Jul 8, 2020

Axios Future

By Bryan Walsh
Bryan Walsh

Welcome to Axios Future, where in New York City we are just a bit concerned about what will happen when the rats stop social distancing.

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,680 words or about 6 minutes.

1 big thing: Fighting the coronavirus "infodemic"

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

An "infodemic" of misinformation and disinformation has helped cripple the response to the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: High-powered social media accelerates the spread of lies and political polarization that motivates people to believe them. Unless the public health sphere can effectively counter misinformation, not even an effective vaccine may be enough to end the pandemic.

Driving the news: This month the WHO is running the first "infodemiology" conference, to study the infodemic of misinformation and disinformation around the coronavirus.

What they're saying: While fake news is anything but new, the difference is the infodemic "can kill people if they don't understand what precautions to take," says Phil Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute and author of the new book "Lie Machines."

  • Beyond its effect on individuals, the infodemic erodes trust in government and science at the moment when that trust is most needed.
  • A study by the Reuters Institute found 39% of English-language misinformation assessed between January and March included false claims about the actions or policies of authorities.

By the numbers: 38% of Americans surveyed by Pew in June said that compared to the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, they found it harder to identify what was true and what was false about the virus.

How it works: Misinformation and disinformation have always been a destabilizing feature of infectious disease outbreaks. But several factors have made the situation worse with COVID-19.

  1. An evolving outbreak: COVID-19 is new, and as scientists have learned more about the virus, they've had to change recommendations. That's how science works, but "if you're distrustful of authorities, an expert taking a position different than it was three days ago just confirms your bias," says Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects.
  2. Social media: While experts give some credit to companies like Facebook and Twitter for their efforts to stem the spread of coronavirus misinformation, the reality is that platforms built on engagement will often end up as conduits of conspiracy content, which Howard notes tends to be unusually "sticky."
  3. Disinformation warfare: In June, the European Commission issued a joint communication blaming Russia and China for "targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around COVID-19 in the EU." And those campaigns are effective — in a recent study, Howard found disinformation from Russian and Chinese state sources often reached a bigger audience on social media in Europe than reporting by major domestic outlets.
  4. Political and media polarization: "In our hyper-polarized and politicized climate, many folks just inherently mistrust advice or evidence that comes from an opposing political party," notes Alison Buttenheim of the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. Conservatives are particularly vulnerable — an April study found Americans who relied on conservative media were more likely to believe conspiracy theories and rumors about the coronavirus.

What to watch: Whether the infodemic causes a significant chunk of the U.S. public to opt-out of a future COVID-19 vaccine.

  • In a CNN poll in May, a third of Americans said they would not try to get vaccinated against COVID-19. If that proportion holds or rises, a vaccine would be "unlikely" to provide herd immunity, warns Anthony Fauci.
  • The highly-organized and internet-savvy anti-vaxxer community is already targeting a potential COVID-19 vaccine. That includes attending Black Lives Matter events to convince protesters that "vaccines are part of structural racism," says Smyser.

The bottom line: While the pandemic wasn't human-made, the infodemic surely is. But that means public health experts and the public itself can put a halt to it with the right strategy.

Go deeper: I talk a bit about this at the top of this morning's "Axios Today" podcast. Listen here.

2. A one-drop test for water contamination

Northwestern's ROSALIND water testing platform. Photo courtesy of Northwestern University

A new platform uses synthetic biology to quickly identify contaminants in a single drop of water.

Why it matters: Water pollution is a major health risk, especially for poor and minority communities. Technology that can cheaply screen water supplies for contaminants like lead could help anyone easily determine if their water is safe.

How it works: Bacteria in water are capable of sensing potentially toxic contaminants using molecular "taste buds." The new technology platform, detailed in a study authored by scientists at Northwestern University, uses synthetic biology techniques to remove the taste buds and rewire them to produce a visual signal.

  • The reprogrammed taste buds are freeze-dried — "like you're making astronaut ice cream" says Northwestern's Julius Lucks, lead author of the study — and placed in test tubes.
  • Adding water to the test tube and flicking it causes the buds to glow in the presence of a contaminant, similar to how an at-home pregnancy test changes color based on its result.
  • Right now the platform can detect 17 contaminants, including lead and copper, though Lucks is confident scientists will be able to engineer new bacteria capable of detecting a wider range of contaminants, including human-made ones.

The big picture: The presence of lead and other contaminants in water remains a major problem, especially for the poor. A study published on Monday found children in homes relying on private well water were 25% more likely to have elevated blood levels than children who use community water.

