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Trump ‘Likely Largest Driver’ of Coronavirus Misinformation

Politics
Trump ‘Likely Largest Driver’ of Coronavirus Misinformation
The MoveOn political action committee memorializes coronavirus deaths in the U.S. on May 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images for MoveOn

As the coronavirus has spread around the globe, so have the germs of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the new disease. Fake news about the virus is so prevalent that health professionals have started referring to it as an "infodemic."


To better understand the problem, researchers at Cornell University and Cision Global Insights conducted the first in-depth investigation of false coronavirus information in online and print media. They looked at more than 38 million English-language articles published between Jan. 1 and May 26 and came to a surprising conclusion: 37.9 percent of articles dealing with coronavirus misinformation mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We conclude that the President of the United States was likely the largest driver of the COVID-19 misinformation 'infodemic,'" the researchers wrote.

Trump has spread false information throughout the course of the pandemic. Early on, he downplayed the risks, going against the advice of his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by saying people with mild cases could continue to work. He also touted unproven cures and treatments, such as anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and the use of bleach or UV light to kill the virus inside the body.

New evidence has revealed that Trump knew at least some of his claims were false when he made them. In tapes of interviews with journalist Bob Woodward, the president acknowledged the deadliness of the virus as early as February and March, but said he was downplaying it in order to prevent panic.

However, the researchers told The New York Times they had expected the infodemic to be driven more by the many COVID-19 conspiracy theories than by mentions of the president and his statements.

"The biggest surprise was that the president of the United States was the single largest driver of misinformation around Covid," lead author and Cornell Alliance for Science director Sarah Evanega told The New York Times. "That's concerning in that there are real-world dire health implications."

The researchers found false information in more than 1.1 million of the more than 38 million articles they assessed, or just under three percent. They included in their count articles that mentioned coronavirus lies in order to fact-check them. However, they found that fact-checking only accounted for 16.4 percent of the "misinformation conversation."

This suggests that "the majority of COVID misinformation is conveyed by the media without question or correction," the researchers wrote.

They also identified 11 subtopics of misinformation, including miracle cures and various conspiracy theories such as plandemic or the idea that the pandemic was a hoax planned by the Democratic Party to coincide with Trump's impeachment. They found that miracle cures were by far the most reported topic of misinformation, appearing in more articles than all the other topics combined.

Trump and miracle cures were also tightly linked, as the media reported on Trump's promotion of hydroxychloroquine. These types of articles peaked April 24 after the president suggested the internal application of bleach and UV light.

The study, published Thursday, has not yet been peer reviewed because the process is time consuming and the researchers thought the information in their study was of great public importance, they told The New York Times.

"Misinformation about COVID-19 is a serious threat to global public health," the researchers wrote. "If people are misled by unsubstantiated claims about the nature and treatment of the disease, they are less likely to observe official health advice and may thus contribute to the spread of the pandemic and pose a danger to themselves and others."

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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