Censored by China, under attack in America: what’s next for WeChat?

Four years ago, Bin Xie was happy to sing the praises of WeChat. The IT manager from Houston had seen his pro-Trump blog, Chinese Voice of America, go viral on the app. 

Today, Xie stands firmly behind the president, but his relationship with the platform that fueled his rise has soured. The shift didn’t happen when Trump announced that he would ban the app, though: it came in 2019, when Xie’s account was temporarily suspended after he shared the results of Hong Kong’s district elections in a WeChat group with the note, “The pro-China candidates totally lost.” 

For Xie, who had long been tired of writing in purposefully bungled Chinese to confuse the platform’s censors (“like a kindergartener,” he says), this was the final straw. He started encouraging his followers to leave for alternative apps. 

And he was far from alone. For years, many Chinese-American WeChat users have become increasingly disillusioned with the platform’s opaque censorship and surveillance practices. While some have turned to alternatives, like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Line, most found that WeChat’s popularity meant it was impossible to leave. 

WeChat “is so important to the Chinese-American community,” says Steven Chen, who writes a popular liberal-leaning WeChat blog and helps nonprofit organizations use the platform. “But more importantly,” he adds, “we actually have to use it to communicate with our parents … the elder[ly] people in China basically only have WeChat.”

This level of nuance was lost when President Trump issued an executive order in early August that would have banned WeChat (as well as the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform TikTok) within 45 days on grounds of national security. While many Chinese-Americans actually agreed that WeChat deserved more scrutiny, few believed that Trump’s ban—seen as both another attack on Chinese-Americans and an example of the administration’s blunt force approach to US-China relations—was the right way to go about it.

‘A virtual Chinatown’

Since its creation in 2011, WeChat has become the undisputed messaging app of choice in China. With its 1.2 billion monthly active users, it is the world’s fifth-largest social network. 

For the service’s owner, Tencent, it has been a huge success, essentially acting as its own mobile operating system. It has an app store that caters to all of its users’ digital needs, combining the social features of Facebook profiles, time lines, and groups; the payment/shopping features of Venmo, Paypal, and Amazon; the geolocation and mapping functions of Google Maps; and, in the age of covid-19, even a health code program that predicts your likelihood of infection, which then determines your ability to leave your home, visit stores and restaurants, or travel.

In the US, WeChat’s user base is much smaller, numbering in the “single-digit millions,” according to Tencent America. They are mostly first-generation Chinese immigrants or others with strong ties to China, who mainly use the app for social activity and information sharing. 

Many of these immigrants are more comfortable conversing in Chinese than English, and Chinese is the main language in use on the app. Steven Chen is concerned that this has made WeChat into a “virtual Chinatown,” keeping “isolated first-generation immigrants from mainland China from the rest of the country and the broader range of political views,” as he wrote in a Medium post in 2018.

The limits are exacerbated by the censorship that, Chen says, everyone knows to occur on the platform. The issue is one that WeChat users—like all Chinese internet users—regularly navigate. (While American WeChat users aren’t necessarily subject to the same levels of Chinese internet policing, it is dramatically easier to create a blog through the Chinese arm of the app, which means that most content is still subject to the Chinese Communist Party’s rules.) Most people don’t have that much to worry about, says Chen, because “they’re not trying to overthrow the government.” But he acknowledges that he is “really careful” when publishing articles, and that he has had them removed in the past. So have Xie and three other blog owners I interviewed.

Online mobilization

At the center of these first-generation immigrants’ experiences on WeChat are its groups. They can be created by anyone but are limited to 500 members. Users can join an unlimited number of them and choose how their name is displayed in each one. 

In the beginning, groups were mostly nonpolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans have historically been one of the least politically active demographics in the United States. But this began to change in 2014, driven by two specific events.

The first was a proposition in California called SCA-5 that planned to restore affirmative action in university admissions. The move to allow race, gender, and ethnicity to be considered in these decisions was intended to ensure that more nonwhite students entered the University of California system, and a field poll conducted that year showed that Asian-Americans actually supported affirmative action at a rate of 69%.  

But first-generation Chinese-American parents—who were less supportive of affirmative action—panicked as rumors on WeChat and ethnic media suggested that the bill would result in racial quotas damaging the educational prospects of their children. They used WeChat to mobilize demonstrations and protests, many for the first time, and the bill was withdrawn under pressure, which the new activists considered a victory. 

In November of the same year, Peter Liang, a Chinese-American police officer in New York City, shot and killed a 28-year-old Black man, Akai Gurley. While white officers in controversial shootings had not been indicted—including Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York—Liang became the first NYPD officer charged for a shooting in over 10 years. He was indicted and later convicted. 

First-generation Chinese-Americans organized en masse via WeChat, believing that Liang had been unfairly scapegoated for the more frequent crimes of white officers. In the end, Liang was sentenced to five years of probation and 800 hours of community service. 

In the beginning, WeChat groups were mostly nonpolitical, reflecting the fact that Chinese-Americans have historically been one of the least politically active demographicsin the United States. But by the time the 2016 US presidential election took place, it captivated audiences on WeChat just as it did the English-language media.

The community’s interest in political participation grew. By the time the 2016 US presidential election took place, it captivated audiences on WeChat just as it did in the English-language media. 

And among those who benefited from the political activity was Xie. Chinese Voice of America was proudly pro-Trump, repeating right-wing talking points that, often, had already been debunked on English-language fact-checking sites. One article, titled “Banning pork has quietly begun across the United States,” typified how CVA tailored the messaging from right-wing publications to cater to the specific concerns of his audience. (Pork is an important part of the middle-class Chinese diet.)

In an interview I conducted with Xie in 2017, a few months after Trump had taken office, he described how WeChat helped his messages go viral. “If I publish it on WeChat, I’ll get thousands of hits,” he said. “If readers see something on their topic [of interest], they are going to spread it quickly to all their groups”—a much easier process than if he published on a website.

But Xie and his friends didn’t just publish articles and then sit back; they also actively engaged their readers, and their opponents, in vicious partisan debates that often dominated even the most nonpolitical groups. Their coordination made it seem as if most Chinese-Americans supported Trump. “The pro-Trump side was definitely louder,” recalls Ling Luo, a prominent Democratic activist who now leads a pro-Biden affinity group for Chinese-Americans; she ran her own WeChat blog, but she admits that in 2016, the Democratic side was not as prepared for the partisan fights that would take place in WeChat groups. 

Chen says he had never seen politics become as divisive for the community as they did during the 2016 campaign. “In previous years,” he says, “of course people supported different presidents,” but that did not mean that “people stop talking to each other,” or that they gave up friendships that had spanned continents, as they did now. 

At first, he attributed this to Trump himself, but when I pressed him further, he recognized that the app itself was a factor. “WeChat probably played a bigger role … and intensified the difference between the people,” he says. “It’s not as easy to use email or phone to fight.”

Two sides 

If 2016 revealed strong divisions in the Chinese-American community, at least the most ferocious political debates still focused on supporting or opposing the candidates. But this year, some users say the arguments hinge on something more existential: whether one is pro-China or pro-America. 

Both sides accuse each other of being “red guards,” referring to the youth militia groups weaponized during the Cultural Revolution to attack intellectuals and other “class enemies.” The insult implies that someone is a brainwashed ideologue doing another’s bidding. 

The Pro-China side might also use the more serious label “traitors to the Chinese race” (反华分子), while the pro-America side calls its opponents “CCP spies.” Both of these accusations carry serious weight, given China’s increased demand for loyalty from Chinese abroad, on the one hand, and the US government’s increased concern about Chinese espionage

One woman, who I’ll call Jan to protect her from potential retaliation, recalls an incident that provoked accusations of being anti-Chinese. 

