Issue 13


In this issue:

  • Twitter might not be amplifying political opinions equally.

  • How new tech from NASA can look billions of years into the past.

  • Real or fake? You decide.

  • Creatures doing amazing things: glowing plants, mice tracking crypto trends, and fish navigating vehicles


Time to deactivate our social media again.

We don’t mean to be dramatic, but Twitter and Facebook are poisoning your brain and might literally bring about the downfall of human society. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. But it is true that social media can significantly warp your perception of the world.

How so?

Twitter, for instance, doesn’t just show you an unbiased sample of tweets from accounts you follow. Instead, there’s a “personalization algorithm” at work in the background, trying to show you things it thinks you’ll like the most (FYI, you can turn that off, if you like).

That doesn't sound so bad.

You might think that at first, but when it comes to politics, the effects can be dangerous. Instead of giving you a balanced view of what political views people hold (including from those who disagree with you) the algorithm instead massively amplifies opinions from people you interact with and thus likely politically align with. Talk about an echo chamber.

How do you know this?

A group of concerned scientists conducted a study on Twitter feeds to quantify how echo-y this echo chamber really is. First, they collected data from legislators from left-leaning and right-leaning political parties, across seven different countries. Next, they quantified the amount of “amplification” these legislators received on Twitter. The scientists defined “amplification” by looking at how much the Twitter algorithm changed the likelihood that someone would see certain tweets. So if a politician had a 50% amplification, that meant that the algorithm made their tweets 50% more likely to appear on someone’s timeline, compared to if the algorithm were inactive.

What did they find?

Practically every legislator received amplification, sometimes of up to 400%. In 6 of the 7 countries studied, right-leaning politicians enjoyed more amplification of their tweets compared to left-leaning politicians. In some countries, the effects were quite dramatic. In Canada, for example, Liberals received 43% amplification on average, whereas Conservatives were amplified 167%. Someone give the Tories’ social media team a raise because they’ve clearly got Twitter figured out to a T.


The Leak: If you think your social media feeds accurately reflect the world, think again. Regardless of your political affiliation, chances are you are being gently manipulated by an algorithm into only seeing content that confirms your personal biases. Go on, delete that social media app. We’re rooting for you.


Think your commute is long?

Tell that to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that as of this week has arrived at its final intended location, a million miles away from earth. In case you haven’t heard, NASA launched a new telescope at the end of last year that has astronomers all over the world starstruck. Seriously — some scientists expect the JWST to “revolutionize our understanding of the universe”.

What makes this telescope so out of the world?

First of all, it can look really far. We know that probably sounds like something all telescopes can do, but the JWST can see a staggering 13.7 billion light years away (that’s billion with a “b”). Here’s why that’s a big deal. Light doesn’t travel instantaneously. In fact, a light year is, by definition, the amount of distance light can travel in one year. That means that if the telescope sees light from a star that is 13 billion light years away, it is actually seeing light that left that star 13 billion years ago. In other words, the JWST will allow us to witness things at the outer edges of the universe as they were in the past, just shortly after the Big Bang.

Anything else?

The JWST can also capture a whole lot of infrared light (IR). This is useful because astronomers can use IR to detect things that may otherwise be obscured by cosmic dust clouds (and you thought your apartment was messy). And we haven’t even mentioned the crazy technological feats that make this telescope possible.


The Leak: The James Webb Space Telescope is an extraordinary achievement that’s gonna teach us a buttload of cool stuff about the universe. Thanks NASA.

Thanks to Arya Mistry for sending us this story through the Leak Curator program!


That feeling when the CGI in a film is just slightly off.

If you spend as much time on the internet as us, you might've stumbled across a “deepfake” video (more on how they work here). These doctored videos can be used to quite literally put words in someone’s mouth. Alarming, we know.

In a new study, scientists asked human participants to identify whether or not a video was fake. They then compared the humans’ abilities to that of an algorithm designed to detect doctored videos. They found that people were as good as the algorithm at telling whether a video was a deepfake, but that the two picked up on different things and made different mistakes. The greatest detection accuracy came when people combined forces with the algorithm, given their complementary abilities. Now that’s a buddy cop movie we’d definitely watch.


If you thought houseplants were a lame gift...

Think again — these plants can glow in the dark (kinda like jellyfish). See them in person in NYC and the Bay Area soon!

Wish you could get rich by predicting crypto prices?

All you need to do is look inside a mouse’s brain. According to a new study, the activity of mouse neurons correlates very closely with fluctuations in Bitcoin prices. So are mice secretly crypto fortune tellers? 🔮 The more likely explanation is spurious correlations.

The future of fish mobility is now

In case you missed it:

  • Nature vs. Nurture: which is it? A new study shows that infants have brain activity that separates categories of stuff: faces, bodies, objects and scenes. 👶

  • Watch for our next issue in 2 weeks! 🙌

No spam ever - we promise.
Copyright © 2021 Lab Leaks - All Rights Reserved.