French electricity pylons. Photo: Getty
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Shock horror: people will take serious pain over phoneless boredom

Left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one, boredom made the electric-shock machine irresistible.

It is perhaps the most terrifying discovery of the year so far: people would rather give themselves unpleasant electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts. Roughly 400 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia were first given a shock so powerful that three-quarters of them said they would pay not to experience it a second time. Then they were left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one. The boredom made the electric shock machine irresistible.

It’s tempting to use this finding to support suspicions that digital technologies are creating a generation of idiots but we don’t have to. We know, for instance, that the experience of pain releases a surge of feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals into our bloodstream. This endorphin rush is one of the reasons that eating a painfully hot curry can be pleasurable.

We also know that our body’s relationship with electricity is more than skin-deep. Every biological cell is a tiny battery, with charges flowing in and out. Map your whole body and you’ll find an intricate web of electrical fields that are vital to maintaining your health. That is why we can accelerate or halt the process of wound-healing by applying voltages across breaks in the skin. Get the voltage and the orientation of the electric field right and the cells that carry out repairs are guided to the affected area more efficiently.

Looking deeper in the body, we are finding that electric currents could offer a path to curing some diseases. A number of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are associated with the disrupted flow of electricity across cell walls. Researchers are working on microelectronic devices that will address these disruptions by pushing just a few charges into or out of cells. No one believes that it will be easy to develop such innovations but there are strong incentives in place for those who want to try.

Last year, the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline announced a $1m reward for the first researchers to create a truly useful implantable “electroceutical” device, which can exchange electrical signals with the body. This month, the US National Institutes of Health announced $248m of new funding for research into mapping the body’s electrical fields and finding ways to tap into their health-care potential.

Perhaps the most advanced programmes are studies of how electricity can affect the brain’s performance. Tests carried out by US military researchers have shown that feeding a small current through the skull can provoke enormous gains in focus. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has applications in improving snipers’ performance – it doubles the speed with which they spot a threat – but could be applied much more widely if proved to be safe and effective. Research has shown that it could accelerate learning and even improve the efficiency with which people walk.

No one is yet quite sure how TDCS works but the tiny current seems to excite neurons, preparing them to fire more quickly and in a more co-ordinated fashion. So let’s assume, for the sake of maintaining our species’ dignity, that the University of Virginia students were exploring hidden paths to self-improvement. That will make us feel better than facing up to the attention-deficit disaster.

Michael Brooks’s “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” is published by Profile (£12.99)

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Collage by New Statesman
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Clickbaiting terror: what it’s like to write viral news after a tragedy

Does the viral news cycle callously capitalise on terrorism, or is it allowing a different audience to access important news and facts?

On a normal day, Alex* will write anywhere between five to ten articles. As a content creator for a large viral news site, they [Alex is speaking under the condition of strict anonymity, meaning their gender will remain unidentified] will churn out multiple 500-word stories on adorable animals, optical illusions, and sex. “People always want to read about sexuality, numbers of sexual partners, porn habits and orgasms,” says Alex. “What is important is making the content easily-digestible and engaging.”

Alex is so proficient at knowing which articles will perform well that they frequently “seek stories that fit a certain template”. Though the word “clickbait” conjures up images of cute cat capers, Alex says political stories that “pander to prejudices” generate a large number of page views for the site. Many viral writers know how to tap into such stories so their takes are shared widely – which explains the remarkably similar headlines atop many internet articles. “This will restore your faith in humanity,” could be one; “This one weird trick will change your life…” another. The most cliché example of this is now so widely mocked that it has fallen out of favour:

You’ll never believe what happened next.

When the world stops because of a tragedy, viral newsrooms don’t. After a terrorist attack such as this week’s Manchester Arena bombing, internet media sites do away with their usual stories. One day, their homepages will be filled with traditional clickbait (“Mum Sickened After Discovery Inside Her Daughter’s Easter Egg”, “This Man’s Blackhead Removal Technique Is A Complete And Utter Gamechanger”) and the next, their clickbait has taken a remarkably more tragic tone (“New Footage Shows Moment Explosion Took Place Inside Manchester Arena”, “Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Bruno Mars and More React to the Manchester Bombing”).

“When a terrorist event occurs, there’s an initial vacuum for viral news,” explains Alex. Instead of getting reporters on the scene or ringing press officers like a traditional newsroom, Alex says viral news is “conversation-driven” – meaning much of it regurgitates what is said on social media. This can lead to false stories spreading. On Tuesday, multiple viral outlets reported – based on Facebook posts and tweets – that over 50 accompanied children had been led to a nearby Holiday Inn. When BuzzFeed attempted to verify this, a spokesperson for the hotel chain denied the claim.

Yet BuzzFeed is the perfect proof that viral news and serious news can coexist under the same roof. Originally famed for its clickable content, the website is now home to a serious and prominent team of investigative journalists. Yet the site has different journalists on different beats, so that someone writes about politics and someone else about lifestyle or food.

Other organisations have a different approach. Sam* works at another large viral site (not Buzzfeed) where they are responsible for writing across topics; they explains how this works:  

“One minute you're doing something about a tweet a footballer did, the next it's the trailer for a new movie, and then bam, there's a general election being called and you have to jump on it,” they say.

Yet Sam is confident that they cover tragedy correctly. Though they feel viral news previously used to disingenuously “profiteer” off terrorism with loosely related image posts, they say their current outlet works hard to cover tragic news. “It’s not a race to generate traffic,” they say, “We won't post content that we think would generate traffic while people are grieving and in a state of shock, and we're not going to clickbait the headlines to try and manipulate it into that for obvious reasons.”

Sam goes as far as to say that their viral site in fact has higher editorial standards than “some of the big papers”. Those who might find themselves disturbed to see today’s explosions alongside yesterday’s cats will do well to remember that “traditional” journalists do not always have a great reputation for covering tragedy.

At 12pm on Tuesday, Daniel Hett tweeted that over 50 journalists had contacted him since he had posted on the site that his brother, Martyn, was missing after the Manchester attack. Hett claimed two journalists had found his personal mobile phone number, and he uploaded an image of a note a Telegraph reporter had posted through his letterbox. “This cunt found my house. I still don't know if my brother is alive,” read the accompanying caption. Tragically it turned out that Martyn was among the bomber's victims.

Long-established newspapers and magazines can clearly behave just as poorly as any newly formed media company. But although they might not always follow the rules, traditional newspapers do have them. Many writers for viral news sites have no formal ethical or journalistic training, with little guidance provided by their companies, which can cause problems when tragic news breaks.

It remains to be seen whether self-policing will be enough. Though false news has been spread, many of this week’s terror-focused viral news stories do shed light on missing people or raise awareness of how people can donate blood. Many viral news sites also have gigantic Facebook followings that far outstrip those of daily newspapers – meaning they can reach more people. In this way, Sam feels their work is important. Alex, however, is less optimistic.

“My personal view is that viral news does very little to inform people at times like this and that trending reporters probably end up feeling very small about their jobs,” says Alex. “You feel limited by the scope of your flippant style and by what the public is interested in.

“You can end up feeding the most divisive impulses of an angry public if you aren’t careful about what conversations you’re prompting. People switch onto the news around events like this and traffic rises, but ironically it’s probably when trending reporters go most into their shells and into well-worn story formats. It’s not really our time or place, and to try and make it so feels childish.”

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

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