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‘Pre-bunk’ tactics reduce public susceptibility to COVID-19 conspiracies and falsehoods



A short online game designed to fight conspiracies about COVID-19 boosts people’s confidence in detecting misinformation by increasing their ability to perceive its “manipulativeness” compared to genuine news, according to a study.

Go Viral!, developed by the University of Cambridge’s Social Decision-Making Lab in partnership with the UK Cabinet Office and media agency DROG, was launched last autumn as part of the UK government’s efforts to tackle coronavirus falsehoods circulating online.

The five-minute game puts people in the shoes of a purveyor of fake pandemic news, encouraging players to create panic by spreading misinformation about COVID-19 using social media – all within the confines of the game.

Researchers say that, by giving people this taste of the techniques used to disseminate fake news, it acts as an inoculant: building a psychological resistance against malicious falsehoods by raising awareness of how misinformation works.

“While fact-checking is vital work, it can come too late. Trying to debunk misinformation after it spreads is often a difficult if not impossible task,” said Prof Sander van der Linden, Director of the Social Decision-Making Lab at Cambridge University.

“Go Viral! is part of a new wave of interventions that aim to ‘pre-bunk’. By preemptively exposing people to a microdose of the methods used to disseminate fake news, we can help them identify and ignore it in the future.”

The latest findings on the game’s effectiveness, published in the journal Big Data and Society, are accompanied by research on another COVID-19 “prebunking” intervention used by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

UNESCO deployed infographics across social media highlighting tropes common to COVID conspiracy theories, such as claims of a “secret plot” or that the virus was spread intentionally, as part of their #ThinkBeforeSharing campaign.

“By exposing people to the methods used to produce fake news we can help create a general ‘inoculation’, rather than trying to counter each specific falsehood,” said study lead author and Cambridge Gates Scholar Melisa Basol.

The Cambridge researchers found the UNESCO approach also proved effective, albeit with a smaller effect size than the proactive game.

The Go Viral! project began with seed funding from Cambridge University’s COVID-19 rapid response fund, and was then supported and backed by the UK Cabinet Office and promoted by the World Health Organisation and UN.

The game has now been played over 400,000 times in a variety of languages – including Italian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Brazilian Portuguese – since its October launch.

Players try and gain “likes” by promoting noxious posts on COVID-19, harnessing propaganda techniques such as fraudulent expertise and the use of emotionally charged language to stoke outrage and fear.

The final stage sees players “go viral” when they push a baseless conspiracy theory that explodes online and ignites nationwide protests.

For the new study, researchers used a sample of 3,548 players over the age of 18, including native speakers of three languages in which the game is available: English, German and French.

Study participants were shown 18 social media posts – nine containing information from credible news sources, and high-quality versions of COVID-19 conspiracies making up the rest – and asked the extent to which they felt manipulated by the framing and content of each one.

Roughly a third of the study participants then played Go Viral!, while another third – a control group – played Tetris for the same amount of time, and the final group read UNESCO’s set of “prebunking” infographics. Lastly, everyone was given the same set of news items to rate, a mixture of real and fake.

Just over half (55%) the Tetris players got better at spotting the falsehoods, little better than chance – suggesting many were guessing.

However, 74% of the “pre-bunked” Go Viral! players got much better at sensing when they were being manipulated by the misinformation: a 19 percentage point increase over the control group.

The infographics generated a more modest but still useful six percentage point increase in manipulation detection compared to the control (61% vs 55%).

When it came to confidence in their ability to spot fake news going forward, only 50% of the Tetris players said it had increased – no better than chance – whereas 67% of Go Viral! players felt they were less likely to get duped in the future.

In a follow-up survey one week after the single play of the game, participants were asked to rate a further set of real and fake social media posts about COVID-19. Go Viral! players were still rating COVID-19 misinformation as significantly more manipulative, while the effects of the UNESCO infographics had faded.

“Both interventions are fast, effective and easily scalable, with the potential to reach millions of people around the world,” said Dr Jon Roozenbeek, study co-lead author from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology.

“Interestingly, our findings also show that the active inoculation of playing the game may have more longevity than passive inoculations such as reading the infographics.”

“COVID-19 falsehoods and conspiracies pose a real threat to vaccination programmes in almost every nation. Every weapon in our arsenal should be used to fight the fake news that poses a threat to herd immunity. Pre-bunking initiatives have a crucial role to play in that global fight,” Roozenbeek said.

Stefania Giannini, Assistant Director-General for Education at UNESCO, added: “Cambridge University has provided solid backing for ‘pre-bunking’ misinformation and conspiracy theories propagated and reinforced during the pandemic, which have real-life consequences undermining trust in science and fueling hate speech.

