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Former investigative journalist to speak on parallels between fake news proliferation in Southeast Asia, rest of world

The proliferation of fake news is a global media phenomenon.
October 27, 2017

The reign of corrupt Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s and '80s was marked by a heavily controlled, strictly censored national media.

His fall from power in 1986 resulted in the removal of those constraints and a swell in independent reporting that came with a set of problems all its own, fueled by fierce competition and mounting sensationalism.

“It was a free for all,” said Sheila Coronel, professor, dean and director of the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

She was there to see it all happen, reporting for underground opposition outlets during Marcos’ final years in power, and then for mainstream outlets on human-rights issues and the growing democratic movement after his fall.

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, Coronel will speak to ASU students and faculty on the current state of the news media in Southeast Asia as part of the Center for Asian Research’s Asia Mediated Lunch and Lecture Series.

The talk, “Speaking Truth to Power in the Era of Fake News and Propaganda: Insights from the Philippines and Southeast Asia,” will examine how news media in the region — and elsewhere in the world — are being challenged by the online dissemination of “fake news” and propaganda.

“The challenge, especially for the ordinary citizen, is how to make sense of this deluge,” Coronel said.

Her talk will consider lessons learned from the not-so-distant past and how we might apply them to this modern-day conundrum in order to find truth amid an increasingly polarized and propaganda-rich media environment.

Here, Coronel explores the topic in advance with ASU Now.


Sheila Coronel

Question: What does news media in Southeast Asia look like right now?

Answer: The same things that are happening elsewhere in the world — including in the U.S. — are happening in Southeast Asia as well. The business model of independent journalism is failing. At the same time, the ubiquity of the internet and the availability of Facebook, particularly — which many Southeast Asians get for free on their mobile phones — have provided alternative channels for propaganda, misinformation and fake news, oftentimes overwhelming the work done by traditional news organizations.

There have been efforts by political parties and other groups to propagate this information to demonize certain sectors of the population, such as drug addicts in the Philippines, Muslims in Myanmar and non-observant Muslims in the case of Indonesia. This has led to the coarsening of public discourse as well as to the incitement to violence toward these demonized sectors of the populations.

Q: What was it like reporting under such tight restrictions during the Marcos dictatorship, to suddenly having freedom afterward?

A: During the Marcos dictatorship, most of the media was owned by either relatives or business cronies of Marcos and his family. So there was strict censorship in most of the newspapers, and everything we wrote was vetted or even photographed or censored. All photos of Marcos had to show that he was robust, strong and capable — especially during the last years of his dictatorship when he was very ill and underwent a kidney transplant. Many of the Marcos-controlled media outlets could not present that truth.

There was a big difference when he fell out of power. Before that, issues like human-rights abuses were taboo. All of that changed almost overnight. He fell in a popular uprising that lasted three and a half days. There was a new government, all the constraints on media were removed, the organization of media changed. People could report freely. But then what became the problem was the media environment became more competitive, there was sensationalizing of news, especially on TV. It was a free-for-all.

Q: What insights can Americans and the rest of the world glean from what happened then and what is happening now in Southeast Asia?

A: I think we all have the same problems in terms of dealing with the deluge of propaganda and fake news coming from various channels, produced by people who just want to make money or governments who want to make political gains. It has become increasingly difficult to stem the tide of hate speech, false information and propaganda, coupled with the real efforts of the government to demonize the press and destroy the reputation of the press as a purveyor of information. The challenge, especially for the ordinary citizen, is how to make sense of this deluge.

I remember there were demonstrations against propaganda in the last years of Marcos. There was a demand for freedom of information. The public saw the importance of a free press to defend their own rights. The U.S. is not under a dictatorship, but there are [people in power] who want to muddle the press. So it’s important to have public support; the crusade for a free press should not just be limited to journalists. A free press is strongest if it has popular support. That can be patronizing independent newspapers or going to the streets to demonstrate if press freedoms are threatened. The battle should be fought by citizens, not just the press alone.