Some time after Trump announced his ban, a member in one of her groups remarked, “WeChat is not innocent,” and suggested that people move to a more secure app, like Telegram. Another group member immediately jumped in, labeling him a traitor and accusing him of “moving people from a popular app to an app that nobody uses … destroying the grassroots movement.”

The escalation was immediate and dizzying. Pro-CCP users “always have the moral high ground,” she said, “sowing doubts” about the motives of others. 

She kicked the second member out of her group, but still, Jan has been haunted by a lingering question: Are these just typical internet trolls who happen to be pro-China, or are they part of something more sinister—a targeted attack aimed at dividing the Chinese diaspora?

Over the past few months, she’s been comparing notes with friends across the country who have had similar experiences. “We spent a lot of time cross-referencing,” she said. Many shared her experiences, with accounts posting the same kinds of divisive messages and using the same language across multiple groups. They also used the same avatars with the same pseudonyms, which they had not bothered to change between groups. 

Jan has become paranoid about CCP internet operatives, who are already notorious within China’s firewalled internet. There, they are known as the “50 cent army,” because of the apocryphal 50 cents that they make for every pro-China post. Besides, the CCP is known for its long-standing strategy of using its diaspora communities to help the motherland.

So, Jan wondered, was it really so strange to think that the CCP was targeting people of Chinese descent in the United States? 

“In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up moves to influence the diaspora communities around the world to advance Beijing’s interests, and the use of Chinese tech is a key component of this influence operation,” says Yaqiu Wang, a China analyst with Human Rights Watch. “One of the biggest victims of China’s authoritarian tech expanding abroad has been the Chinese diaspora.”

Jan has been thinking about leaving WeChat, or at least ceasing to express even the faintest of political opinions (including, ironically, suggestions to leave WeChat). 

But regardless of whether she leaves, she is afraid that the damage has already been done. She’s aware of the US government’s increased scrutiny of Chinese-Americans, which is not limited to the FBI but also includes the Department of Justice’s China Initiative. She is also afraid that she has been connected to potential CCP operatives just by virtue of being in the same WeChat groups. When it comes to Chinese-Americans, she says, the FBI “cannot distinguish between victims, collaborators, and masterminds.” 

Indeed, even before the latest wave of discrimination and hate crimes against Chinese-Americans during the coronavirus pandemic, and before Trump’s stubborn characterization of the disease as the “China virus” or “Kung flu,” anti-China sentiment in the United States had been growing. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, has called China “the greatest long-term threat to our nation’s information and intellectual property,” saying that a “whole-of-society” response from the United States is required to fight it. 

These kinds of remarks, civil rights advocates say, are already resulting in racial profiling, especially of scientists of Chinese descent. 

Backfiring ban

In late August, a group of WeChat users sued the Trump administration on First Amendment grounds. On September 20, the day the ban would have gone into effect, a judge in California’s Northern District Court granted the apps a preliminary reprieve. Since then, the ban has been making its way through the courts. The next decision is not expected until after the election, which might change everything anyway. 

Instead of pushing users away from WeChat, the threatened ban did the opposite. On August 6, when Trump issued his executive order, there was a spike in downloads of alternative apps such as Line, Telegram, and WhatsApp, according to data provided by the mobile apps insight company Apptopia. 

But it also led to a rush of downloads of WeChat itself. This bump was even more pronounced and prolonged around September 20, when the ban was scheduled to go into effect. 

It’s unclear from the data, though, whether or not anyone has deleted WeChat. 

For his part, Xie now splits his time between apps. “Everybody’s just like me,” he says with a chuckle. “Spend some time in WeChat, some time in Telegram, some time in Line … And, in fact, we enjoy better [the] replacements,” he adds, finding it freeing not to worry about group size limits or euphemisms and other creative ways to avoid censorship. 

But if WeChat was a “virtual Chinatown” before, it’s possible these shifts might end up exacerbating political divides. Before, at least, WeChat users could easily come across other Chinese-Americans with different opinions in the same groups. Now Xie, for example, runs a WhatsApp group for people censored by WeChat, while another woman invited me to a Telegram group that was decidedly pro-Trump. 

For Chen, the increased potential for unity is a reason for him to stay on WeChat. He could choose “to get out of the virtual Chinatown,” he says, but then he’d be leaving WeChat to other people. So even though he doesn’t think WeChat is a good long-term solution, he hasn’t abandoned it, because he wants “to fight to make [WeChat] a better place.”

While mainland America struggles with covid apps, tiny Guam has made them work

As covid-19 cases spiral out of control in the US, states are scrambling to fight the virus with an increasingly stretched arsenal. Many of them have the same weapons at their disposal: restrictions on public gatherings and enforcement of mask wearing, plus testing, tracing, and exposure notifications.

But while many states struggle to get their systems to work together, Guam—a tiny US territory closer to the Korean Peninsula than the North American mainland—may offer clues on how to rally communities around at least one part of the puzzle: smartphone contact tracing.

With no budget, and relying almost entirely on a grassroots volunteer effort, Guam has gotten 29% of the island’s adult residents to download its exposure notification app, a rate of adoption that outstrips states with far more resources. 

A collaborative effort 

Guam diagnosed its first covid cases in March, but a few weeks later, it gained international attention—and a much bigger case load—when a covid-stricken US Navy ship was ordered to dock at the Naval base on the island. Sailors who tested negative were quarantined in local hotels and forbidden from interacting with civilians.

Having so many positive cases on the island drove home how vulnerable the island really was—but it also created a lot of new volunteers looking for ways to help out. 

Around the same time, Vince Munoz, a developer at the Guam-based software company NextGenSys, got a call. The island was being offered a partnership with the PathCheck Foundation, a nonprofit that was building government contact tracing apps. Munoz immediately saw an opportunity to help his community fight this new threat.

“It is something you do to help other people,” Munoz says. “It empowers you to help reduce the spread of the virus.” 

Digital contact tracing is a potentially low-touch way for health departments to reduce the spread of covid-19 by using smartphones to track who’s been exposed. And even if exposure notifications aren’t the panacea many technologists hoped for, new research suggests that breaking even a few links in the chain of transmission can save lives. 

So Munoz’s team of volunteers connected with PathCheck—which was founded at MIT—and they started building an app called Covid Alert. Like the majority of America’s exposure notification apps, it uses a system built by Google and Apple and uses Bluetooth signals to alert people that they’ve crossed paths with someone who later tests positive. From there, they are urged to contact the island’s local health authorities and take appropriate action. Everything is done anonymously to protect privacy. 

After several months of testing and tweaking, the app was ready. But it was still missing an important piece: users. After all, any contact tracing app needs as many downloads as possible to make a difference. Munoz knew just the people to build buzz: the Guam Visitors Bureau. Tourism is massively important to the island, which gets more than 1.5 million visitors each year—almost 10 times the local population. In pre-pandemic times, the bureau helped tourists plan trips to Guam’s “star-sand beaches.” Staff jumped at the chance to help.

With assistance from Thane Hancock, a CDC epidemiologist based on the island, and Janela Carrera, public information officer for the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services, the team started building a marketing campaign.

“Because we didn’t have any funding, we decided to do a grassroots campaign,” says Monica Guzman, CEO of Guam-based marketing company Galaide Group, who works with the bureau. Guam is a very small community. We’re all either related or neighbors or friends.”

While PathCheck and Munoz’s development team worked on building the app, the Visitors Bureau began reaching out to community groups and nonprofits to build awareness. It hosted Zoom calls with organizations, schools, and cultural groups across the island with the message that the app could help suppress the virus, if enough people were willing to “be a covid warrior.”

“The schools, the government agencies, the media, they all jumped on board,” Carrera says.

