Hoaxes are a phenomenon as old as humanity. But, in the internet age, with the dominance of social media, they can be multiplied on a massive scale.
Andrea Grignolio Corsini teaches History of Medicine and Bioethics at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan. He had addressed the subject of hoaxes at the largest European conference on neuroscience, the FENS Forum:
“Fake news tends to create exclusion dynamics between different social groups… it consists of information manipulated with something real or of manufactured origin, created for political purposes.”
Grignolio says that this has been going on for a long time. He recounts how the Donation of Constantine – a forged Roman imperial decree, by which Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope – was revealed as nothing more than a falsehood in 1440. The Italian philosopher Lorenzo Valla showed that the text used terms, expressions and grammar that did not exist in the Latin used at the time of the alleged drafting of the decree.
Since then, there have been manipulated texts against racial minorities, discoveries of life on the Moon (published by The Sun in 1845) and dozens of other examples of fake news well before the emergence of the internet. The new, digital version of this phenomenon has been a part of key events, such as the 2016 American presidential election, the Brexit referendum and the COVID-19 pandemic.
A research paper published last month in the journal Science explores the fierce fighting that took place between false and scientific information regarding vaccines at the height of the pandemic. Following a study of 1,365 Facebook pages, the researchers from George Washington University concluded that “the battle to get the best scientific guidance from Facebook users was lost to misinformation early in the pandemic, because some [parties] acted as dominant sources of guidance, while others were mostly recipients of it. When the acceptance of vaccines became essential, many parents – who were responsible for the health decisions of their young children and elderly relatives – had already reached out to anti-vaccine communities on social media,” explains Lucia Illari, co-author of the paper.
Another recent study carried out by the Communications Department at Carlos III University of Madrid has analyzed whether students between the ages of 11 and 16 are capable of distinguishing a hoax from real information:
“58.8% of the students [believed] a false headline about COVID, while 51.8% considered a headline containing a falsehood about immigration to be true,” says Eva Herrero, one of the study’s authors. The research also indicates that the majority of adolescents surveyed inform themselves through social media (55.5%), television (29.1%) and their family and friends groups (7.9%)… well ahead of online newspapers (6.5%) or radio (1%).
This last poll is very relevant. According to Grignolio, the vast new dimension of hoaxes is due to “a new social media ecosystem,” where falsehoods are generated by groups of like-minded users. In his opinion, the key elements of a virtually-circulated hoax are the “novelty or surprise” in its approach, the generation of “moral disgust,” polarization – which allows group feeling to be reinforced – and the appeal to emotions.
These elements subsequently reach the brain, where areas related to dopamine – which regulates emotion – and glutamate – the main excitatory neurotransmitter – are activated, explains Maria Antonieta de Luca, a professor of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Cagliary, Italy. Once the brain activity related to satisfaction is generated, the consequences are produced.
Ciara Greene, Director of the Attention & Memory Lab at University College Dublin, details how one of the main effects of disinformation is the formation of false memories:
“When people see fabricated news stories – or even doctored photos of events that never took place – they may not only come to believe that those events did indeed happen… they may also form a detailed memory of actually experiencing those events. This effect is more likely if the content of the fabricated material is consistent with your biases.”
“Memories,” she explains, “are stored and distributed throughout the brain. Every time we remember something, we actually reconstruct that memory. [Memories] are like Lego blocks.”
Research from the University of Texas has shown that sharing news articles with friends and followers on social media can prompt people to think you know more about a topic than you really do. Thus, false memory is exacerbated by the erroneous perception of knowledge.
“When people feel that they are more informed, they are more likely to make riskier decisions,” warns Adrian Ward, who participated in the research. Susan M. Broniarczyk – lead author of the paper on new articles – adds: “If people feel more informed about a topic, they also feel that they may not need to read or learn additional information about it.”
Is there a solution to all of this? A group of researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, in collaboration with Jigsaw – a unit within Google – think there is, especially after conducting an experiment titled “Inoculation Science.” The project consists of the creation of 90-second-long clips that familiarize viewers with manipulation techniques, so that they can better identify falsehoods regardless of the topic at hand.
Sander van der Linden, one of the researchers from Cambridge, says: “[This project] provides the necessary proof that psychological inoculation can easily be scaled to hundreds of millions of users worldwide.” Almost like a vaccine!
The videos improved the ability of people, from all walks of life, to spot misinformation. They also improved decision-making about whether or not to share harmful content.
