ bottom line, his cultural production—and Kayla Newman’s “on fleek,” too—is treated as ripe for the taking by those same companies.

In some sense, the roaring debates over white appropriation of black slang, music, and dance have worked as an avatar for circumstance of the independent black creator in the digital age. But the analog is insufficient. Intellectual property and viral content should be interrogated from a legal standpoint, Nelson argues. The copyright statute under which Meechie’s YouTube account got flagged and then taken down should be re-examined, as should the legal gray areas that leave individual creators like Newman in the cold.

But Meechie is young, and he has plans. The immediate one is editing the video of him and his crew dancing to Justin Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” As of this writing, the clip has been viewed over 135,000 times on his new YouTube channel, but he still has a ways to go before he can reach the numbers on his old account. When I ask him how feels about his position as a simultaneously powerful shape-shifter of music and a disenfranchised net artist, he simply says he’s “dancing for now.” And, like Newman, he’s still waiting on those things good things to come.


Whether it’s prostitutes or Uber drivers, we’re seeing a fight over what people can be tricked into doing ever more cheaply.

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Whether it’s prostitutes or Uber drivers, we’re seeing a fight over what people can be tricked into doing ever more cheaply.

On Thursday, 900 police descended on Club Artemis in Berlin, one of the biggest brothels in a country packed with such sex warehouses. They were hunting sex traffickers, but mainly they were cracking down on a tax scam that resembles the Uber fight we’re having here.

Few industries are as fraudulent and exploitive as prostitution. Are Artemis prostitutes employees? Or freelancers? Since opening in 2006, Artemis had allegedly evaded $25.5 million in social security payments by forcing the women to call themselves “self-employed,” though many of them worked and lived there, following house rules and sleeping upstairs in dormitories.

The club, a white barracks of a building near highways and a convention centre, attracts locals as well as men across Europe stopping in for sex with village girls from destitute Eastern Europe. The women pay €80 to enter, just as buyers do (Sundays and Monday half-price for seniors), charge €60 for an initial half-hour of sex, and then charge whatever the greasy market in their flesh-toned bathrobes will bear. Anal sex costs €150-200.

I managed to visit Club Artemis in 2014 only because its owners were excited about the possibility of setting up shop in Canada, perhaps near Pearson airport. The place was harrowing. It was huge, windowless and warm, with strange odours. I still dream about it.

The Supreme Court of Canada had given the Harper government one year to come up with a new law to make prostitutes safer. Otherwise it would allow brothels in Canada. So Canada basically adopted the Nordic Model, which penalizes buyers rather than sellers, though Harper offered almost no money to help women escape the trade.

Feminist in intent, the Nordic Model began in Sweden and is being made into law across European nations.

Not in Germany. The Artemis setup was designed to make the prostituted women look independent, with sex so cheap they were practically volunteering. The hard “feminist” left won its campaign to have prostitution legalized in 2002, labelling it a victory for women. There are said to be 400,000 prostitutes in Germany but almost none have registered as such, fearing that the licence will label and doom them to restrictive life where they will be unable to cross borders.

Germany has now become the bordello of Europe, and it’s not happy about it. A new law next year might help, mandating condoms and banning “flat rate sex” which means gangbangs. It’s ironic that the recent sex attacks in German train stations were said to be committed by immigrants who think very little of women. But Germany as a nation has never treated women well, its rape laws lax and workplace equality still distant.

Meanwhile, France, which has up to 40,000 prostitutes, many foreign, has finally criminalized paying for sex, fining men up to $5,500 and sending them to john school.

But I notice a pattern in the resistance to the Nordic Model. There’s the old verbiage battle between “prostitute,” which sounds ugly, and “sex worker,” which sounds as though sex with strangers is like being regional sales co-ordinator for your own genitals.

In these times, the battle is over defining jobs and job conditions. We’re told that prostitutes, like Uber drivers, are cool entrepreneurs doing casual “ride-sharing” for extra money. And we’re seeing a battle in Toronto city council over how Uber drivers can be exploited. I say they’re cabbies, and they need commercial insurance, snow tires, vehicle inspections and so on. They must charge HST and pay tax on their earnings, which are digitally tracked.

But whether it’s prostitutes or Uber drivers, we’re seeing a fight over what people can be tricked into doing ever more cheaply, taking on personal risk. The definition of precarious modern jobs — are they permanent, part-time, contract or on-call — is a crucial part of this.

