Jeremy Clarkson. Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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The neuroscience of Jeremy Clarkson

If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

The great Jeremy Clarkson drama is, at heart, a question of neuroscience. Can our brains, formed and tweaked over millions of years, adjust to modern times? Or are we doomed to let their ancient structures rule for ever?

Perhaps it helps to compare Clarkson to Sims, the central character in Jennifer Haley’s brilliant play The Nether. Both are accused of an ongoing series of only vaguely defined transgressions. Both are largely unrepentant. They consider themselves to be beneficent figures: they provide pleasure and entertainment, albeit of a kind that is frowned on by many. Neither see grounds for criminal proceedings: it is the tenor of their lives and their general proclivities that the authorities seek to rein in.

The difference is that Sims is an entrepreneurial paedophile. In The Nether, the internet has become a fully immersive experience, gratifying all the senses. Sims has created a virtual world where customers’ avatars are free to have sex with childlike avatars – and even slay them with an axe, if they wish.

Is this wrong? It is an unsettling question for the audience, especially since the set makes the online world an immersive experience for them, too. The online children are not real; they are the online personas of consenting adults. No one is physically hurt. The uncomfortable truth is that we have no rules for how virtual adults should behave, even towards virtual children. Technology has already outrun the evolution of our morals.

Sims exploits this. His creation, he says, mitigates against people with his proclivities offending in the real world. Their brains make them do these things, he says. He is merely providing an alternative path of action. Does he have a point? The scientific literature certainly associates paedophilia with specific abnormalities in the brain. In 2003, the Archives of Neurology reported the case of a man whose brain tumour had caused him to start sexually molesting his eight-year-old stepdaughter. When the tumour was removed, his sexual interest disappeared.

This month, German researchers have reported that there is “growing evidence that paedophilia is linked to both structural and functional brain abnormalities”. One of those abnormalities is in the areas of the brain that deal with impulse control. The question is, does that make us any less inclined to condemn behaviour when those impulses are acted upon?

It seems not. The American neuroscientist and philosopher Patricia Churchland puts it like this: “An explanation is not an excuse.” If humans can’t control themselves, they cannot be allowed the freedoms others enjoy: humans learn self-control, she says, in the same way that toddlers learn to control their bladders.

This brings us back to Clarkson. Top Gear creates a virtual experience for those who have learned to control their bladders but not their impulses to do (or watch) silly or dangerous things. The programme’s appeal is often described as adolescent – and with good neuroscientific reason: in teenagers, the frontal lobes are not yet fully connected. These are the structures responsible for assessing consequences and making judgements. The Clarkson issue is about whether this half-formed physiology and the appeal of its world-view can justifiably be exploited and enjoyed by adults.

Now, though, someone has allegedly been physically hurt. The incident invokes ancient brain structures that flood us with deep-rooted but possibly anachronistic moral certitudes. We, the audience, are left in turmoil and yet utterly compelled to watch as the BBC’s moral dilemma plays out. Having had its way with Jeremy Clarkson for so long, should the corporation now control that impulse towards the axe?

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 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

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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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