Together, these efforts are part of what ethics researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology recently called the “piecemeal creation of public trust.” To get people to use a novel technology like exposure notification, you have to reach people where they live and get buy-in from community leaders. 

It takes a village (on WhatsApp)

Once the app was ready to launch in September, it was time to get the word out. 

The day before the official launch, Visitors Bureau marketing manager Russell Ocampo sent a message about the app to Guam’s notoriously large and unruly WhatsApp groups. That message ricocheted around the island, resulting in almost 3,000 downloads immediately. “I received it back like 10 times from other people,” he says. 

A further 6,000 people signed up the next day during a press conference, including the governor, who downloaded it while live on the air. 

The effort received a show of support that many US states and territories could only dream of. All three major telecom companies on the island sent free texts encouraging people to download the app. A local TV station, meanwhile, ran a two-hour “download-a-thon,” to try driving uptake. The show featured performances by local musicians, interspersed with information about the app, including debunking myths about privacy and other ongoing concerns. Viewers were offered the chance to win $10,000 in prize money, much of it donated personally by Guam Visitors Bureau members and others who worked on the app, if they could prove they downloaded the app during the program. 

The Guam Visitors Bureau has offered other cash prizes for government agencies whose employees rack up the most downloads. And small businesses, eager to get the economy back on its feet, have offered give-aways to customers — one shopping center is offering a box of chocolates to visitors who download the app.

Challenges

But, crucially, has the app worked? Despite a successful launch, Guam’s covid-19 response has faced major challenges overall. Many people, especially those from minority ethnic groups who came to Guam from other Pacific islands, live in multi-generational, overcrowded housing, often with limited access to healthcare and even basic hygiene tools like municipal sewage. The health department recently launched door-to-door testing in these neighborhoods, and found positivity rates as high as 29%.

At the beginning of April, the governor’s office projected that the virus could kill 3,000 people—almost 2% of the island’s population—over the next five months. That dire prediction has yet to come true. As of Monday, Nov. 30, 112 people have reportedly died of covid on the island. Overall, the territory’s trajectory has been typical of America itself: Cases remained low through most of the summer, before ticking steadily up through the fall and spiking in early November. 

While a large proportion of residents have downloaded the app, one major challenge has been getting people to upload positive test results. This is in part because people are often in shock when they first receive the news about their diagnosis, according to Janela Carrera, the health department officer.

Contact tracers call everyone who tests positive, and part of their script involves recommending that people upload their positive result: That’s how the app knows to send (anonymous) exposure notifications to people who’ve been near each other. But that first call can feel extremely stressful, and it’s not a great time to suggest they try out a new app or go through the process of entering a special numerical code that kicks off the chain of notifications. 

“Especially if they’re symptomatic, they may feel like, ‘oh my gosh, I may not make it through this,’ or ‘I might be infecting others in my home.’ So [contact tracers] follow up with them a few days later, once they’ve had a chance to recuperate, and offer the code then,” Carrera says.

Clearly, though, some people are uploading the codes. “I’ve had co-workers tell me, ‘Janela, oh my God, I got a notification!’” Carrera says. Ocampo himself received one in October, and quarantined for 14 days. 

This is boosted by the fact that when public health workers do their door-to-door testing, they offer information about how to download the app. At the same time, other strategies, often shared through multilingual PSAs on local radio, may be more effective for people in these communities, who often don’t use smartphones for anything more than texting, according to Munoz.

Guam faces one other challenge that’s very common worldwide. It’s difficult to know exactly what effect the app is having, says Sam Zimmermann, CTO of PathCheck Foundation.

Zimmermann says: “Because Guam cares a lot about privacy and making sure their systems are safe, their app doesn’t have any kind of analytics or logging,” like whether users actually learn how the app works after downloading it or whether they pay attention if they receive an exposure notification. 

Still, while the team launched the app hoping to achieve a 60% download rate based on an early mathematical model, there’s now evidence that even a much smaller portion of the population using it may have a positive impact.

Munoz, for one, hopes the app will help take pressure off health officials doing labor-intensive outreach like door-to-door testing.

“Manual contact tracers have a very difficult job. They can’t keep up with everyone who tests positive,” Munoz says. “Any little percentage helps.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

DeepMind’s protein-folding AI has solved a 50-year-old grand challenge of biology

DeepMind has already notched up a streak of wins, showcasing AIs that have learned to play a variety of complex games with superhuman skill, from Go and StarCraft to Atari’s entire back catalogue. But Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s public face and co-founder, has always stressed that these successes were just stepping stones towards a larger goal: AI that actually helps us understand the world.

Today DeepMind and the organizers of the long-running Critical Assessment of protein Structure Prediction (CASP) competition announced an AI that should have the huge impact that Hassabis has been after. The latest version of DeepMind’s AlphaFold, a deep-learning system that can accurately predict the structure of proteins to within the width of an atom, has cracked one of biology’s grand challenges. “It’s the first use of AI to solve a serious problem,” says John Moult at the University of Maryland, who leads the team that runs CASP.

A protein is made from a ribbon of amino acids that folds itself up with many complex twists and turns and tangles. This structure determines what it does. And figuring out what proteins do is key to understanding the basic mechanisms of life, when it works and when it doesn’t. Efforts to develop vaccines for covid-19 have focused on the virus’s spike protein, for example. The way the coronavirus snags onto human cells depends on the shape of this protein and the shapes of the proteins on the outsides of those cells. The spike is just one protein among billions across all living things; there are tens of thousands of different types of protein inside the human body alone.      

In this year’s CASP, AlphaFold predicted the structure of dozens of proteins with a margin of error of just 1.6 angstroms—that’s 0.16 nanometers, or atom-sized. This far outstrips all other computational methods and for the first time matches the accuracy of experimental techniques to map out the structure of proteins in the lab, such as cryo-electron microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance and x-ray crystallography. These techniques are expensive and slow: it can take hundreds of thousands of dollars and years of trial and error for each protein. AlphaFold can find a protein’s shape in a few days.

The breakthrough could help researchers design new drugs and understand diseases. In the longer term, predicting protein structure will also help design synthetic proteins, such as enzymes that digest waste or produce biofuels. Researchers are also exploring ways to introduce synthetic proteins that will increase crop yields and make plants more nutritious.

“It’s a very substantial advance,” says Mohammed AlQuraishi, a systems biologist at Columbia University who has developed his own software for predicting protein structure. “It’s something I simply didn’t expect to happen nearly this rapidly. It’s shocking, in a way.”

“This really is a big deal,” says David Baker, head of the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington and leader of the team behind Rosetta, a family of protein analysis tools. “It’s an amazing achievement, like what they did with Go.”

Astronomical numbers

Identifying a protein’s structure is very hard. For most proteins, researchers have the sequence of amino acids in the ribbon but not the contorted shape they fold into. And there are typically an astronomical number of possible shapes for each sequence. Researchers have been wrestling with the problem at least since the 1970s, when Christian Anfinsen won the Nobel prize for showing that sequences determined structure.

The launch of CASP in 1994 gave the field a boost. Every two years, the organizers release 100 or so amino acid sequences for proteins whose shapes have been identified in the lab but not yet made public. Dozens of teams from around the world then compete to find the correct way to fold them up using software. Many of the tools developed for CASP are already used by medical researchers. But progress was slow, with two decades of incremental advances failing to produce a shortcut to painstaking lab work.   

CASP got the jolt it was looking for when DeepMind entered the competition in 2018 with its first version of AlphaFold. It still could not match the accuracy of a lab but it left other computational techniques in the dust. Researchers took note: soon many were adapting their own systems to work more like AlphaFold.

