On April 16, 2013, sources reported that an envelope laced with ricin had been intercepted before it could reach its intended recipient: Republican senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. It was by far not the United States’ first encounter with ricin. On Feb. 29, 2008, a man lay in critical condition as the result of exposure to the biological weapon in his Las Vegas hotel room. The FBI says it is treating the situation as a criminal case and doesn’t believe the deadly toxin was part of a terrorist plan, though it has yet to identify why the substance was in the room. Three hotel employees, three police officers and a person who came to collect some items from the room were all taken to the hospital to be decontaminated.
So what exactly is ricin?
Ricin is a toxin that is fatal to humans in extremely small doses. Just 1 milligram is a deadly amount if inhaled or ingested, and only 500 micrograms of the substance would kill an adult if it were injected (CDC). Ricin comes from the castor bean plant (Ricinus communis) — it is present in the mash that is left over after grinding castor beans into oil. It can be delivered as a powder, a mist or a pill.
Ricin is a ribosome-inactivating protein — it irrevocably damages the ribosomes that carry out protein synthesis in cells. The ribosome-inactivating proteins found in the castor bean plant are extremely powerful, and ricin poisoning can do serious damage to major organs.
David Livingstone Smith, associate professor of philosophy at the University of New England in Biddeford, Me, to the New York Times. Disruptions: Twitter’s Uneasy Role in Guarding the Truth.
Last week saw a lot of handwringing over misinformation spread through social networks about the effects and responses to Sandy as the storm hit the east coast. In particular, to the @comfortablysmug Twitter feed where Shashank Tripathi posted purposefully fabricated stories that first responders needed to respond to set the record straight.
Rumor, fabrication and outright falsehood has been around since anything’s been around though. If it’s not that humans like to lie, a good portion of us do… or least tell a good yarn.
Important though is that while our social media provides an easy outlet for misinformation to go viral, it’s also a platform for crowdsourcing corrections more quickly than ever before. Or, at least, that’s the optimists view.
Pessimists can point to censorship and propaganda regimes that flood social media, message boards and other online gathering places with a consistent barrage of misinformation of their own.