Are you an Airbnb “host” or are you running an illegal boarding house? Think before you answer.

The sex-work lobby does this too, muddying definitions. They say they want to fight stigma, but there will always be a stigma in exploitative work. Do you want your small daughter to dream of selling her body when she grows up? No, you don’t.

But I say the stigma should land on the sex buyer, the men who exploit their economic power. Prostitution is the last gasp of an ancient male belief in the right to dominate and abuse women. It’s time to call prostitutes, Uber drivers and Airbnbers what they are: not happy campers but people in a real economic squeeze.


Neuroscientists create atlas showing how words are organised in the brain.

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Neuroscientists create atlas showing how words are organised in the brain.

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Like a colourful quilt laid over the cortex, the atlas displays in rainbow hues how individual words and the concepts they convey can be grouped together in clumps of white matter.

“Our goal was to build a giant atlas that shows how one specific aspect of language is represented in the brain, in this case semantics, or the meanings of words,” said Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

“It is possible that this approach could be used to decode information about what words a person is hearing, reading, or possibly even thinking,” said Alexander Huth, the first author on the study. One potential use would be a language decoder that could allow people silenced by motor neurone disease or locked-in syndrome to speak through a computer.

To create the atlas, the scientists recorded people’s brain activity while they listened to stories read out on The Moth Radio Hour, a US radio show. They then matched the transcripts of the stories with the brain activity data to show how groups of related words triggered neural responses in 50,000 to 80,000 pea-sized spots all over the cerebral cortex.

Huth used stories from The Moth Radio Hour because they are short and compelling. The more enthralling the stories, the more confident the scientists could be that the people being scanned were focusing on the words and not drifting off. Seven people listened to two hours of stories each. Per person, that amounted to hearing roughly 25,000 words- and more than 3,000 different words – as they lay in the scanner.

The atlas shows how words and related terms exercise the same regions of the brain. For example, on the left-hand side of the brain, above the ear, is one of the tiny regions that represents the word “victim”. The same region responds to “killed”, “convicted”, “murdered” and “confessed”. On the brain’s right-hand side, near the top of the head, is one of the brain spots activated by family terms: “wife”, “husband”, “children”, “parents”.

Each word is represented by more than one spot because words tend to have several meanings. One part of the brain, for example, reliably responds to the word “top”, along with other words that describe clothing. But the word “top” activates many other regions. One of them responds to numbers and measurements, another to buildings and places. The scientists have created an interactive website where the public can explore the brain atlas.

Strikingly, the brain atlases were similar for all the participants, suggesting that their brains organised the meanings of words in the same way. The scientists only scanned five men and two women, however. All are native English speakers, and two are authors of the study published in Nature. It is highly possible that people from different backgrounds and cultures will have different semantic brain atlases.

Armed with the atlas, researchers can now piece together the brain networks that represent wildly different concepts, from numbers to murder and religion. “The idea of murder is represented a lot in the brain,” Gallant said.

Using the same haul of data, the group has begun work on new atlases that show how the brain holds information on other aspects of language, from phonemes to syntax. A brain atlas for narrative structure has so far proved elusive, however. “Every time we come up with a set of narrative features, we get told they aren’t the right set of narrative features,” said Gallant.

Uri Hasson, a neuroscientist at Princeton University, praised the work. Unlike many studies that looked at brain activity when an isolated word or sentence was spoken, Gallant’s team had shed light on how the brain worked in a real-world scenario, he said. The next step, he said, was to create a more comprehensive and precise semantic brain atlas. Ultimately, Hasson believes it will be possible to reconstruct the words a person is thinking from their brain activity. The ethical implications are enormous. One more benign use would see brain activity used to assess whether political messages have been effectively communicated to the public. “There are so many implications, and we are barely touching the surface,” he said.

Lorraine Tyler, a cognitive neuroscientist and head of the Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain at Cambridge University said the research was a “tour de force in its scope and methods”. But the brain atlas in its current form does not capture fine differences in word meanings. Take the word “table”. It can be a member of many different groups, says Tyler. “It can be something to eat off, things made of wood, things that are heavy, things having four legs, non-animate objects, and so on. This kind of detailed semantic information that enables words to be used flexibly is lost in the analysis,” she said. “While this research is path-breaking in its scope, there is still a lot to learn about how semantics is represented in the brain.”


Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories.

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Social Network Algorithms Are Distorting Reality By Boosting Conspiracy Theories.