This year more than half of the entries use some form of deep learning, says Moult. The accuracy overall was higher as a result. Baker’s new system, called trRosetta, uses some of DeepMind’s ideas from 2018. But it still came a “very distant second,” he says.

In CASP, results are scored using what’s known as a global distance test (GDT), which measures on a scale from 0 to 100 how close a predicted structure is to the actual shape of a protein identified in lab experiments. The latest version of AlphaFold scored well for all proteins in the challenge. But it got a GDT score above 90 for around two thirds of them. Its GDT for the hardest proteins was 25 points higher than the next best team, says John Jumper, who heads up the AlphaFold team at DeepMind. In 2018 the lead was around six points.

A score above 90 means that any differences between the predicted structure and the actual structure could be down to experimental errors in the lab rather than a fault in the software. It could also mean that the predicted structure is a valid alternative configuration to the one identified in the lab, within the range of natural variation.

According to Jumper, there were four proteins in the competition that independent judges had not finished working on in the lab and AlphaFold’s predictions pointed them towards the correct structures.

AlQuraishi thought it would take researchers 10 years to get from AlphaFold’s 2018 results to this year’s. This is close to the physical limit for how accurate you can get, he says. “These structures are fundamentally floppy. It doesn’t make sense to talk about resolutions much below that.”

Puzzle pieces

AlphaFold builds on the work of hundreds of researchers around the world. DeepMind also drew on a wide range of expertise, putting together a team of biologists, physicists and computer scientists. Details of how it works will be released this week at the CASP conference and in a peer-reviewed article in a special issue of the journal Proteins next year. But we do know that it uses a form of attention network, a deep-learning technique that allows an AI to train by focusing on parts of a larger problem. Jumper compares the approach to assembling a jigsaw: it pieces together local chunks first before fitting these into a whole.

DeepMind trained AlphaFold on around 170,000 proteins taken from the protein data bank, a public repository of sequences and structures. It compared multiple sequences in the data bank and looked for pairs of amino acids that often end up close together in folded structures. It then uses this data to guess the distance between pairs of amino acids in structures that are not yet known. It is also able to assess how accurate these guesses are. Training took “a few weeks,” using computing power equivalent to between 100 and 200 GPUs.

Dame Janet Thornton at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK, has been working on the structure and function of proteins for 50 years. “That’s really as long as this problem has been around,” she said in a press conference last week. “I was beginning to think it would not get solved in my lifetime.”

Many drugs are designed by simulating their 3D molecular structure and looking for ways to slot these molecules into target proteins. Of course, this can only be done if the structure of those proteins is known. This is the case for only a quarter of the roughly 20,000 human proteins, says Thornton. That leaves 15,000 untapped drug targets. “AlphaFold will open up a new area of research.”

DeepMind says it plans to study leishmaniasis, sleeping sickness, and malaria, all tropical diseases caused by parasites, because they are linked to lots of unknown protein structures.

One drawback of AlphaFold is that it is slow compared to rival techniques. AlQuraishi’s system, which uses an algorithm called a recurrent geometrical network (RGN), can find protein structures a million times faster—returning results in seconds rather than days. Its predictions are less accurate, but for some applications speed is more important, he says.

Researchers are now waiting to find out exactly how AlphaFold works. “Once they describe to the world how they do it then a thousand flowers will bloom,” says Baker. “People will be using it for all kinds of different things, things that we can’t imagine now.”

Even a less accurate result would have been good news for people working on enzymes or bacteria, says AlQuraishi: “But we have something even better, with immediate relevance to pharmaceutical applications.”

How VCs can avoid another bloodbath as the clean-tech boom 2.0 begins

Last decade’s clean-tech gold rush ended in disaster, wiping out billions in investments and scaring venture capitalists away for years.

But a new investment boom is building again, this time around a broader set of climate-related technologies. Funding has soared more than 3,750% since 2013, according to a PwC report this fall, as numerous climate-focused venture firms emerge and established players return to the field (including some that got scorched the last time). Investments are poised to rise further as market, policy, and technological forces align to make venture capitalists and entrepreneurs more confident.

One of these factors is President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to push through climate-friendly legislation, regulations, and executive orders. There are also rising hopes that Congress will pass stimulus bills that would funnel massive amounts of money into clean tech, much as the Obama administration did during the global financial crisis.

Regardless of what happens on the US federal level, growing numbers of states, nations, and corporations are committing to achieve net zero emissions in the coming decades. Those targets alone promise to create significant demand for clean energy and other climate-related technologies.

“Climate has many, many problems, with many different solutions—and that will create many opportunities to build big, valuable companies,” Andrew Beebe, managing director of Obvious Ventures, which invests in clean-energy and transportation startups, said in an email. “From batteries to mobility to energy efficiency to carbon capture and beyond.”

The ultimate size and fate of the next boom, however, could depend on how quickly and fully the economy recovers from the devastating covid-driven downturn—and how well investors learned their lessons from the last bust.

What went wrong

The original clean-tech boom was a bloodbath. Investors plowed some $25 billion into startups from 2006 to 2011—but they lost more than half their money in the end, according to an MIT Energy Initiative analysis in 2016. In fact, more than 90% of the companies funded after 2007 didn’t even return the capital invested.

A variety of factors were to blame.

The global recession dried up the market for new or follow-on investments. The collapse of silicon prices as China scaled up solar panel production hammered thin-film startups and others pursuing alternative approaches. And the advanced biofuel sector struggled to compete as the downturn undercut oil prices and the rise of fracking tapped into new domestic natural-gas reserves.

But the MIT analysis concluded that “external economic trends” weren’t the primary problem. The bigger issue was that startups still deep in the research-and-development stage were a poor fit with the venture capital industry, which was counting on the sorts of high returns in three to five years that it enjoyed in software.

Clean-tech companies required too much money and time to demonstrate and scale up their technologies, says John Weyant, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford, who coauthored a book examining what went wrong.

Advanced biofuels, thin-film solar companies, and all sorts of energy storage startups of the era were simply too immature and too expensive to be commercialized—and in many cases they remain so today. Weyant’s book also concludes that while clean-tech founders may have had ample experience developing technologies, many had little in building manufacturing capacity and operating businesses. That made it hard to compete in commodity fields with powerful incumbent players and ultra-thin margins.

The next boom

A lot has changed since then.

Clean technologies themselves have gotten better and cheaper. Renewables can now largely compete directly on cost with coal and natural-gas plants, following a massive buildout of manufacturing plants and solar and wind farms around the globe. Likewise, the improving price and performance of lithium-ion batteries is making electric vehicles more attractive to consumers and automakers.

“Despite the headwinds of the Trump administration, the march to clean energy and a clean economy is moving full speed ahead,” says Nancy Pfund, founder and managing partner at DBL Partners.

Meanwhile, Japan, the European Union, and China have all committed to effectively decarbonize their economies by around midcentury. Similarly, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and even fossil-fuel giants like BP, Shell, and Total have all announced “net zero” emissions plans.

Together, these trends have eliminated the technical risks from big parts of the clean-tech sector and set the stage for the development of major new markets. And little of this has been lost on investors.

From 2013 to 2019, early-stage investments in climate-related tech leaped from about $420 million to more than $16 billion, according to the PwC report. That’s three times the growth rate of venture investments into artificial intelligence, itself a booming market in recent years.

A number of venture capital firms dedicated to climate change have emerged during the last few years, including Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Congruent Ventures, Energy Impact Partners, G2VP, Greentown Labs, Lowercarbon Capital, and Powerhouse.

The field is also drawing heavy investment from generalist venture capital firms like Softback, Founders Fund, Sequoia Capital, Y Combinator, and the two firms most closely associated with the first clean-tech boom and bust, Kleiner Perkins and Khosla Ventures. Union Square Ventures is raising a dedicated climate fund of $100 to $200 million, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.