“In this context, UNESCO’s work in education and media and information literacy is even more critical to strengthen learners’ digital citizenship.”


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Researchers discover unique ‘spider web’ mechanism that traps, kills viruses



Immunologists at McMaster University have discovered a previously unknown mechanism which acts like a spider web, trapping and killing pathogens such as influenza or SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19.

The researchers have found that neutrophils, the most abundant white blood cells in the human body, explode when they bind to such pathogens coated in antibodies and release DNA outside of the cell, creating a sticky tangle which acts as a trap.

The findings, published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, are significant because little is understood about how antibodies neutralize viruses in the respiratory tract.

The discovery has implications for vaccine design and delivery, including aerosol and nasal spray technologies that could help the body head off infections before they have a chance to take hold.

“Vaccines can produce these antibodies that are present in our lungs, which are the first type of antibody to see viruses like flu or COVID-19, which infect our lungs and respiratory tracts,” says the study’s lead author Matthew Miller, an associate professor at McMaster’s Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research and Canada’s Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats. “Mechanisms that can stop the infection at the site where it enters our body can prevent the spread and serious complications.”

By comparison, injectable vaccines are designed to bolster antibodies in the blood, but those antibodies are not as prevalent at the sites where infection begins.

“We should be thinking carefully about next generation COVID-19 vaccines that could be administered in the respiratory tract to stimulate antibodies. We don’t have many candidates right now that are focused on raising the mucosal response,” says Hannah Stacey, a graduate student in the Miller Lab and lead author of the paper, who recently won a major national scholarship from the Canadian Society for Virology for her work on COVID-19.

“If you want a lot of these antibodies that are really abundant in blood, then injections make the most sense, but if you want antibodies that are abundant in the respiratory tract, then a spray or an aerosol makes sense,” she says.

Researchers caution that while the body’s spider-web mechanism has the potential to be hugely beneficial, it can cause harm too, including inflammation and further illness when the web formation is uncontrollable.

They point to the early waves of the pandemic, prior to vaccinations, when these NETs, or neutrophil extracellular traps, were found in some patients’ lungs, and had made their breathing more difficult.

“An immune response that is meant to protect you can end up harming you if it’s not properly controlled,” says Miller. “It’s important to understand the balance of the immune system. If you have a lot of these antibodies before you get infected, they are likely going to protect you, but if the infection itself stimulates a lot of those antibodies it might be harmful.”


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Making seawater drinkable in minutes



According to the World Health Organization, about 785 million people around the world lack a clean source of drinking water. Despite the vast amount of water on Earth, most of it is seawater and freshwater accounts for only about 2.5% of the total. One of the ways to provide clean drinking water is to desalinate seawater. The Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) has announced the development of a stable performance electrospun nanofiber membrane to turn seawater into drinking water by membrane distillation process.

Membrane wetting is the most challenging issue in membrane distillation. If a membrane exhibits wetting during membrane distillation operation, the membrane must be replaced. Progressive membrane wetting has been especially observed for long-term operations. If a membrane gets fully wetted, the membrane leads to inefficient membrane distillation performance, as the feed flow through the membrane leading to low-quality permeate.

A research team in KICT, led by Dr. Yunchul Woo, has developed co-axial electrospun nanofiber membranes fabricated by an alternative nano-technology, which is electrospinning. This new desalination technology shows it has the potential to help solve the world’s freshwater shortage. The developed technology can prevent wetting issues and also improve the long-term stability in membrane distillation process. A three-dimensional hierarchical structure should be formed by the nanofibers in the membranes for higher surface roughness and hence better hydrophobicity.

The co-axial electrospinning technique is one of the most favorable and simple options to fabricate membranes with three-dimensional hierarchical structures. Dr. Woo’s research team used poly(vinylidene fluoride-co-hexafluoropropylene) as the core and silica aerogel mixed with a low concentration of the polymer as the sheath to produce a co-axial composite membrane and obtain a superhydrophobic membrane surface. In fact, silica aerogel exhibited a much lower thermal conductivity compared with that of conventional polymers, which led to increased water vapor flux during the membrane distillation process due to a reduction of conductive heat losses.

Most of the studies using electrospun nanofiber membranes in membrane distillation applications operated for less than 50 hours although they exhibited a high water vapor flux performance. On the contrary, Dr. Woo’s research team applied the membrane distillation process using the fabricated co-axial electrospun nanofiber membrane for 30 days, which is 1 month.