After an anonymous source alleged that Facebook’s Trending News algorithm (and human staff) was intentionally hiding conservative news from the social network, all hell broke loose. Congressional hearings have been called. Whether the reports are right—and whether hearings are justified—underneath the uproar is a largely unspoken truth: The algorithms that drive social networks are shifting the reality of our political systems—and not for the better.

The filter bubble—the idea that online recommendation engines learn what we like and thus keep us only reading things we agree with—has evolved. Algorithms, network effects, and zero-cost publishing are enabling crackpot theories to go viral, and—unchecked—these ideas are impacting the decisions of policy makers and shaping public opinion, whether they are verified or not.

First it is important to understand the technology that drives the system. Most algorithms work simply: Web companies try to tailor their content (which includes news and search results) to match the tastes and interests of readers. However as online organizer and author Eli Pariser says in the TED Talk where the idea of the filter bubble became popularized: “There’s a dangerous unintended consequence. We get trapped in a ‘filter bubble’ and don’t get exposed to information that could challenge or broaden our worldview.”

Facebook’s news feed and personalized search delivers results that are tailored just to us because a social network’s business is to keep us interested and happy. Feeling good drives engagement and more time spent on a site, and that keeps a user targetable with advertisements for longer. Pariser argues that this nearly invisible editing of the Internet limits what we see—and that it will “ultimately prove to be bad for us and bad for democracy.”

In his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin describes a world where our ability to technologically shape reality is so sophisticated, it overcomes reality itself. “We risk being the first people in history,” he writes, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”

Since Pariser’s TED Talk, we’ve reached the point where social networks are now used as primary news outlets. Seeking news from traditional sources—newspapers and magazines—has been replaced with a new model: getting all of one’s news from trending stories on social networks. The people that we know best are most likely to influence us because we trust them. Their ideas and beliefs shape ours. And the tech behind social networks is built to enhance this. Where “proximity” used to mean knowing people next door or down the street, it now includes online communities. It’s easier than ever to find like-minded people independently of geography.

Once a user joins a single group on Facebook, the social network will suggest dozens of others on that topic, as well as groups focused on tangential topics that people with similar profiles also joined. That is smart business. However, with unchecked content, it means that once people join a single conspiracy-minded group, they are algorithmically routed to a plethora of others. Join an anti-vaccine group, and your suggestions will include anti-GMO, chemtrail watch, flat Earther (yes, really), and “curing cancer naturally” groups. Rather than pulling a user out of the rabbit hole, the recommendation engine pushes them further in. We are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.

Another tech trend fueling this issue is the ability to publish ideas online at no cost, and to gather an audience around those ideas. It’s now easier than ever to produce content specifically designed to convince people who may be on the fence or “curious” about a particular topic. This is an especially big issue when it comes to violent extremism, and pseudoscience. Self-publishing has eliminated all the checks and balances of reputable media―fact-checkers, editors, distribution partners.

Social publishing platforms have made all of us content creators. And this is a wonderful, tremendously valuable innovation that enables talented, or traditionally voiceless, people to be heard. We believe in the wisdom of crowds. Inherent in our platform designs is the conviction that good content will get noticed, and the rest will stagnate, unseen, in lonely corners of the web. But the increasing proliferation of fringe content is beginning to suggest that this is no longer as true as it once was.

Social platforms—in their effort to keep users continually engaged (and targeted with relevant ads)—are designed to surface what’s popular and trending, whether it’s true or not. Since nearly half of web-using adults now get their news from Facebook in any given week, what counts as “truth” on our social platforms matters. When nonsense stories gain traction, they’re extremely difficult to correct. And stories jump from platform to platform, reaching new audiences and “going viral” in ways and at speeds that were previously impossible.

Many Brazilians, for example, think the Brazilian government is lying to them about Zika causing birth defects, though they aren’t quite sure whether they should be worried about vaccines, Monsanto, chemtrails, or GMO mosquitoes as the true cause.

People in Portland, Oregon, voted in 2013 to stop the fluoridation of water—a common practice to improve dental health. Depending on which opposition group you asked, fluoridation was either a technique used by fascist regimes to pacify their citizens or a toxic chemical that causes cancer.

For instance, last year local residents in a town in Bastrop County, Texas, became convinced that a routine military practice exercise known as Jade Helm 15 was a secret government plot to impose martial law and confiscate Texans’ firearms. The uproar was so large that it reached the desk of Texas governor Greg Abbott. Abbott then legitimized the conspiracy theory by making a statement declaring that the Texas State Guard would monitor the exercise.