And corporations themselves have launched their own funds, including Amazon’s Climate Pledge Fund, Microsoft’s Climate Innovation Fund, and Unilever’s Climate & Nature Fund.

Emily Kirsch, founder and chief executive of Oakland-based Powerhouse, says that Biden’s arrival in the White House could immediately boost the market for electric cars, batteries, and charging infrastructure. During the campaign, the president-elect pledged to sign a series of “day one” executive orders, including ones that would raise fuel economy standards and steer hundreds of billions in annual government spending toward clean power and vehicles, she notes.

Emily Kirsch, founder and chief executive of Oakland-based Powerhouse.
COURTESY: POWERHOUSE

The administration’s goal of installing 500 million solar panels and 60,000 wind turbines within five years, in part by opening up federal lands for such developments, will also significantly expand the US market for renewables. And the plan to create a new Energy Department moonshot research program focused on climate, known as ARPA-C, could accelerate advances in green hydrogen, long-duration energy storage, and cleaner ways of producing steel, concrete, and chemicals, Kirsch says.

What has changed

But how different will things be this time around?

Varun Sivaram, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and one of the authors of the MIT report, says there are several ways that investors can avoid the previous mistakes. They can invest at later stages, when the technological risk has been addressed; focus on digital and software opportunities that don’t require the buildout of massive factories or plants; adopt an investment model that doesn’t count on returns as rapidly; and look for technologies that slot into, rather than compete against, existing ways of manufacturing products.

All these things are happening to various degrees.

Bill Gates’s $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund—which includes investments from two of the most prominent VCs of the last boom, John Doerr and Vinod Khosla—invests on 20-year cycles. Likewise, MIT’s “tough tech” incubator, The Engine, doesn’t count on earning its money back for 12 to 18 years.

The current investment cycle is also far more diversified.

While the first boom was primarily about cleaning up the power sector and early efforts to address transportation—and was particularly concentrated on thin-film solar, electric cars, and advanced biofuels—venture capital is now ranging more widely. VCs are funding protein-replacement companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods; startups developing cleaner ways of producing cement and steel, like CarbonCure Technologies and Boston Metal; businesses working on carbon removal and recycling, like Climeworks and Opus 12; companies supporting the creation of carbon offsets and markets, like Pachama, Indigo Ag, and Nori; and those offering ways to reduce the wildfire risks associated with climate change, such as Zonehaven, Buzz Solutions, and Overstory.

New boom, new risks

Every investor interviewed for this piece stressed that the technologies have matured, the market is now ripe for these companies, and the hard-won lessons from the last bust have been internalized.

But each new boom invariably creates excessive hype around certain sectors and players, and ultimately reveals deeper market pitfalls than were obvious at the start.

Some risks are already clear. The fragile economy could still take a deeper dive or require a long time to really recover, potentially limiting the availability of capital for major investments and projects. In addition, powerful incumbent fossil-fuel players will continue to battle hard to retain their market dominance, and plenty of groups and politicians will keep up the fight against ambitious climate policies.

And it would take a lot of costly supporting infrastructure to make some of these bets really pay off, like pipelines to transport captured carbon dioxide or a modernized grid to accommodate rising shares of renewable power.

Sivaram says that certain markets might already be getting a little frothy, including those for electric vehicles. Some of the investments going into carbon-removal and carbon-market startups have also raised eyebrows among close observers of those spaces.

The bigger risk, however, is still that promising technologies won’t get the early funding they need to develop into successful businesses, Sivaram adds.

With most VCs again avoiding long-term investments this time around and steering clearer from technical risks, increasingly generous public funding will be needed to ensure the breakthroughs that will drive costs down further and fill in some of the critical gaps in clean energy. Whether Biden can direct enough federal money to seed the marketplace with the next generation of startups could be one of the crucial factors determining how sustainable and long-lasting this boom will be.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will be tested in a new trial after questions over its data

The news: The Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine will be tested in a new global trial, AstraZeneca’s CEO, Pascal Soriot, has told Bloomberg. Previously it had been expected to just add an arm to its existing US trial. The news comes amid criticism of the way it has collected and presented its data so far.

The specifics: An announcement on Monday that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could protect up to 90% of people against coronavirus generated huge excitement. It was the third vaccine candidate reporting positive results and held particular promise for poorer nations, as it is cheaper than the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech candidates and can be stored at fridge temperature.

However, the 90% claim came into question after it was pointed out the vaccine’s overall efficacy was 62 to 70% in trials in Brazil and in the UK, while the 90% figure was reached only among fewer than 3,000 participants who were given a lower dose as a result of an error. Researchers can’t explain why the accidental lower dose proved more effective. So AstraZeneca plans to run another trial, testing just this lower-dose regimen. “Now that we’ve found what looks like a better efficacy we have to validate this, so we need to do an additional study,” Soriot told Bloomberg. He said that because the efficacy is high, a smaller number of patients would be needed.

Age issues: There are also concerns that the low-dose group didn’t include anyone over the age of 55, so this second trial should give researchers the chance to confirm the vaccine’s efficacy in older populations. The US Food and Drug Administration may also demand more data from a wider range of ethnicities, ages, and genders before it grants approval. The full peer-reviewed data from the original trial is set to be published in The Lancet in the coming days.

The apps keeping Rio’s residents safe from stray bullets

Julia Borges was at her cousin’s 12th birthday party when she was shot. The 17-year-old had been standing on a third-floor balcony when a stray bullet hit her in the back, lodging in the muscle between her lungs and aorta.

That was November 8. Luckily, Borges was taken to hospital and has since recovered. Many are not so fortunate. At least 106 people have been killed by stray bullets in Rio this year so far.

Among the most dangerous areas are the narrow streets of the city’s favelas, where more than a million people currently live. Here, the houses are piled up on each other, and the alleys that wind between them are dotted with small squares. These same streets regularly echo with the sounds of gunfire: shooutouts between police and drug traffickers, rival groups of traffickers, or even police-backed militias take place on a daily basis.

Innocent victims are often caught in the crossfire. In many cases residents must lie on the floor or create barricades to hide from stray bullets as they wait for a truce. In 2019, Rio saw an average of 20 shootings a day. Things have cooled slightly since the pandemic began, but there was still an average of 14 shootings every day up until the end of June. Around 1,500 people are shot dead in Rio’s metropolitan area every year.

Living in Rio is like “being a hostage to violence,” says Rafael César, who lives in the neighborhood of Cordovil, west of the city. 

screenshot of FogoCruzado app
A screenshot of Fogo Cruzado
FOGOCRUZADO VIA GOOGLE PLAY

Like many residents, César has started using apps to help keep himself safe. These crowdsourced apps help users keep track of dangerous zones on their way home and let residents warn others about which areas to avoid. 

One of the most popular apps, Fogo Cruzado (Cross Fire), was started by a journalist named Cecilia Olliveira. She had planned to do a story about victims of stray bullets in the city, but the information she needed was not available. So in 2016 she set up a Google Docs spreadsheet to collect information about shootings, logging where and when they happened, how many victims there were, and more. That same year, with the help of Amnesty International, the spreadsheet was turned into an app and a database to help those monitoring and reporting on armed violence. The app has been downloaded over 250,000 times and covers both Rio and Recife.

A user who hears gunshots can log it as an incident on the app. The information is verified and cross-checked by the Fogo Cruzado team with the support of a network of activists and volunteers and then uploaded to the platform, triggering a notification for users. Fogo Cruzado also has a team of trusted collaborators who can instantly upload information without such vetting. Users can subscribe to receive updates whenever they are heading toward a zone considered dangerous—such as a favela that’s known to have had recent shootings, or one that is currently contested by gangs. 

