University of Minnesota Alumni Association



"Not Fake: Social Media and News," "Hacking the Food Supply," and "Silencing Bacteria."

Photo Credit: Jae Rue / Pixabay

Not Fake: Social Media And News

As newspapers and other print media face cost cuts and closings, more people are turning to social media for their news. A study coauthored by Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication Associate Professor Matthew Weber looked at this phenomenon by researching Today In, a Facebook application that provides local news for more than 6,000 cities and towns across the U.S., including those that are classified as “news deserts,” meaning they have no daily paper.

Using data provided by Facebook for February 2019, Weber and colleagues at Duke University set out to present a detailed analysis of the types of local news stories that surface on Today In, as well as examine user patterns to see which story categories—from breaking emergencies and crime stories to sports and politics—were most read. They also wanted to see if there was any correlation between the demographic and geographic characteristics of a community and the level of news coverage the application provided.

Their results showed stories that provide information defined as meeting “critical needs” are the most widely read; the critical need categories that received the greatest user interest were sports (31 percent), emergencies (28 percent), and obituaries (9 percent)—a pattern consistent with other forms of local media, and a result that refutes the prevailing wisdom that social media is the province of soft news. The study also found the communities that meet the requirements for Today In have larger populations and a higher percentage of college-educated, white citizens, meaning that disparities in news access exist in social media news, as well.

The results of this study appeared in the September 12 online edition of NeimanLab.

Hacking The Food Supply

We all know that cybersecurity is crucial to the safety of our bank and credit card accounts. But what about the food we eat? According to a report released by the University’s Food Protection and Defense Institute (FPDI), there is growing danger that technologies used to penetrate the financial and health care industries could also be employed against industries that process and manufacture foods, potentially endangering workers, the environment, and the general public.

The report says food companies are especially vulnerable because many of the systems they rely on to manufacture and distribute products were designed before cyberattacks became a concern. As a result, these operating systems may rely on hard-coded passwords, which are easier for hackers to access.

FPDI recommends food companies foster stronger communications between operations technology and information technology staff and involve staff who have cybersecurity expertise in instituting new industrial control systems. Above all, food manufacturers must expand their view of food safety to go beyond health and contamination risks to include cybersecurity.

“Cyberattacks could have financially devastating consequences for the food industry, particularly among smaller companies, and in the worst case can threaten the public’s health,” says Amy Kircher, director of FPDI. “We hope this report will raise awareness among food industry executives of this potentially severe risk, and will inspire them to start addressing it with the same care and urgency they apply to other aspects of food safety.”

Silencing Bacteria

A U of M professor believes there may be a better way to fight dangerous antibioticresistant superbug infections. Instead of attempting to wipe out a bacterial infection with antibiotics, Mikael Elias wonders what would happen if we were able to cut off the bacteria’s ability to relay the molecular signals they need to grow?

Bacteria adapt to their environment by forming biofilms, which are secretions of molecules that help them stick together. (Bacteria are most resistant to antibiotics when they are clumped together in these secretions.) To prevent these biofilms from forming, Elias, assistant professor of biochemistry, molecular biology, and biophysics, has designed an enzyme that cuts off the signaling molecule that bacteria create, preventing them from  communicating and growing. The enzyme can also target signals for specific types of bacteria, which would make the management of bacterial populations more precise. 

“What we are showing at this point is that we can use our molecules to inhibit biofilm formation, but in a very different way than antibiotics,” Elias told the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research. “This research is really the first comprehensive description of what happens when you suppress communication.”

This research was originally published in the March 29, 2019 issue of Frontiers in Microbiology.

As ever, our thanks to the team at the University News Service.

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