The co-axial electrospun nanofiber membrane performed a 99.99% salt rejection for 1 month. Based on the results, the membrane operated well without wetting and fouling issues, due to its low sliding angle and thermal conductivity properties. Temperature polarization is one of the significant drawbacks in membrane distillation. It can decrease water vapor flux performance during membrane distillation operation due to conductive heat losses. The membrane is suitable for long-term membrane distillation applications as it possesses several important characteristics such as, low sliding angle, low thermal conductivity, avoiding temperature polarization, and reduced wetting and fouling problems whilst maintaining super-saturated high water vapor flux performance.

Dr. Woo’s research team noted that it is more important to have a stable process than a high water vapor flux performance in a commercially available membrane distillation process. Dr. Woo said that “the co-axial electrospun nanofiber membrane have strong potential for the treatment of seawater solutions without suffering from wetting issues and may be the appropriate membrane for pilot-scale and real-scale membrane distillation applications.”


The Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) is a government sponsored research institute established to contribute to the development of Korea’s construction industry and national economic growth by developing source and practical technology in the fields of construction and national land management.

This research was supported by an internal grant (20200543-001) from the KICT, Republic of Korea. The outcomes of this project were published in the international journal, Journal of Membrane Science, a renowned international journal in the polymer science field (IF: 7.183 and Rank #3 of the JCR category) in April 2021.

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McIndoe leading $6.2 million innovative research initiative



Dr. Richard A. McIndoe, bioinformatics expert and associate director of the Center for Biotechnology and Genomic Medicine at the Medical College of Georgia, is leading a dynamic, new $6.2 million federally funded initiative to support highly innovative research ideas in three areas with tremendous impact on health.

This Innovative Science Accelerator, or ISAC, program establishes an expedited but still extensive review process that will enable scientists to pursue some of their most innovative research ideas in diseases of the kidneys; the urinary tract in both sexes as well as the male reproductive organs; and the blood and bone marrow.

“The idea is that ISAC will provide seed funds to investigators who have high-risk, high-reward ideas, and they will get one year of money to try to figure out if their idea is going to work. If it works, they will be able to use the data they generate to apply for a larger grant,” says McIndoe, who wants the new program to be as innovative as the ideas scientists bring to it.

The five-year initiative is a new program of the Division of Kidney, Urologic and Hematologic Diseases of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health.

The goal is to move science forward that matters to people’s lives, and the opportunities include giving particularly new scientists experience writing grants, going through the review process and generating findings, McIndoe says.

ISAC will provide scientists an efficient path to secure a one-time $100,000 grant that should ease application for a larger, traditional NIH grant, the gold standard for biomedical research in the U.S., or conversely to acknowledge that their idea does not merit additional pursuit.

Another primary function of ISAC is to host an annual scientific meeting for scientists working in these areas where awardees can present their work, and that will help fuel discussion and collaboration, says McIndoe, Regents’ Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator.

High-risk research with high-reward potential often doesn’t get funded in the traditional, highly competitive process of seeking NIH funding, McIndoe says. For example, the 2019 payline for the NIDDK was 13%, which means only 13 of 100 submitted grants get funded.

About half of submitted grants, don’t even make it through the NIH study section manned by experts in the field who do the frontline review of grant proposals, says McIndoe, who at points in his career has sat on more than a half-dozen study sections annually.

As director of ISAC’s coordinating unit, McIndoe will also work with NIH program officers with expertise in the area of interest of an application to identify other experts across the country. He’ll then manage the review process from there, including assigning reviewers and making sure reviews are done on time.

He’ll ensure that the scores and critiques get back to the NIH program officers who also will rank the grant proposals, and that information along with what the ISAC office determines to be a fundable score range will then go to one more group of experts in the field, ISAC’s External Evaluation Committee, and if they agree with the determinations, the decision is made.

Although the review process is extensive, it’s about half of the standard process for submitting for scientists and reviewers alike, starting with a three-page research plan rather than up to a dozen pages for an RO1, the NIH’s oldest grant mechanism, and the application is easier for reviewers to digest, McIndoe says.

The ISAC Working Group recently opted to have three application review times annually to further expedite the process, and applications can be submitted at any time, McIndoe says. Scientists can begin submitting applications this fall, and the first annual meeting likely will be next Spring.

The local ISAC Working Group, which will advise McIndoe on kidney, urologic and hematology research, includes Dr. David Mattson, chair of the MCG Department of Physiology and an established hypertension researcher; Dr. Jennifer Sullivan, pharmacologist and physiologist in the Department of Physiology who is also interim dean of The Graduate School at AU and studies blood pressure regulation and kidney health, with a particular interest in gender differences; and Dr. Betty Pace, pediatric hematologist in the MCG Department of Pediatrics, an established sickle cell physician scientist who leads a federally funded national initiative to inspire the next generation of investigators.

