A woman in Greenland tends a potato crop. The country has seen a dramatic shrinkage in ice recently. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Who’s afraid of the big, bad virus? Perils from beneath the Arctic ice

The melting of Arctic permafrost is reawakening millennia-buried pathogens. But it’s the release of methane we should be more worried about.

This month, we learned that the melting of permafrost in Arctic regions is giving a new lease of life to hitherto unknown viruses. These have been buried in the ice for thousands of years but rising global temperatures are now thawing some of them out. As the melting continues, who knows what dangerous pathogens might be released?

The response from virologists was generally along the lines of: “Don’t panic.” That’s not quite the right reaction. There is something to worry about here.

The big discovery was the pithovirus, now confirmed as the world’s largest virus. It was last active 30,000 years ago and the French team that reactivated it managed to get the virus to infect amoebae. The researchers claim to have ruled out the possibility of human beings becoming infected with pithovirus but there are reasons to be sceptical.

A few years ago, the same French biologists said they were confident that a previous virus discovery, the mimivirus, could not infect people. But it also infected amoebae – and blood samples taken from one of their lab technicians, who had come down with mild pneumonia, were found to contain mimivirus antibodies. In other words, it seems they were wrong. Just because the researchers haven’t managed to infect human cells with the new virus, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.

However, that’s not what we should be worried about. Neither should we be too concerned that the receding permafrost could bring us into contact with other potentially dangerous viruses. It is possible that the tundra contains deep-frozen organisms that could be harmful to people; plans to drill for oil and gas in those regions could create new threats. Yet you could say the same of exploring the oceans. Every litre of seawater contains roughly ten billion microbes and 100 billion viruses. Most are not in our catalogues.

It is even possible that this is a good thing. We are learning how to harness the peculiar abilities of viruses to deliver gene therapy and even fight cancer. Something called a reovirus, for instance, is being tested against tumours; it attacks cancerous cells but leaves normal cells untouched.

Other viruses are proving effective at smuggling healthy human DNA into diseased organs, enabling us to cure some cases of partial blindness, for example. Having a new set of viruses to play with might prove useful.

What we should be concerned about is far more straightforward. The threat from a newly released virus is nothing compared to the threat from newly released molecules of methane. Atmospheric methane accelerates warming about 25 times faster than carbon dioxide. There is roughly 400 billion tonnes of methane trapped in permafrost. As global temperatures rise, the ground melts and the gas is released.

There have been very few studies into the risks posed by melting permafrost (pdf). Last summer, however, a team of economists and polar science researchers warned that it is an “economic time bomb”. If there is a sudden release of methane – and no one knows if it will be a slow leak or an enormous belch – the effects will include flooding, extreme weather events and, consequently, a huge downturn in agricultural production. Researchers estimate that the economic impact of the tundra melting could be as much as $60trn.

Resurrected monster viruses make great headlines but the creep of unmitigated climate change is far more likely to do the serious damage.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

Flickr: woodleywonderworks
Show Hide image

Lol enforcement: meet the man policing online joke theft

A story of revenge, retweets, and Kale Salad. 

A man walks into a bar and he tells a joke. The man next to him laughs – and then he tells the same joke. The man next to him, in turn, repeats the joke. That bar’s name is Twitter.

If you’ve been on the social network for more than five minutes, you’ll notice that joke theft is rampant on the site. Search, for example, for a popular tweet this week (“did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything” – 153,000 retweets) and you’ll see it has been copied 53 times in the last three days.

One instance of plagiarism, however, is unlike the others. Its perpetrator is the meme account @dory and its quick Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V has over 3,500 retweets. This account frequently copies the viral posts of Twitter users and passes them off – word for word – as its own. Many similar accounts do the same, including @CWGirl and @FatJew, and many make money by promoting advertising messages to their large number of followers. Twitter joke theft, then, is profitable.

In 2015, Twitter promised to clamp down on the unchecked plagiarism on its site. “This Tweet from [user] has been withheld in response to a report from the copyright holder,” read a message meant to replace stolen jokes on the site. It’s likely a message you’ve never seen.

Dissatisfied with this solution, one man took it upon himself to fight the thieves. 

“I'm a like happy internet kind of guy,” says Samir Mezrahi, a 34-year-old from New York who runs the Twitter account @KaleSalad. For the last six months, Mezrahi has used the account to source and retweet the original writers of Twitter jokes. Starting with a few hundred followers at the end of December 2016, Mezrahi had jumped to 50,000 followers by January 2017. Over 82,000 people now follow his account.  