“The inoculation effect was consistent between liberals and conservatives. It worked for people with different levels of education and different personality types. This is the basis for a general inoculation campaign against disinformation,” adds Jon Roozenbeek, lead author of the research from Cambridge.
Google has announced that Jigsaw will launch an immunization campaign on various social media platforms in Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, to preemptively halt emerging misinformation related to Ukrainian refugees. The campaign is designed to build resilience against harmful anti-refugee narratives, in partnership with local NGOs, fact-checkers, academics and disinformation experts.
The team argues that the inoculation method may be more effective than verifying each falsehood after it spreads. “Propaganda and lies are almost always created from the same pattern… fact-checkers can only refute a fraction of the falsehoods circulating online. We need to teach people to recognize patterns of misinformation, so they understand when they are being misled,” says Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol.
The researchers believe that the benefits of “vaccines” against disinformation would be greater if they were incorporated across all social media platforms. The estimated cost for each view is a mere 0.05 cents.
Unko Museum: Tokyo opens first poop museum to explore a taboo topic among Japanese youth | Culture
Among the many synonyms for excrement that exist in the Japanese language, the founders of the Tokyo Unko Museum chose the most candid one, unko, to name an irreverent space designed for female Instagram users. “My goal was for poop to stop being a taboo subject for young girls,” explains its creator, Masaru Kobayashi.
With Japanese influencers in mind, Kobayashi filled the museum’s rooms with toilets and poop-shaped pieces in shades of turquoise, fuchsia and lemon yellow. The colors follow the palette of the Japanese kawaii aesthetic, which combines the cutesy and the grotesque. Kobayashi explains that, far from being a cultural fad, kawaii is a natural extension of traditional Japanese culture. “At the pinnacle of world-famous kawaii culture is poop, a fragile material that disappears down the drain shortly after being brought into this world,” reads a sign at the museum entrance.
To revive the scatological enthusiasm of childhood, visitors are welcomed into a room equipped with nine colorful toilets, whose arrangement evokes the communal toilets of ancient Rome. A museum guide invites them to sit down, clench their fists and, after counting one-two-three, imagine that they are releasing a symbolic dump. When they get up, they find in their respective receptacles pieces of plastic poop, which resemble the poop emoji in striking pastel colors.
There are neon signs with the word poop written in 16 languages. A tearoom serves huge cakes topped with golden feces. Another room features colorful droppings that move when stroked like furry animals. Video games include flying poops. On small toilet-shaped blackboards hung on the wall, visitors are invited to make their own poop drawings.
Although there is a Japanese term for museum, Kobayashi chose the English “museum” to describe a thematic venue whose sole function is to create entertaining environments. Instagram is full of photographs of absurd and witty scenes from the exhibits: couples play-acting, sitting on separate toilets, young parents with blue poop on their heads, or the typical tourist photo featuring a huge illuminated poop. Kobayashi confesses that at first he feared that the unusual concept would be rejected. He felt better when older people started to visit, many of whom saw a generational change in the fact that young girls were openly talking about poop.
In the past three years, Kobayashi has created six such museums across Japan. He has received invitations to open another in Singapore and is in talks with several Asian countries where the subject of human poop lacks the taboo it has historically had in the West.
Classics authors in Japanese literature, such as Natsume Soseki, coined memorable phrases about poop’s “physiological pleasures,” and Junichiro Tanizaki devoted a long passage from his well-known essay Praise of the Shadow to the traditional toilet set in the middle of a garden, which is where “poets of all times have found abundant material for their haikus.”
Many Japanese children learn to write the complicated characters of their language with a series of popular books called Poop Exercises, which contain more than 3,000 humorous phrases related to the subject. For 17 years, Toto, which manufactures high-tech toilets, has held a poetry contest inspired by the subject in the senryu style, which consiss of a short humorous poem and is a relative of the haiku.
For Kobayashi, the evolution of the museum’s audience is apparent in their gradual migration from Instagram to TikTok. His intention, he says, is to continue creating playful spaces that provide moments of relaxation to contrast with typically Japanese solemnity. His next project is a railway museum where, unlike the rigorous Japanese rail schedules, no trains arrive on time.
The medieval monks who forged a nobleman’s will to appropriate a valuable church | Culture
The monks of the San Pedro de Cardeña monastery, in Spain’s Burgos province, had long had their eye on the Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco church in Segovia. But the substantial inheritance that the Count of Castile, Asur Fernández, and his wife Guntroda, bequeathed them made no mention of this Romanesque church surrounded by beautiful vineyards.