ISAC’s target areas may change annually based on what’s happening in the scientific literature and what experts in respective fields identify as hot topics that need pursuing. The Working Group and the annual meetings will further enable those discussions and decisions.

McIndoe, an expert in managing and analyzing large amounts of data, has already managed two other innovative NIH funding approaches and consequently has a solid infrastructure in place to support this new initiative. For 20 years he has led the Coordinating and Bioinformatics Unit for the Diabetic Complications Consortium to fund shorter-term laboratory and human studies to better understand the complications of diabetes, like heart and kidney disease and vision problems. The consortium began as the Animal Models of Diabetes Complications, which specifically designed and shared good mouse models.

Fifteen years ago he began providing similar services for the Mouse Metabolic Phenotyping Centers, which make the specialized, expensive mouse-testing capabilities of a select number of universities available and affordable to researchers nationwide. Expertise includes things like characterizing mouse metabolism and analyzing blood composition.

Together those NIDDK initiatives, which also hold scientific meetings and support websites to support interested scientific communities, have resulted in thousands of publications that demonstrate new findings and helped scientists secure larger NIH grants. As an example, more than 60% of those receiving a $100,000 grant through the Diabetic Complications Consortium applied for an RO1 and about 25% were successful. “That’s higher than the normal percentage and a goal of these kinds of programs,” McIndoe says. Both those programs are scheduled to phase out next year.


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Oregon State graduate student sheds light on better way to study reputedly secretive toad



CORVALLIS, Ore. – Research by a graduate student in Oregon State University’s College of Science has upended the conventional wisdom that for a century has incorrectly guided the study of a toad listed as endangered in part of its range.

Anne Devan-Song used spotlighting – shining a light in a dark spot and looking for eye reflections – to find large numbers of the eastern spadefoot toad. The study illustrates how confirmation bias – a tendency to interpret new information as ratification of existing theories – can hamper discovery and the development of better ones.

Her findings, which show that the toad spends much more time above ground than commonly believed, were published in the Journal of Herpetology.

Known for bright yellow eyes with elliptical pupils and, as the name suggests, a spade on each hind foot, the eastern spadefoot toad ranges from the southeast corner of the United States up the Atlantic Coast to New England. Known scientifically as Scaphiopus holbrooki, it is a species of conservation concern in the northern reaches of its territory.

Devan-Song, a Ph.D. student in integrative biology, grew up in Singapore, where she learned she could search for reptiles and amphibians by spotlighting. In Rhode Island, where she earned a master’s degree and then worked as a university research associate, the eastern spadefoot toad is endangered.

One rainless night while surveying for amphibians during a project in Virginia, Devan-Song’s spotlight detected one eastern spadefoot after another. That surprised her because the toads were thought to be detectable only on a few rainy nights every year, when they emerge from underground burrows to mate in wetlands.

She continued looking for eastern spadefoots and kept finding them on dry nights, including in upland forest locales not close to any damp areas. Spadefoots remain still when spotlighted so it was easy for Devan-Song to approach the eye-shines and positively identify the toads.

“They need to get above ground to hunt for insects and build up energy stores for mating,” she said. “That’s why we were finding them when and where conventional wisdom said we weren’t supposed to be finding them.”

Back in Rhode Island, she tried spotlighting for spadefoots; it took her just 15 minutes to find one. The success led to a 10-night survey in a pair of locations last summer that produced 42 sightings – nearly double the number of eastern spadefoot toad sightings in Rhode Island over the previous seven decades.

Devan-Song also learned that she wasn’t the first to question the notion that the eastern spadefoot was so “secretive” as to almost always avoid detection. As far back as 1944, Devan-Song said, it was suggested in scientific literature that the toad could be found outside of rain-induced migration and breeding aggregations. And in 1955, researchers used spotlighting to detect huge numbers of eastern spadefoots in Florida; the technique subsequently, inexplicably fell into disuse.

“Confirmation bias perpetuated the fallacy of when the eastern spadefoot could be found,” Devan-Song said. “No breeding events or migration occurred during our surveys and we detected thousands of toads in Virginia and dozens in Rhode Island. The majority of those were subadults, a demographic category mainly overlooked in the literature. Progress in learning about the toad, its ecology and its conservation has been greatly hindered by a misconception that persisted even when evidence to the contrary was presented.”

The ease with which many toads could be found during breeding, combined with a lack of data on toads in upland habitats, helped fuel confirmation bias in this case, she said.

“Everyone assumed they were underground most of the time so no one was really looking for them most of the time,” Devan-Song said. “Our research demonstrates that you can detect them year round, though they do remain rare in Rhode Island. But likely not as rare as the scientific community thought.”


The National Park Service, through a cooperative agreement with the University of Rhode Island, supported this research.

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