You might ask: Isn’t this simply an artifact of reality, reflected online? Maybe all of us simply weren’t exposed to this “other” world and are simply coming into contact with it thanks to the Internet?

That is one possibility. But the Internet doesn’t just reflect reality anymore; it shapes it. The mere fact of these theories being online and discoverable helps create this phenomenon.

The problem is that social-web activity is notorious for an asymmetry of passion. On many issues, the most active social media voices are the conspiracist fringe. The majority of people know that vaccines don’t cause autism, and that 9/11 was not an inside job. They don’t dedicate hours to creating content or tweeting to reinforce the obvious. But passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to “wake up the sheeple.” Last month, for example, a study looked at the relative percentages of pro-vaccine vs. anti-vaccine content on Pinterest and Instagram; 75% of the immunization-related pinned content was opposed to vaccines. This was a dramatic shift from studies of social networks in the early 2000s, when the percentage of negative content was estimated at around 25%.

This asymmetry of passion, and the resulting proliferation of nonsense on social channels, is particularly strong where pseudoscience is concerned. Consider the Food Babe, an anti-GMO “food safety activist” who boasts 1 million Facebook fans and a committed #foodbabearmy on Twitter dedicated to harassing companies (such as the Girl Scouts) to get them to remove ingredients that are hard to pronounce. When refutations, corrections, or takedowns of her often misinformed agenda are published in the mainstream media, her followers dig in more, convinced that the pushback is because they’ve struck a nerve in Big Agriculture or Big Food, or because the reporter is “bought.”

Activism spawned from these online conspiracy groups wastes time and money, and it’s increasing. In a recent interview, Californian Republican Representative Devin Nunes said that 90% of the communication he receives from constituents is conspiracy-theorist nonsense, up from approximately 10% when he took office in 2003. It’s impacting the political process on everything from zoning laws (fears of UN Agenda 21) to public health policy (water fluoridation). In Hawaii last month, for example, lawmakers killed a simple procedural bill that would have allowed the state to more quickly adopt federal guidelines on administering vaccines in case of an outbreak—because outraged residents claimed that vaccines were responsible for Zika (and, of course, for autism).

There are plenty of explanations about why conspiracy theories exist. These range from a decreasing amount of trust in leaders and institutions to proportionality bias (a belief that big events must have big causes) to projection and more. The most predominant factor—confirmation bias, the tendency to use information to confirm what you already believe—is in many ways made worse, not better, in a world where more, not less, information is available, thanks to Google and the Internet.

Ultimately, we need our best minds playing both offense and defense if we are going to reduce the prevalence and impact of conspiracist influence both online, and in real life. How do we do that?

We need a shift in how we design our ever-evolving social platforms. The very structure and incentives in social networks have brought us to this point. Our platform designers themselves should be considering what steps they can take to bring us back. Perhaps we should have more conversations about ethics in design—and maybe these Facebook allegations will kick that off. Their product design is having a dramatic impact on public policy, and the effects are only going to get stronger. What responsibility do the designers of those products have to civil discourse?

Platforms have the power here. Some have begun to introduce algorithms that warn readers that a share is likely a hoax, or satire. Google is investigating the possibility of “truth ranking” for web searches, which is promising. These are great starting points, but a regulation by algorithm has its own set of advantages and pitfalls. The primary concern is that turning companies into arbiters of truth is a slippery slope, particularly where politically rooted conspiracies are concerned.

But we have to start somewhere. As Eli Pariser said: “We really need you to make sure that these algorithms have encoded in them a sense of the public life, a sense of civic responsibility. We need you to make sure that they’re transparent enough that we can see what the rules are that determine what gets through our filters.” The Internet isn’t separate from the real world; building the web we want is building the future we want.


Rare earth minerals found in abundance in Jamaican mud.

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Rare earth minerals found in abundance in Jamaican mud.

Jamaica may be home to a large source of rare earth minerals, according to the findings of a Japanese mining company. It comes as companies and countries around the world continue searching for further sources of elements that are vital to modern technology.