Fogo Cruzado is used by local residents who are planning on leaving home to work or need to check if it’s safe to return afterwards, says Olliveira. 

“I started using the Fogo Cruzado because there were frequent police operations in a region I was passing through every day,” says journalist Bruno de Blasi. He says that WhatsApp groups were full of rumors and false reports of shootings, so he decided to use the app as a way to “avoid unnecessary scares.”  

Like many in the city, he has had his own experience of being close to a shootout. He recalls one that began on the street where he lives. 

“The feeling was horrible, especially because that street was considered one of the safest and quietest in the neighborhood, which is also where the police battalion is,” he says. “Suddenly I had to stay away from the window of my own room because of the risk of a stray bullet. It was very tense.”

Fogo Cruzado has also worked with a number of other organizations to create a new map of armed groups in Rio de Janeiro. The map, which was launched in October, is designed to keep the city’s residents up to date about which areas are currently dominated by criminal factions or police militias and are therefore less likely to be safe.

Other apps also collect data on shootings, but Fogo Cruzado is one of the few to be updated by the public, says Renê Silva, editor of the website Voz das Comunidades (Voice of the Communities), which covers the Complexo do Alemão, a large group of favelas in Rio. “There are places where the app identifies shootings that don’t come out in the media,” he says.

The app Onde Tem Tiroteio (Where There’s Shooting) works in a similar way.  It was initially created in January 2016 by four friends as a Facebook page. While Fogo Cruzado focuses on the metropolitan region of Rio, Onde Tem Tiroteio(OTT) covers the entire state—and since 2018, it has covered the state of São Paulo too. It differs from Fogo Cruzado in that it lets the network of users double-check the veracity of shooting reports.

funeral of Matheus Lessa
Relatives and friends carry the coffin of 22-year-old Matheus Lessa who was shot dead when he tried to defend his mother during an assault at their family-owned store in Rio de Janeiro
AP PHOTO/LEO CORREA

Once you download the OTT app you can choose what you want to receive alerts about, whether it’s shootings, floods, or demonstrations. Each anonymous report is reviewed by a network of more than 7,000 volunteers on the ground and confirmed before being uploaded to the app. Weekly reports are also released to the press. More than 4.7 million people used the app last year, according to Dennis Coli, one of OTT’s cofounders.

“OTT-Brasil’s main mission is to remove all citizens from organized gang looting routes, false police blitzes, and stray bullets, with information that is collected, analysed, and disseminated in a very short period of time,” he says.

The apps have a political angle, too. As well as keeping Rio’s citizens out of danger, they can help researchers and public institutions understand patterns of violence—and help put pressure on politicians.

They “serve primarily to draw attention to the dimension of the problem,” says Pablo Ortellado, a professor of public policy management at the University of São Paulo. For him, such apps have “a specific but key function of increasing the pressure on the authorities.”

Indeed, Recife was chosen as the second city for the Fogo Cruzado app not only because of its high rates of violence but also because, Olliveira says, the state government had stopped releasing data and had started censoring journalists. “Before, there was excellent access to public security data, but the data gradually became scarce and the work of the press became more and more difficult,” she says.

In this way, data collection apps can help challenge the information provided by governments, says Yasodara Córdova, an MPA/Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School in Massachusetts.

In the past, the state had a monopoly on official information, but today things have changed, she says. “It is healthy to maintain redundant databases, collected by active communities, so that data can be challenged in order to keep the civic space open and global.”

Felipe Luciano, an OTT user from São Gonçalo, a city near Rio, agrees. “The key is trust,” he says. “What motivated me to use OTT is the credibility of the information posted there. I feel safer using it.”

Correction: We updated the year Amnesty launched the FogoCruzado app and the number of shootings in 2019.

Spaceflight does some weird things to astronauts’ bodies

Astronaut Scott Kelly famously lived and worked on the International Space Station for 340 days—the longest time an American has spent in space. His mission gave scientists some vital insight into what happens to the human body during long-duration stays in orbit. That’s because Kelly has an identical twin, Mark (also an astronaut, and now soon to be a US senator). The Kelly twins offered scientists a rare opportunity: as they studied what happened to Scott’s body during his year in space, they had the benefit of a control subject, Mark, who stayed on Earth.

The NASA Twins Study provided more evidence for what we already suspected. In a confined capsule under microgravity and prolonged exposure to radiation, the immune system takes a hit, the eye changes shape for the worse, and there’s some significant loss in muscle and bone mass.

But we also learned about some surprising effects. Kelly experienced changes in his gut microbiome, his cognitive abilities slowed down, certain genes would turn off and on, and his chromosomes experienced structural changes. 

“The Twins Study gave us a first sketch of the human body’s molecular responses to spaceflight, but these outlines needed to be filled in,” says Christopher Mason, an associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. “The changes we saw needed more context and replication. We needed additional studies to map out the frequency of the changes we observed in other astronauts, and other organisms, that go into space, and also to see if the degree of change was similar for shorter missions.”

That brings us to a new package of research that builds on the Twins Study, reanalyzing some of the original data with new techniques and providing comparisons with other astronauts. In a set of 19 studies published today in a slew of different journals (along with 10 preprints still under peer review), researchers like Mason (a senior author on 14 of the papers) studied the physiological, biochemical, and genetic changes that occurred in 56 astronauts (including Kelly) who have spent time in space—the largest study of its kind ever conducted. 

The new papers, which incorporate results from cell-profiling and gene-sequencing techniques that have become easier to run only recently, reveal that “there are some features of spaceflight that consistently appear in humans, mice, and other animals when they go to space,” says Mason. “There appears to be a core mammalian set of adaptations and responses to the rigors of spaceflight.” 

The good, the bad, and the inexplicable

The researchers highlight six biological changes that occur in all astronauts during spaceflight: oxidative stress (an excessive accumulation of free radicals in the body’s cells), DNA damage, dysfunction of the mitochondria, changes in gene regulation, alterations in the length of telomeres (the ends of chromosomes, which shorten with age), and changes in the gut microbiome. 

Of these six changes, the biggest and most surprising one for scientists was mitochondrial dysfunction. Mitochondria play a critical role in producing the chemical energy necessary to keep cells—and by extension, tissue and organs—functional. Researchers found irregular mitochondrial performance in dozens of astronauts and were able to broadly characterize these changes thanks to new genomics and proteomics techniques. Afshin Beheshti, a bioinformatician at NASA and senior author of one study, says mitochondrial suppression helps explain how many of the problems astronauts experienced (like immune system deficiencies, disrupted circadian rhythm, and organ complications) are actually holistically related to each other, since they all rely on the same metabolic pathways.

“When you’re in space, it’s not just one are or organ that’s affected, it’s the whole body that’s affected,” says Beheshti. “We started connecting the dots.”

Other research homed in on problems observed at the genetic level. The Twins Study showed that Kelly’s telomeres got longer in space before shrinking back to normal or even shorter lengths soon after he returned to Earth. Telomeres are supposed to shorten with age, so lengthening makes little sense, and the Twins Study didn’t provide enough data to prompt any real conclusions as to why it happened and what the effects were. 

Susan Bailey, a Colorado State University expert on telomere research and a senior author for several of the papers, says the new research found that 10 other astronauts experienced the same telomere lengthening Kelly did irrespective of mission duration—as well as the same telomere shrinking once they came back to Earth. 

Notably, one of the papers in the new package found that longer telomeres were also associated with climbers of Mount Everest. For Bailey and her colleagues, this suggests that telomere lengthening is affected by oxidative stress—something that climbers and astronauts both experience, and that disrupts proper telomere maintenance. 