Such was the ambition of the monastery to own the church that two hundred years after the death of the Count, they forged the parchment on which his will was written. Their only mistake was an omission to remove all the copies of the authentic will. Now, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the University of Burgos have been able to demonstrate that the fraudulent document, considered until now to be the oldest of those kept in the Historical Nobility Archive in Toledo, is in fact a forgery from the 12th century, and not from the year 943, as it claims.
The document faked by the monks – officially known as OSUNA, CP.37, D.9 – is a parchment on which round Visigothic script records a donation from the Count of Castile to the monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña. Until now, the document was thought to be somewhat unique as hardly any original documents from the 10th century survive in Castilian Spanish. However, research has shown that it was actually drawn up two centuries later.
The research, to be made public shortly in the Medieval Studies Annual Report, has revealed which procedures were employed to doctor the will, as well as the motives that led the monks to do so. The forgers based their work on an authentic document stipulating a donation from the Count, inserting elements that were not in the original, in order to use it as evidence in potential lawsuits, two of which were subsequently filed and won by the monks.
The analysis of the document, carried out by Sonia Serna from the University of Burgos, has exposed anomalies both in its preparation and its writing. Serna explains that the scribe was accustomed to working with the 12th century Carolinian script, and made an effort to imitate the round Visigothic script typical of 10th century Castile. But anachronistic features crept into his work, such as the use of the Carolinian system of abbreviations and the adoption of anomalous solutions to abbreviate some words, elements that would not have existed in the 10th century. All the same, the forgery proved effective enough to win two court cases.
The forged document included a clause that ceded the church to the Burgos monastery
The original document used by the monk as a model for his forgery was lost. However, a copy survived in the collection of charters, known as Becerro Gótico de Cardeña and kept in the Zabálburu Library in Madrid. By comparing both texts, Julio Escalona from the CSIC History Institute verified that the monk copied the wording and appearance of the authentic will, but inserted a clause assigning the church of Santa María de Cuevas de Provanco to the monastery of San Pedro.
In 1175, the church of Santa María de las Cuevas was the subject of litigation between the monastery of San Pedro and the councils of Peñafiel and Castrillo de Duero. The Burgos monastery finally won by presenting the false parchment document and getting two monks to testify its authenticity. According to the experts, that document was the will filed in the Toledo archive, whose anomalous paleographic features are consistent with an elaboration in the second half of the 12th century, taking the original as a model.
“Its value does not lie in the anecdotal fact of its being or not being the oldest document in the archive [as was believed until now], but in showing how technical skills and moral and religious authority combined in this case to build a credible truth, capable of triumphing in a judicial scenario,” states the CSIC and University of Burgos study. “Ultimately, it reminds us that to fully understand any historical period, it is essential to understand how each period rewrites and manipulates its past.”
The monastery of San Pedro de Cardeña, where the forgery was made, was completely plundered by the Napoleonic troops during the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. The monks fled in terror and had to abandon all the treasures they had been guarding for centuries. One of the desecrated tombs was that of El Cid – or Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, with Napoleon’s soldiers selling off his weapons and remains throughout Europe. They even made engravings reflecting the plundering of the tomb of the legendary warrior. Today, a plaque states that although the remains of the Castilian hero are no longer here, his horse is buried in the monastery’s garden, though this may be no more than a myth.
Seven of Italy’s most enchanting Christmas markets in 2022
After two years of pandemic cancellations and restrictions, Italy’s Christmas markets will be back in full swing this festive season.
While the energy crisis means some towns are cutting back on lighting and limiting the hours of operation, there’s still plenty of magic to be found.
Whether your focus is on sipping mulled wine surrounded by snow-topped mountains, riding a ferris wheel, sampling German sausages or marvelling at light displays, Italy has something for everyone.
Without further ado, here are some of the country’s best Christmas markets in 2022.
One of Italy’s longest-running Christmas markets, the festive extravaganza in Bolzano’s Piazza Walther is also said to be the country’s largest, with around 80 stalls selling a variety of traditional handicrafts and local treats.
Resting at the foot of the snow-capped Dolomites, Bolzano’s pre-WWI history and proximity to the Austrian border means the city is steeped in Germanic influences, with a number of citizens speaking German as their first language.
This gives Bolzano’s Christmas market a German twist; expect to be offered candied fruit, apple strudel, cinnamon-spiced mulled wine and other alpine delights as you browse its chalet huts.
