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Academic Media Day delivers insight on WVU researchers

Star researchers from WVU academia took centerstage Monday afternoon to highlight some of the academic research topics currently being studied at WVU.  

Back again after a few-year hiatus due to COVID, Academic Media Day, held at the Reed College of Media, gave researchers an opportunity to talk about the importance and progress of their work to members of the media.

Dana Coester, a professor with the Reed College of Media, kicked off the day discussing the findings of approximately five years of research on how the polarization and extremism of online content is impacting youth in Appalachia.

Coester’s research looks not only at the toxic content spread through memes, social media platforms and online gaming, but also who is originating the content, as well as the platforms, processes and networks they are using to distribute it.

These online actors that originate the content, fall into several categories, including trolling, disinformation campaigns, non-organized actors who may not be affiliated with a formal group, organized extremist groups and terrorist organizations, arms dealers – or people who are spreading the information or toxic content for a profit, as well as bots and algorithms that amplify the spread of the content on a personalized basis.

Coester explained that while there has been an increase in public awareness after mass shootings, parents are often unaware their children are being exposed to this content because most of it is not hiding on the mythical “dark web.”

The myth that the dark web is difficult to access is not true, Coester said.  Most of the content assumed to be pulled from the dark corners of the web is actually just circulating online on mainstream platforms.  

Coester said one of the researchers on the project uses the phrase “There is no dark web – there is just the web web.”

Youths can easily be drawn from the mainstream web onto more nefarious sites – and no one type of kid is more susceptible than another, Coester said, urging that members of the community need to recognize the delicate stages kids are in, how easily they can be influenced and how this toxic content preys on adolescents and normal human fears, which can drive them toward these extremist groups and ideas.

“We have to acknowledge that real damage is happening to a generation,” she said.

Energy projects

Renewable and sustainable energy projects being done by the university are making great strides in amplifying and diversifying the way we create and use energy. 

Assistant Director of WVU Energy Institute, Sam Taylor, as well as Eberly College of Arts and Sciences geology professor Shikha Sharma, and Xingbo Liu, associate dean for research and Statler chair professor at Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, offered insight into the various ways they are trying to develop clean, efficient energy.

Researchers are not throwing all of their eggs in one basket when it comes to finding a solution, but instead are looking at several ways to produce and renew energy that could work. 

Projects discussed by the trio involved work with energy geosciences and decarbonization, hydrogen production, storage and use, solid oxide fuel cells and electrolysis cells, shale and natural gas.

“As we move into more renewable type technologies and sustainable technologies, the scale becomes problematic,” Taylor said.  “The scale of our energy sector is massive, and it becomes very difficult to “silver bullet” a solution because the scales are so big.”

Diversification of technologies is huge so you can ride out the storm if one of them doesn’t work out, as well as fill in gaps of the massive space, he said.

The researchers said they play a critical role in outreach and education to change the way people think about these new types of energy and to provide information on the specific types they are researching.

Forest pathology

The “Fungi Fun Guy,” Matt Kasson, associate professor, forest pathology and mycology, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources & Design, has received national media coverage on his fun and relatable, yet significant research projects involving forest pathology (the study of the sicknesses of trees) and different types of fungi.

Kasson said a 2016 project he started with periodical cicadas, became “an important discovery hidden in plain site.”  

These cicadas, which were found locally on the Evansdale campus of WVU, became affectionately known as “zombie cicadas.”  The abdomen of the cicada had been replaced by fungal tissues, but instead of killing the insect – it enhanced them.  

What they found was this enhancement came from an amphetamine the fungus was producing – the first amphetamine found in a fungi.

Kasson said his research on the cicadas continues and discoveries are still being made, but the discovery might represent the next frontier in drug recovery.

Perhaps because of the light and fun nature of many of his research projects – or maybe due to his willingness to put his work out there – Kasson’s research and experiments have gained the attention of several national media outlets and even The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

His projects have names like Operation Moldy Twinkie, Fungal Peeps – yes the Easter ones, and Whole Latte Decay, which studied the fungal effect on pumpkin spice drinks.

Kasson said he tries to find things to study that people have a love/hate relationship with – like Peeps or pumpkin spice anything.  And somewhere in the fun he said he “sneaks in a lesson on fungal biology.”

“We vilify all snakes, we vilify all spiders and we vilify all fungi because a few of them can kill us,” he said.  But many are doing much more good than harm.

Dark design

Laurel Cook, associate professor of marketing at the Chambers College of Business and Economics finished out the day with her research on dark design.

Her research looks at online privacy of both parents and adults and the sharing of personally identifiable information or PII.

One of the biggest issues highlighted by Cook was the concept of “sharenting” – parents who share things about their child(ren) online.  

Cook said one problem here is that the kids have no consent.  Now that the practice has become normalized, it’s not just the kids’ parents posting their pictures and information, but grandparents, aunts, neighbors – once something is publicly posted, others become co-owners of that information.

Another problem Cook highlighted was the concept of dark design – or a digital design that is purposefully misleading or deceptive to gain personal information.

Cook said there are nine categories of dark design, with 29 subcategories. The four most used tactics involve misdirection, forced action, identity captures and emotional appeals.

An example of misdirection, Cook said,  would be playing a game on your phone, after each level you hit a green button to advance, but suddenly a green button pops up that says buy more turns – it misdirects you into thinking you are advancing the game because the buttons look the same and usually represent a free experience.

Emotional appeal tactics make the user form a connection with something, then makes them pay to keep it.

Identity captures or friend spamming happens when an app has a button that finds your phone contacts easily – now that company, or third parties, have your contact list to spam, she said.

Forced actions can be compared to an app nagging you with a pop-up until you hit OK.

Cook said that while some states, like California, are putting legislation in place to block dark design technology, we are not quite there yet.  You should always try to be as aware as possible of who you might be sending personal information.