Akihiko Hoshide blood draw
Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide draws blood from his vein on the ISS.
NASA

They are still trying to pinpoint how these pathways work and exactly what the consequences could be (it’s probably not a secret to longevity), but “we now have a foundation to build on—we know what to look for and be aware of in future astronauts on long-duration [and deep space] exploration missions,” she says. 

Though some of the changes are unexpected, many are no cause for concern. “What is amazing to me is how well we adapt to space,” says Jeffrey Sutton, director of the Baylor College of Medicine’s Center for Space Medicine, who was not involved with the new research. Blood cell mutations decreased in Kelly while he was in space (a total surprise for Mason). Astronauts also exhibited decreased levels of biomarkers associated with aging and increased levels of microRNAs that regulate the vascular system’s response to radiation damage and microgravity. One of the strangest findings was that astronauts’ gut microbiomes managed to bring space microbes found on the ISS back to Earth.

“The studies individually and collectively are truly impressive,” says Sutton. “We have entered a new era of space biomedical research, where the approaches and tools of precision and translational medicine are being applied to advance our understanding of human adaptation to space.”

Long-haul worries

Ultimately, however, the data highlights just how much havoc and stress even the healthiest bodies face during space missions—which should have an impact on planning for longer missions. “I don’t think we’re close to sending untrained people into space for really long periods of time,” says Scott Kelly. 

Physiologically, he thinks it’s probably safe to send people to Mars and back. In the distant future, however, “instead of going to Mars, we’re going to be going to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn,” he says. “You’re going to be in space for years. And at that point, we’ll have to take a closer look at artificial gravity as a mitigation. I wouldn’t want to be arriving on the surface of another planetary body and not be able to function. A year or so is workable. Several years probably isn’t.”

scott kelly medical tests
Scott Kelly uses ultrasound to image his jugular vein with the aid of Gennady Padalka, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of a lower body negative pressure countermeasure used to reverse the headward fluid shift that occurs in the weightlessness environment of space.
NASA

We’re still far away from having to evaluate those kinds of risks. Mason and his colleagues suggest that there should be pharmacological strategies for reducing the impact of gravity on the bodies of returning astronauts. 

Sutton believes precision medicine could play a huge role in tailoring those drugs to protect astronauts against the effects of microgravity and radiation. And the shared biological responses between astronauts and Mount Everest climbers suggest that some interventions used to protect extreme sports athletes from oxidative stress could be applied to astronauts too. 

What we need is more data—and more populations to use for comparison. Mason, Bailey, and their colleagues are starting to collect cell and gene profiles of more astronauts, especially those going on future year-long missions. They also want to study people who’ve experienced other conditions similar in some way to spaceflight, such as radiotherapy patients, pilots, and flight attendants. 

“The more we know about the health effects of long-duration spaceflight, the better able we will be to help maintain the health and performance of astronauts during and after spaceflight,” says Bailey. “Such knowledge benefits those of us on Earth as well—we are all concerned about getting older, and being in poor health.” 

This post has been updated with comments from Afshin Beheshti.

How to make the next election even more secure

In the last few days, a cascade of election results from battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan have been certified—delivering key defeats to President Trump in his continued but failed attempts to block the result. Certifications will continue in the coming days before the Electoral College, and later Congress, make the results official.

This process is what is supposed to happen. In fact, in many ways the 2020 election was actually a success. There was historic voter turnout: 65.5% of eligible adults cast their vote, a higher proportion than in any presidential election since 1900. That was down to a number of contributing factors, one of which is the expanded use of mail-in ballots to help deal with the pandemic.

For the first time ever, millions of voters had an easier way to vote, and history shows that Americans who try mail-in voting demand to keep it. Mail-in voting is secure, as decades of independent study have shown, but it’s not just security that is important: integrity matters too.

Expanding the vote

Enfranchisement is a key dimension of election integrity: it is at its worst when Americans cast their votes on the same single weekday in limited locations, and at its best when people have maximum flexibility and time to consider and cast their vote. 

Expert-backed ideas like automatic voter registration and standardized voter databases all drive toward the same goal: making it permanently easier for all qualified Americans to vote. Most developed countries are far ahead of the US on this issue.

Better paper trails

Integrity is also improved by being able to cross-check results, especially close ones. For that, nothing beats paper. An estimated 95% of American votes had a paper trail this year thanks to mail-in ballots and in-person voting machines—a great help with verification and audits. Paper offers a whole array of benefits in elections. For example, if a hacker brings down important voter databases on Election Day, a paper backup means the vote can keep going. 

More, improved audits

Paper also means you can verify that your vote was recorded correctly. Audits—either manual checks or risk-limiting audits that use statistical modeling to detect inaccuracies—are an efficient and public way to confirm that the reported outcome of a vote is the correct one. 

Audits are required in 24 states, while the more robust risk-limiting audits are currently required by just four states. However, they are touted by election security experts as one of the most transparent and strong signals authorities can proactively send about the security of elections—and they’re much quicker and easier than a full recount. Officials should adopt them as a requirement; voters should demand them.

The funding gap

So that’s three ways to improve elections. But the state and local governments that actually run elections around America are severely behind on technology, budgeting, and staffing. All of this adds up to real security risk—not to mention gross inefficiency— for future US elections. The State and Local IT Modernization Act would give states $25 billion to close that gap, an easy first step that would have positive consequences far beyond elections.

A big reason local governments were able to do well this time around, despite a long list of tech problems, was a team effort across all levels of government. That included the Election Assistance Commission and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which each helped raise the bar on security issues in areas from voting machines, which the EAC tests and certifies, to CISA’s broad mandate to help secure elections infrastructure. Both of those agencies could use more money and authority to help states out.

CISA, at least, is on that path. Although Trump fired the agency’s director, Chris Krebs, because he debunked the president’s election disinformation, the agency itself is on an upward trajectory in virtually every way. Increased budget, profile, and power for CISA will have myriad ramifications, one of which is a stronger capability to help protect election infrastructure. With $13 million in 2021, EAC has a fraction of the budget, which chairman Ben Hovland says is characteristic of the country’s chronic underfunding of election officials.

The 2020 election was a fair and secure success in the face of a catastrophically mismanaged pandemic and a storm of disinformation. Despite the ongoing tragedy, there is much good news that we can carry forward to future elections. 

This starts now. Officials will look to start improvements over the next few months. And what progress they make will be crucial in deciding the fate of the next few elections. 

We may never get a genuine concession from the president. In fact, this week’s announcement that Trump is beginning to allow the US government’s transition process to move forward could be the closest we ever get. But even as the president continues to make baseless claims, virtually every election official says the vote was free, fair, and secure. Keeping it that way takes work.

This is an excerpt from The Outcome, our daily email on election integrity and security. Click here to get regular updates straight to your inbox.

The Zoom-fatigued person’s guide to connecting virtually on Thanksgiving

Lisa Long is immunosuppressed and suffers from chronic pain. That means that since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in the US in March, she and her family, which includes her two daughters, 11 and 14, have been isolating at home outside St. Louis, save for the occasional doctor’s visit. Visiting family is out of the question for Thanksgiving.

But Long will get to be with her nieces and nephews in Utah and Colorado on Thursday. She’ll sit down to dinner with them on Bloxburg, a simulation game on the popular children’s video-gaming platform Roblox. For months, Long has been working with her daughters and their cousins to build a house on Bloxburg, and those efforts will lead to a “Bloxburg Thanksgiving,” as Long puts it.

“We’re going to try to get together to make turkeys and set big tables,” she says. “We’re going to try to get as many family members as possible to role-play and have the meal together.”