Q: How does a free press help citizens defend their rights?

A: A free press is important to be able to express yourself freely and to be informed so that you can take action. In many ways, having a free press is a prerequisite for exercising your other rights. For example, your right to get public services. How do you know what rights you’re entitled to if you don’t have that information and the press doesn’t disseminate that information publicly? And there’s your right to hold the government accountable; you cannot exercise that right if you don’t have that information. Without the press providing information with which you can make decisions and can be informed about your rights and about your government, it’s impossible to exercise your full rights as a citizen.

Q: What can be done about the spread of misinformation right now?

A: Citizens need to be more critical of the information they receive. Social media is still quite new, so people have not yet been able to develop the skills and the faculties to be able to discern real information from false information. But also, this is media we’ve never seen before because it’s controlled by algorithms that are not transparent. We don’t know what information is being withheld from us. We don’t know whether we have been exposed to fake news, for example, because the speed and velocity with which news information is produced makes it nearly impossible to verify and to vet.

We’re at a very early stage of this phenomenon, so over time, I hope we will develop both technological and other means that are able to exercise some sense of control or rationality in this information technology ecosystem. Right now, people are confused and overwhelmed by propaganda, but over time, we will develop critical faculties and develop better means of vetting information.

'Speaking Truth to Power in the Era of Fake News and Propaganda: Insights from the Philippines and Southeast Asia'

What: Lunch and a lecture by Sheila Coronel of Columbia University as a part of the ASU Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language Asia Mediated Lecture Series.

When: Noon-1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31.

Where: West Hall, room 135, Tempe campus.

Admission: Free.

Details: Find more at the ASU Events site.

Emma Greguska

Reporter , ASU Now

(480) 965-9657

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ASU scientists show that a protein can be switched on and off to conduct electricity like a metal

October 27, 2017

Result, the first of its kind, could lead to a powerful new diagnostic tool in medicine

About four years ago, Arizona State University biophysicist Stuart Lindsay’s research team got a lab result that even he couldn’t quite believe. As with most scientific surprises, it goes against all conventional wisdom: the first evidence of a protein that could conduct electricity like a metal. 

It’s a result that could have important implications in medical diagnostics, but they didn’t quite accept it at first.

After years of trying to disprove the results himself and trying to account for every potential wrong avenue or detour, Lindsay and his research group have published their new findings in the advanced online edition of the Institute of Physics journal Nano Futures.

“What this paper is mainly testing out are all the alternative explanations of our data, and ruling out all of the artifacts,” Lindsay said.  

“Basically, we’ve eliminated all of those sources of 'I don’t believe this data' and we are still seeing this weird behavior of this huge protein conducting electricity. It’s still there and it’s beautiful.”

How it began

Lindsay has spent his career building new microscopes that have become the eyes of nanotechnology and next-generation, rapid and low-cost DNA and amino acid readers to make precision medicine more of a reality.

In the process, Lindsay’s research team has learned a thing or two about how single molecules behave when tethered between a pair of electrodes, which is the foundation for how his DNA readers work.

The technology, called recognition tunneling, threads single molecules down a nanopore like a thread through the eye of a needle.

As they go down the nano-rabbit hole, electrodes measure the electrical properties of these single DNA or amino acid molecules to determine their sequence identity.

Having spent a considerable amount of time building DNA and amino readers, they decided to give whole proteins a try.

“The thought was, that if you can specifically trap a whole protein between a pair of electrodes, you would have a label-free electronic reader,” said Lindsay, who serves as director of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics and as Regents’ Professor with ASU’s Department of Physics and the School of Molecular Sciences.  

The potential to have a nanotechnology device sensitive enough to identify a single protein molecule could become a powerful new diagnostic tool in medicine.

But the building blocks in every cell, proteins, were thought to behave electrically as inert organic blobs. Electronically, they were assumed to act as insulators, just like putting a piece of plastic over a metal wire.

