Five amazing things: astronomy

The best of the web, brought to you.

The best of the web, brought to you.

The internet is full of astonishing videos, pictures and articles but the noise-to-signal ratio can be boringly high. So, from now on, I'll be regularly collecting five of the best texts, movies and images, old and new, on a variety of subjects.

This time: astronomy. Next time: dancing.

1. Scale by Brad Goodspeed

How big would the other planets look if they orbited the earth at the same distance -- 380,000km -- that the moon does? Brad Goodspeed's visualisation will show you. Watch out for Jupiter, which is intimidatingly vast.

2. Bill O'Reilly doesn't understand the moon

While we're talking about the moon, it turns out that Bill O'Reilly doesn't know how it works -- which is why he believes in God. "How did the moon get there?" he asks. "How come we have that, and Mars doesn't?" As I think Jon Stewart pointed out recently, O'Reilly seems to believe that if he doesn't understand a given concept, no one does. (By the way, Bill, National Geographic has the answer here.)

3. Eclipsing the sun

File this under "Eek". The French photographer Thierry Legault took a photo of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun. A humbling reminder that even our most cutting-edge technology is pretty small beer on the cosmic scale.

Oh, and if you want to see what the astronauts on the ISS are looking at right now, you can do that at the Nasa website here.

4. Nasa's astronomy picture of the day

Always beautiful, often mind-boggling, these photos have recently included the cracked surface of Jupiter's moon Europa, the deep-space contortions of the Seagull Nebula and gorgeous skies over Libya and Stockholm. Look out, too, for the amazing video of the Peerskill meteor of 1992, which, despite being only the size of a bowling ball, was brighter than a full moon as it screamed towards earth.

5. "Pale Blue Dot" by Carl Sagan

My final pick is a personal one: Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot". We had this as a reading at our wedding, because its both humbling and hopeful. Starting with a photo of earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from the edge of the solar system -- 3,781,782,502 miles away -- the great science educator reflects on our responsibility to care for that "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam . . . the only home we've ever known". If you don't feel a little prickle in your tearducts by the end, you have no soul.

An image from NASA''s Hubble Space Telescope of a vast, sculpted landscape of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born. Credit: Getty Images

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.