Long is among the millions of people for whom a “normal” Thanksgiving is not happening in 2020. State governments have pleaded with families not to travel and instead to hunker down at home; the Centers for Disease Control has also recommended against travel to tamp down spiking coronavirus infection rates.

That means reimagining Thanksgiving virtually. And while it might be easy to send out a Zoom link to family and chosen friends inviting them to gather with plates at a set time, you wouldn’t be blamed for feeling disdain about joining Yet. Another. Zoom.

Zoom fatigue, after all, is very real. While companies like Microsoft are trying to work around the collage of squares we’re used to by superimposing cutout figures at a table, for example, the fact is that staring intensely at faces for long periods of time is draining. As we trudge through the eighth month of this pandemic (and counting), signing on to a Zoom might signal “work mode” to our brains, which can be anxiety-inducing and not at all what the doctor ordered for Thanksgiving.

So with that in mind, here are some ideas for making the best of Thanksgiving—and the rest of the end-of-year holidays—at a distance. 

Find another space online to do something together 

Video games have emerged as a social media platform and gathering space of their own during the pandemic. One of the most accessible, family-friendly ways to participate is on Animal Crossing, which requires a Nintendo Switch. Players take on cute avatars, build their own house, explore, and “travel” to other islands if they want.

If a Nintendo Switch isn’t something you have access to, millions of families log on to Roblox to play a myriad of games that offer similar opportunities to connect. Beyond the home-building simulation game Bloxburg, there are competitive sports, fashion-oriented games, and more. All Roblox requires is an internet connection.

Or if you want to dip your toes into the fall’s hottest game, have everyone download Among Us from Google Play or the App Store. Private sessions with up to eight players are available; one to three are designated “imposters” who assassinate fellow players. Think Clue meets Knives Out. A periodic chat function lets players convene to deduce who the imposters are—or commiserate about Thanksgiving traditions.

Other options include Jackbox, a popular virtual party game in which players sign in to an app to play games reminiscent of charades or Pictionary.

If you’d rather not play a game with your ultra-competitive relatives or are looking to zone out a bit, various co-watching apps and extensions have allowed the quarantined to replicate the tradition of watching a holiday film all snuggled up on the couch. Teleparty (formerly Netflix Party) integrates a single screen and chat function for groups wanting to view something on either Netflix, Disney, HBO, or Hulu. If your group is more into YouTube videos and drama, Airtime is your way to co-watch.

And if you’re fed up with screens, consider voice games, which require a smart speaker. In the past year, voice games have quietly become increasingly more complex, moving from “choose your own adventure” games and Jeopardy! showdowns to sci-fi tales that embed players into the action. Kids can get in on this too: Pretzel Labs has released a series of voice games aimed at children. One of their most popular is Kids Court, in which Alexa acts as an arbiter for kids’ inevitable fights.

Plan ahead, try different things, and buy some stamps

One size doesn’t fit all. Families should use multiple mediums over the course of the holidays to connect with each other, says Lisa Brown, a director of the trauma program and Risk and Resilience Research Lab at Palo Alto University. “I would not encourage family members to try to check the box and have a single Zoom,” says Brown, who studies the mental-health consequences of catastrophic events on older adults. “We have to choose multiple forms of connecting over the holiday season over a long period of time versus a one-and-done Zoom call.”

But like everything else in the pandemic, successfully finding ways to create sustained connection over time takes a little extra effort these days, especially when it involves introducing new technology remotely.

It’s important to keep in mind that different generations are going to feel more comfortable having meaningful conversations on different mediums. “The medium for older adults is not Zoom and it’s not texting,” says Brown—it’s physical mail. 

In other words, this is the year to send a holiday card or letter to your older relatives and friends. Bake some holiday treats that will keep in the mail. If you celebrate Christmas, consider an Advent calendar. Brown also suggests creating a chain letter that grows as it’s sent: each recipient can add a line to a story or drawing you create together. 

Troubleshoot problems early 

There are other complications when trying to use technology to connect across generations. Navigating the internet can be especially frustrating for some older adults without help or the proper infrastructure. And having a new technology introduced right before a holiday gathering can be stressful. 

Even when connections are fostered virtually, waiting until the morning of Thanksgiving to reconnect might be too late. Older relatives will have to be comfortable not only with how the games work but also with the idea of acting not as “Mom” or “Grandma” but just another character in the kids’ virtual world.

Bear in mind, too, that some older adults will live in facilities where well-meaning technology-powered gifts might turn into frustrating disappointments. Brown gave the example of her own intention to buy her dad in a Florida retirement community a digital picture frame that could display photos from her home—until she called the IT person for the facility and discovered that the building’s thick, hurricane-proof walls meant the Wi-Fi-powered frame would never work there. 

Be aware that nostalgia can trigger both happy memories and sadness 

As the holiday season goes on, maybe you’re considering more structured video-chat activities like carol singing. It’s not a bad idea. But nostalgia could have some unintended consequences this year in particular. Nearly 260,000 Americans have died in the coronavirus pandemic, and tens of millions more have caught the virus. Some families are grieving the dead, while others may be adjusting to the crisis’s long-term effects. Meanwhile, this year has intensified loneliness, interrupted connections, and increased economic hardships. Re-creating holiday traditions virtually could bring comfort for some. But for others, those activities will trigger painful memories of when things were better. 

“When you engage the senses, they trigger memories,” Brown says. “Typically older adults harken back to teenage years, their 20s, but for everybody it triggers times back to our youth. Be aware of the fact that it’s a blade that cuts both ways.” Music is a particularly powerful trigger in general, she notes. Christmas carols can draw out good memories, or remind someone of the people who are no longer here. 

“We know already about how the holidays can be particularly triggering for people if you’re already feeling lonely or wistful, if you’ve lost a loved one or a close friend,” she says. For those in whom the holidays already trigger painful memories or loneliness, “covid has turned the volume up. Those who were a 6 are now an 8.” 

As you’re planning the right way to connect on Thanksgiving, or through the holidays, just be aware of that. Re-creating virtual versions of happy memories from the holidays of the Before Times could lead people to dwell on how lonely they are right now. 

And be mindful of putting too much pressure on people, too. Virtual meetings, even social ones, are harder to turn down than invitations for real-life gatherings—after all, where else would you be? And once you’re in them, they require active participation for the duration. There’s no walk after Thanksgiving dinner when the entire day is on a virtual schedule, after all. 

If you must Zoom

First things first: Get the technical glitches and hiccups out of the way. No one wants to spend a precious chunk of an allotted Zoom call figuring out why your aunt and uncle can’t connect. If possible or needed, a pre-Zoom meeting checkup with the less technically inclined members of your group can be useful.

Then, think about how to make the conversation flow. Once on Zoom—or whatever video-chatting platform you are using—try to move beyond the usual “How are you?” and “How’s the weather?” space fillers and do a group activity. 

“Ask them for a recipe. Ask them to teach you a new skill,” says Brown. “It can make people feel purposeful.” But don’t try to do too much in a single call and turn the whole thing into an interrogation of your great-aunt’s entire life, she cautions. 

Set up a question or two up for each household to answer that evokes more than a yes or no answer. Ask older family members about their memories of the holiday when they were younger, or younger ones about a hobby they are passionate about. Steer clear of topics you avoid in real life (Politics in 2020? Nope), and be sensitive to people who are alone, struggling, or experiencing a particularly difficult year.

And finally: Holidays always involve a great degree of tradition and expectation. But this is the year to be adaptable: instead of defaulting to a virtual re-creation of your family’s normal Thanksgiving dinner, maybe try asking what others might find fulfilling or fun. 

And if your calendar has already filled up with Thanksgiving family Zooms, this is also the time to remember that it’s okay to log off and have some time to yourself. It is the holidays, after all.