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#BoycottUnited: does social media activism actually work?

What happens after #DeleteUber, #BoycottUnited, and #DumpKelloggs stop trending?

Over the last day, hundreds of thousands of people have decided they will never fly with United Airlines again. At least, that’s what you’d think if you believed that every user of the trending hashtag #boycottunited is true to their word. After a video emerged of United staff violently removing a passenger from a flight yesterday, the airline has faced a huge social media backlash, with hashtags such as #boycottunited and #dontflyunited soaring across the web.  

It would be safe to assume, therefore, that the airline is now a-less-polite-word-for doomed. The company’s stock has fallen 3.7 per cent, which in real terms means a loss of $830m. Bad news, right? In all honesty, it remains to be seen.

Social media boycotts are incredibly popular – but they have varied success. If you can cast your mind back to an entire five days ago, you will remember that Twitter users were invited to #boycottPepsi after its tone-deaf advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Though the company’s stock soared initially, it plummeted after Pepsi pulled its advert, a decision that was directly fuelled by social media outrage.

Yet it would be naïve to assume that Pepsi’s sales will suffer long term. Remember in 2014 when everyone boycotted Amazon because of an online petition? Of course you don’t. By their very nature, social media boycotts are immediate and ephemeral. To work, boycotts need to last.

The Trump Era has inspried numerous boycotts. But to what effect? The delay on quarterly sales reports makes it difficult to see whether last year’s backlash against New Balance, when a company boss seemed to endorse the controversial US President-elect, damaged the company. Twitter users set fire to their shoes and sales in New York decreased 25 per cent after the company seemingly backed Trump, yet in just a few days, mentions of the brand on Twitter became favourable again. In the past, brands have even deliberately orchestrated outrage in order to drum up publicity.

What about #DeleteUber, though? That must have been a success? Though 200,000 people deleted the app after it continued to serve airports during Trump’s “Muslim ban”, polls later revealed this was only a 5 per cent dip in popularity with the American public.

But is a dip in sales the ultimate aim of a boycott? Uber’s CEO stepped down from President Trump’s advisory board after the outrage, arguably making the hashtag a success. Even if sales aren’t actually affected, a trending hashtag can make a company feel very fire-emoji under the collar. Arguably, this means future decisions will be more carefully scrutinised, and hey presto, we have a better world for everyone.

Except nothing is that simple in our divided world. If Trump supporters decide to boycott Starbucks because it is hiring refugees, then Trump haters will #DrinkStarbucksToFightBigotry. While you and I boycott Uber and #DontFlyUnited, American conservatives boycott Budweiser and #DumpKelloggs. In a social media world where absolutely everyone has a voice, how do brands figure out who to listen to? If they listen to the loudest voices, it’s the right-wing boycotts that actually come out top, with negative social media mentions of Kelloggs (who pulled their adverts from right-wing site Brietbart) lasting longer than those for New Balance.

And is capitalistic wokeness really what we want? We want brands and companies to align with our own beliefs, until they do it in an incredibly lame way, à la Jenner and Pepsi. It is now apparent that many companies are trying to use social responsibility to boost sales, but this is widely seen as inauthentic and sort of gross. What, then, would a successful boycott look like? Surely not the number of little green Retweets pinging into your notifications tab?

Yet even though social media outrage isn’t always entirely altruistic, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Many criticise “slactivism” or “hashtag activism” for being lazy, but it is clearly an incredibly important and immediate way to register your anger. Change can never be as immediate as a Retweet, but that doesn’t render the Retweet worthless.   

United’s decision to violently pull a passenger off its flight will hopefully have long-term repercussions for the brand. The act was so viscerally disgusting that many passionately want the airline to suffer and its policies to change. Because of its stranglehold over some US airports, passengers may not desert it en masse. But what has happened – 762,000 negative mentions of the brand on social media – is hopefully permanently burned on the back of a CEO’s eyeballs.

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

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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