  • Lucks and his colleagues did some initial testing of the platform in Paradise, the California town destroyed by wildfires in 2018. They found traces of toxic metals in the town's water that had resulted from cars melting in the intense heat.
  • "With water quality crises like Paradise and Flint, we knew this test could have a major impact if it worked," says Lucks.
3. The fragmentation of global trade

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The pandemic will accentuate the deepening uncertainty over the future of global trade, according to a new report.

Why it matters: Trade is the lifeblood of globalization, and it's helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But populism, a growing rift between China and the U.S., and the wild card of COVID-19 could cause global trade to fracture into regional variations.

Robert Manning, resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, notes that global trade, which grew almost ninefold between 1980 and 2017, is now projected to fall by 13% to 32% in 2020.

  • Much of that is due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to closed borders and a sharp reduction in economic activity across the board.
  • But, says Manning, "COVID-19 has really accelerated protectionist trends that were already in play."
  • The effect of disruptive technologies like biotech and AI — which Manning wrote about in a recent report I covered for Axios — has made countries less obviously dependent on each other, which has ramifications both for trade and global stability.

What to watch: Manning doesn't believe globalization is at an end, but he does see trade fragmenting, taking place more within set regions than freely across the globe.

  • That includes the internet, which is increasingly fracturing along national boundaries. Political shifts like China's heavy hand in Hong Kong will require internet companies accustomed to operating globally to choose sides.
"There's a real danger that if the two biggest trading powers in the U.S. and China continue to move in a nationalist direction, then things are going to get pretty ugly."
— Robert Manning
4. Why climate policy is go big or go home

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The burst of energy infrastructure news over the last few days highlights the gains of activists pushing to block fossil fuel projects — and why efforts to curb supply are a small piece of the climate puzzle, my Axios colleague Ben Geman writes.

Catch up fast: Over the last three days...

  • Dominion Energy and Duke Energy scrapped plans for a big gas pipeline.
  • Dominion Energy sold its gas transmission and storage assets to Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy.
  • A federal judge ordered the temporary shut down of the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • The Supreme Court declined, for now, to allow Keystone XL pipeline construction.

Yes, but: There’s an important point in a new note about Dakota Access from the research arm of the investment bank UBS, which shows why climate advocates, even the "keep it in the ground" wing, know that wider-ranging policy is essential.

  • Halting the pipeline raises shipping costs for oil producers in the Bakken region, but will bring "positive market share benefit to other oil producing basins" in Texas, Canada and elsewhere, UBS notes.
  • In other words, yanking Dakota Access offline (if challenges to the decision fail) may change where some oil production ultimately happens — but not if.

Why it matters: The burst of news underscores why tackling climate change will require far more than thwarting development.

  • It's why big policy proposals, like Joe Biden's plan or the recent proposal from House Democrats, are such a grab bag of policies.
  • They encompass some supply restrictions — such as thwarting new oil-and-gas development on public lands — coupled with lots of provisions on efficiency, vehicle electrification, decarbonizing industrial sectors, and a lot more.
5. Worthy of your time

Conflict culture is making social Unsocial (Om Malik)

  • As the culture wars heat up online and off, a veteran internet expert makes the case that the attention economy of social media is worsening the clash.

How a great power falls apart (Charles King — Foreign Affairs)

  • A deep take on the collapse of the Soviet Union reminds us that all countries end — and those on the inside are often the last to realize it.

Olalekan Jeyifous is imagining an Afrofuturist Brooklyn (Diana Budds — Curbed)

  • An interview with an architectural visionary inspired by a too-often neglected vein of sci-fi.

China and AI: What the world can learn and what it should be wary of (Hessy Elliott — The Quint)

  • China is emerging as a global leader in artificial intelligence, and this guide helps break down its achievements into the good, the bad and the unexpected.
6. 1 eating thing: AI for sushi

Would you trust a robot to grade your tuna sushi? Photo: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images

A new app uses artificial intelligence to automatically grade the tuna used for sushi, according to Reuters.

Why it matters: Bad tuna means bad sushi, and bad sushi makes us sad.

How it works: Kazuhiro Shimura, a director at the advertising giant Dentsu Group's Future Creative Center, was inspired by watching a TV show featuring the Japanese fish merchants who spend years learning to select high-quality tuna for sushi restaurants.

  • Shimura trained a machine learning algorithm on tuna grading data, eventually producing an app called Tuna Scope that can analyze tuna quality through images taken on a smartphone.
  • The ideal result will be a uniform, AI-enabled standard for tuna — and, presumably, assurances that you won't end up with akami when you wanted maguro.

Yes, but: A bigger challenge for the sushi industry than idiosyncratic grading is the fate of the bluefin tuna itself — population numbers have declined severely in recent years thanks to overfishing and overconsumption.

The bottom line: Hopefully AI sushi will work better than robot sushi.

Bryan Walsh