“I've always been a big fan of like viral tweets and great tweets,” explains Mezrahi, over the sound of his children watching cartoons in the background. “A lot of people were fed up with the meme accounts so it’s just like a good opportunity to reward creators and people.”

Samir Mezrahi, owner of @KaleSalad

I had expected Mezrahi to be a teen. In actual fact he is a father of three and an ex-Buzzfeed employee, who speaks in a calm monotone, yet is enthusiastic about sharing the best content on Twitter. Though at first sourcing original tweets for Kale Salad was hard work, people now approach Mezrahi for help.

“People still reach out to me looking for vindication and just that kind of, I don’t know, that kind of acknowledgement that they were the originals. Because all so often the meme accounts are much larger and their tweets do better than the stolen tweet.”

But just why does having a tweet stolen suck so much? In the grand scheme of things, does it matter? Did everyone just forget about the part of 2016 when literal clowns would chase people with knives in public and nobody really did anything?

Meryl O’Rourke is a comedian and writer who tweets at @MerylORourke, and now has a copyright symbol (©) after her Twitter name. In the past she has had her jokes stolen and reposted, unattributed, on Facebook and Twitter and hopes this symbol will go some way to protecting her work.

“It’s hard to explain how it felt... as a struggling writer you’re always waiting for anything that looks like recognition as it could lead to your break,” she explains. “When your work gains momentum you feel like your opportunity ran off without you.

“Twitter is a test of a writer’s skill. To spend time choosing exactly the right words to convey your meaning with no nuance or explanation, and ensure popularity and a chuckle, in the space of only 140 characters – that’s hard work.”

However, Mezrahi has found not everyone is bothered by their tweets being stolen. I found the same man I reached out to with a stolen tweet who said he didn’t want to speak to me because it felt too “first world problems” to complain. Writers like O’Rourke are naturally more annoyed than random teenagers, who Mezrahi says are normally actually pleased about the theft.

“If you go to [a teenager’s] timeline it’s always the same thing. They’re replying to all their friends saying like ‘I’m famous’, they’re retweeting the meme accounts saying like ‘I did it’… they don’t mind as much it seems. It’s kind of like a badge of honour to them.”

Sometimes, people even ask Kale Salad to unretweet their posts. College students with scholarships, in particular, might not actually want to go viral – or some viral tweets may accidentally include personal information. On the whole, however, people are grateful for his work.

Yet the Kale Salad account does have unintended consequences. Mezrahi has now been blocked by the major meme accounts that frequently steal jokes, meaning he had to create alternate accounts to view their content. But just because he can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t see him – and he has noticed that these accounts now actually come to his profile to steal jokes he has retweeted, in a strange role-reversal.

“There are definitely times when they're picking up things that I just retweeted, like I know they're like looking at me too,” he says. “It feels like vindicated or validated that they come to me.”

Mezrahi now works in social media on a freelance basis, but would be open to making Kale Salad profitable. Earlier this year he set up an account on Patreon – a site that allows fans to pay their favourite creators. Some people didn’t approve of this, tweeting to say he is “just retweeting tweets”. So far, Mezrahi has three patrons who pay him $50 (£39) a month.

“I mean I spend a certain amount of time on this and I think it’s a pretty good service, so I've been thinking about monetisation and thought that might be a route,” he explains. He believes he is providing an important service by “amplifying” creators, and he didn’t want to make money in less transparent ways, such as by posting sponsored advertisements on his account. Yet although many online love Kale Salad, they don’t, as of yet, want to pay him.

“Twitter should buy my account because I’m doing a good thing that people like every day,” he muses.

Many might still be sceptical of the value of a joke vigilante. For those whose jokes aren’t their bread or butter, tweet theft may seem like a very minimal problem. And although it arguably is, it’s still incredibly annoying. Writing in Playboy, Rob Fee explains it best:

“How upsetting is it when you tell a joke quietly in a group of friends, then someone else says it louder and gets a huge laugh? Now imagine your friend following you every day listening for more jokes because people started throwing money at him every time he repeated what you said. Also, that friend quit his job because he made enough to live comfortably by telling your jokes louder than you can. Odds are, you’d quickly decide to find new friends.”

For now, then, Kale Salad will continue his work as the unpaid internet police. “As long as people like the service, I don’t mind doing it. If that's a year or two years or what we'll see how the account goes,” he says.

“Twitter is fun and I like the fun days on the internet and I like to help contribute to that.

“The internet is for fun and not all the sadness that’s often there.”

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

0800 7318496