The Associated Press has reported remarks from Jamaica’s science, technology, energy and mining minister, Philip Paulwell, who said that Jamaica’s red mud contains “high concentrations of rare-earth elements”. That’s good news for the country, as it means Japanese firm Nippon Light Metal is willing to invest $3 million (£1.9 million) in buildings and equipment for a pilot project to see if they can extract the hoped-for 1,500 tonnes of rare earth oxides each year.

The rare earth minerals each contain one or several of a collection of 17 different elements, many of which are necessary for modern electronics. When China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 its production of rare earth minerals was so high, and so cheap, that it forced almost every other mine in the world out of business — at one point 97 percent of these elements, or roughly 15,000 tonnes, were coming from Chinese mines. However, a combination of dwindling reserves and geopolitical paranoia has driven a search for new sources around the world, which brings us to Jamaica.

After gaining independence in 1962, Jamaica’s economy experienced an initial period of extremely high growth, driven in part by the mining of bauxite, which leaves behind large quantities of red mud that can now be reappropriated as a source of rare earth minerals. The country is still the fifth-largest exporter of bauxite in the world, but the recent worldwide economic turmoil has reduced demand and contributed to sluggish growth and a relatively high unemployment rate of 12.7 percent. Rare earth mineral extraction could prove a big boost the nation’s economy.

Despite their name, rare earth minerals are not actually rare in the sense that there aren’t many of them — they’re distributed relatively evenly throughout the Earth’s crust. However, there are few locations where they exist in concentrations high enough to make extraction cost-effective, which is why it wouldn’t be wise to start an allanite mine in your back garden.

Countries have responded to the decline in availability of Chinese rare earth minerals with their own projects. Japan and Vietnam have launched a joint centre for research into rare earth mineral extraction, and in 2012 a team from the University of Tokyo claims to have found 6.2 million tonnes of rare earth minerals in the Pacific seabed.

Meanwhile, in the US, Molycorp is trying to reopen the Mountain Pass mine in California which, in the decades after the Second World War, produced most of the world’s rare earth minerals. However, rumours over the viability of reopening the mine have delayed production.


Religion could die out as world’s population gets richer.

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Religion could die out as world’s population gets richer.

A wealthier population could mean the end of religion, according to evolutionary scientists.

The group of academics suggest the world’s major religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism, emerged as an evolutionary response to the differences in lifestyle between wealthy elites and other, poorer, communities.

Evolutionary psychologist Dr Nicolas Baumard said affluence and wealth caused humans to have a “slower” lifestyle, suggesting the wealthy elite 2,500 years ago would have been less sexually active, less aggressive and overall lead more laid-back lives.

“Absolute affluence has predictable effects on human motivation and reward systems,” Dr Baumard et al wrote in a study, “moving individuals away from ‘fast life’ strategies (resource acquisition and coercive interactions) and toward ‘slow life’ strategies (self-control techniques and cooperative interactions.”

The study says living a ‘slow life’ put the elite at an evolutionary disadvantage, as they may have had fewer children, had less to eat (since they were less aggressive about acquiring food) and have reproduced later in life.

In order to offset this disadvantage, Dr Baumard believes the wealthy introduced moralising religions to the poor as a way to introduce them to ‘slow-life’ strategies, therefore offsetting the evolutionary disadvantages the elite faced in being less motivated by acquisition, greed and procreation.

The study said religious practice itself had been around since before a clear divide in wealth emerged, but that it lacked the focus on morality and fulfilment that is found within world’s major religions today.

Religion is based on spiritual fulfilment, not material or physical fulfilment, according to Dr Baumard et al.

They wrote: “To most people, believers and non-believers alike, it seems obvious that religion is on the side of the spiritual rather than the material world and that it fosters self-discipline and selflessness rather than license and gree.”

The study said idea that true salvation could only be found in moral behaviour, not in having the most food or the most sex, may have served as a distraction to the non-elite, leading them towards ‘slow life’ strategies.

But Dr Baumard said that, as affluence becomes more widespread, moralising religion could be on its way out.

He said living a ‘slow’ lifestyle was becoming more common among the general population, with pepople motivated to cooperate with each other and focus on fulfilment in areas of life that are not just physical – which means there is less need for moralising religions to control the behaviour of a large poor population.

Writing in the New Scientist, Dr Baumard said: “As more and more people become affluent and adopt a slow strategy, the need to morally condemn fast strategies decreases, and with it the benefit of holding religious beliefs that justify doing so.

“If this is true, and our environment continues to improve, then like the Greco-Roman religions before them, Christianity and other moralising religions could eventually vanish.”