“There is just a large amount of swept-under-the-rug data on the electrical properties of proteins,” Lindsay said. “There is one camp who dismiss these claims. There is another camp that says proteins are incredible electrical conductors. And never the twain shall meet, just like American politics.”

So four years ago, one of his graduate students at the time, Yanan Zhao, tethered a protein between two electrodes, turned up the voltage, and voila! The protein started performing like a metal, with a wild and “remarkably high electronic conductance.”

“If it’s true, it’s amazing,” Lindsay said. 

Where the weirdness begins

The first remarkable results were performed with a technology Lindsay helped spearhead, called Scanning Tunnel Microscopy, or STM. A glue-like protein, called an integrin, that helps cells stick together and assemble into tissue and organs, was used in the experiment.

Extending from the tip of the STM was another electrode attached to a small molecule, called a ligand, which specifically binds to the integrin protein. Once held in place, the STM has a lever arm and probe much like a stylus and needle on a turntable to bring the ligand in contact with its integrin target.

This is where the weirdness began.

“I just didn’t believe it, because what he saw were giant pulses of current when the probe was known to be a great distance from the surface,” Lindsay said.

That gap would have been too great for the electricity to flow through by electron hopping, or tunneling, as what occurs with Lindsay’s recognition tunneling sequencing technology.

Lindsay scratched his head in vain trying to match a theory to explain the phenomena.

“That data simply cannot be explained by electron tunneling,” he said.

Kick-starting a protein

A key turning point was Lindsay uncovering the work of theoretical biophysicist Gabor Vattay at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. Lindsay read a paper of his that basically suggested that an electrical fluctuation can kick-start a protein into being a great conductor or a great insulator.

“It’s just poised to do this fluctuating thing,” Lindsay said. “In our experiments, we were seeing this weird behavior in this huge protein conducting electricity, but it is not static. It’s a dynamic thing.”

The electronic spikes occurred with increasing frequency as they upped the voltage across the protein. And there is a threshold to cross.

“Below a certain bias, it’s just an insulator, but when the fluctuations start kicking in, they are huge,” Lindsay said.

“Because of this, I contacted Gabor, and he had to use some of the best supercomputers in Europe to analyze our large protein. Basically, there are three curves for the distribution of energy level spacings, one corresponding to a metallic state, another to an insulator state, and middle third, corresponding to the quantum critical state.

“Low and behold, our protein is in the quantum critical state, if you believe the theory.”

Next, Lindsay’s team was able to manufacture a nanodevice to more finely control another series of experiments, with a carefully sized gap to control the protein and the amount of voltage that can be applied to it.  

“In the device, you get this beautiful switching on and off of the electrical conductance of the protein,” Lindsay said. 

What’s next

The results have demonstrated that fundamental quantum forces are work to explain the way the integrin protein was behaving in the experiments.

It’s also upending the way scientists are viewing the electrical properties of proteins.

“There are people who are beginning to think of proteins as quantum mechanical objects,” Lindsay said.

Next, Lindsay wants to explore other medically important proteins and measure their behavior using the solid-state nanodevices.

Could proteins vital to health and disease turn out to behave like metals? Or insulators?

One thing is certain: An entirely new way of examining protein behavior has opened up new scientific vistas that previously Lindsay and many others didn’t think was possible.  

“I believe the data now, but it’s only one protein so far,” Lindsay cautioned.

And for Lindsay, a serial entrepreneur with successful ASU spin-out companies, he may have one more trick up his sleeve to translate a basic discovery into the marketplace.

In addition to Lindsay, Zhang and Vattay, the research team included Bintian Zhang, Weisi Song, Pei Pang and Peiming Zhang from ASU’s Biodesign Institute and School of Molecular Sciences, and Department of Physics and Istvan Csbai from the Department of Physics of Complex Systems, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary.

The work was supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute, Recognition AnalytiX and the Edward and Nadine Carson Presidential Chair fund. 

Joe Caspermeyer

Manager (natural sciences) , Media Relations & Strategic Communications