When? Until January 6th
Christmas balls on display in Bolzano’s Christmas market. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP.
While it hasn’t been running for quite as long as neighbouring Bolzano’s, Trento’s Christmas market has become almost as popular, with new stalls added every year.
Just like Bolzano, Trento is surrounded by maintains, which means you can take in views of stunning white peaks as you wander the old town’s cobbled streets warming your hands on a cup of vin brulè.
As usual, the market will be spread across Piazza Battisti and Piazza Fiera; the Trento city council has also published a calendar of key events happening every day as part of the city’s festive offering.
This year Trento’s Christmas market will have a ‘green’ focus – the use of clean energy, edible bread plates and recycled paper are all part of the concerted effort to limit the event’s environmental impact.
When? Until January 8th
Trento’s Christmas market has grown rapidly in recent years. Photo by ALBERTO PIZZOLI / AFP.
Throughout the month of December and into January, Milan’s Piazza del Duomo plays host to the city’s Christmas market, with almost 80 wooden huts popping up all over the main square.
Those who want to see Milan at its most Christmassy, however, will want to wait for the “Oh Bej! Oh Bej!” (“How beautiful! How beautiful!” in local dialect) festive fair held in the area surrounding the city’s castle, Castello Sforzesco.
This sprawling, centuries-old market is held to coincide with the Feast of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan’s patron saint, and is expected to take place as usual from December 7th-10th.
As a result of the energy crisis, Milan will turn on its Christmas lights two weeks later than usual this year, on December 7th – so you might want to time your visit accordingly if you want to witness the city’s illumination.
When? December 1st until January 6th (Piazza del Duomo market)
People walk across a Christmas market in downtown Milan as snow falls on December 8, 2021. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP.
Lake Como’s roving ‘Città dei balocchi‘ or ‘Toytown’ Christmas fair this year moves to Cernobbio, where visitors can expect to find the town’s Villa Erba park transformed into a winter wonderland.
Fairytale characters, singing trees and a talking tower will greet adults and children who enter the park, with admission free to all.
Festivities are due to kick off at 5pm on December 7th with the opening of Magic Light festival, a mesmerising light display with projections of moving images.
On December 8th – Italy’s Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which for many in Italy signals the start of the festive period – light displays on Cernobbio’s tree and in the old town will be switched on, heralding the arrival of Christmas.
When? December 7th until January 8th
Florence has a range of Christmas markets, but the largest and best-known is the one on Piazza Santa Croce in front of the beautiful Santa Croce Basilica.
It’s run by the organisers of the Heidelberger Weihnachtsmarkt in Germany, which means you can expect authentic bratwurst, stollen, Glühwein, lebkuchen biscuits and German beer, as well as Austrian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, French and Italian treats.
This one closes a full week before Christmas, so if you’re planning an Italy Christmas markets tour you might want to make Florence your first stop.
When? Until December 18th
Florence’s Christmas market is German-themed. Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP.
Like Florence, Verona’s Christmas market is a collaboration with that of a German city; in this case, Nuremberg’s Christkindlmarkt.
At the main market on Piazza dei Signori you can expect to find sauerkraut, potatoes and German sausage, as well as fried donuts made with ricotta and coated in chocolate.
In addition to those on main square, the market stalls – which this year number some 100 huts – will fill Cortile del Mercato Vecchio and stretch intro surrounding squares and streets.
This year’s festive offering includes a Santa Claus house, a children’s train, two skating rinks, and a range of musical events.
Be sure to look out for the city’s famous 70m-high, 82m-long illuminated shooting star sculpture in Piazza Bra – installed in November and dismantled in January every year since 1984, the sight has become central to the Veronese Christmas experience.
When? Until December 26th
Ensuring that Italy’s northern and central regions don’t get all of the glory, the Luci d’artista (Artist’s Lights) display in Salerno draws visitors from all over the world to this small city just east of the Amalfi coast.
This illuminated open-air exhibition runs the length of the main shopping street, up to the Christmas tree on Piazza Portanova, through the medieval city centre and up to the Villa Comunale public gardens.
Salerno’s Christmas market stalls occupy a stretch of the seafront, and this year will run from December 3rd-25th.
Accompanying the event will be a 55m-high ferris wheel, two jazz concerts, and a Santa Claus house (from December 10th to January 7th).
When? December 2nd until January 31st; Christmas market stalls December 3rd-25th.
The Luci d’artista lights display in Salerno attracts visitors from all over the world. Photo by MARIO LAPORTA / AFP.
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