The past decade was filled with so many unexpected turning points: moments big and small that we now understand to be truly important. These events ignited real change, warned of a not-so-far-off future, or had surprising effects that we couldn’t have imagined at the time.

We started thinking about this particular time period because Vox just happened to turn 10 this year, but 2014 saw much more than the birth of our news organization. It was an incredibly divisive year kicking off an incredibly divisive decade. This was the year the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner mainstreamed the Black Lives Matter movement; this was also the year of Gamergate, a harassment campaign that became entwined with the ascendant alt-right. It was a wildly online year, too, that set all sorts of attitudes and behaviors in motion (see: BLM and Gamergate, but also The Fappening and Kim Kardashian’s special brand of virality, below).

Our reporters set out to explain the last 10 years of indelible moments — the good, the bad, the fascinating — in a series of pieces you can find across the site. If you want to understand how we got to where we are in 2024, read on.


When nude leaks went from scandal to sex crime

It’s been trendy lately to talk about how differently we now treat women, particularly famous women, than we did in the aughts. We talk about how today, we understand that it was wrong for tabloids to harass Britney Spears and publish all those upskirt photos and ask teen pop stars if their boobs were real on live TV.

There’s a specific moment, though, when we saw that much-remarked-upon evolution tip into reality, the purity culture of the 2000s coming up against the feminist outrage of the 2010s and crumbling.

The grossly named Fappening occurred on August 31, 2014, when one hacker’s stash of nearly 500 celebrity nudes (including Jennifer Lawrence, then at the height of her fame) leaked out to the mainstream internet. They became the fodder for a thousand op-eds about what was just beginning to be called revenge porn. (Ten years later, 2014’s cutting-edge term is now considered inaccurate, putting too much emphasis on the intent of the perpetrator and trivializing the severity of the crime being committed.)

The previous decade had a playbook in place for talking about leaked photos of naked stars. You talked about them as something titillating for you, the viewer, to look at without apology, and something shameful for the woman (it was always a woman) pictured to apologize for.

For some media outlets, it seemed only natural to continue the playbook of the 2000s into 2014. “#JenniferLawrence phone was hacked her #nude pics leaked Check them out in all their gloriousness,” tweeted Perez Hilton, publicizing a post that reproduced the uncensored pictures of Lawrence.

But instead of getting the traffic windfall he might have expected, Perez was slammed with outrage across social media. He had to apologize for his post and replace it with a censored version.

As Hilton and his cohort scrambled to catch up, the rest of the media was allying itself fiercely on the side of the hacking victims, denouncing anyone who looked at the leaked nudes. That included outlets that had previously covered every nipslip and upskirt photo to hit the internet with panting eagerness.

“We have it so easy these days,” the pop culture website Complex had mused in 2012 in a roundup of recent celeb nude leaks. “Who do you want to see naked?”

When the Fappening happened two years later, Complex changed its mind. “Consider this,” the website declared. “These women, regardless of their public persona, are entitled to privacy and to express their sexuality however they wish. It’s their basic human right. These women have lives, too.”

It’s hard to say exactly what swung the discourse quite so hard against the hackers this time around. Perhaps it was the ubiquity of camera phones, which had made nudes so inescapable: that feeling that it could happen to you. Perhaps it was because the media at the time was obsessed with Jennifer Lawrence, like everyone else was, and they wanted to be on her side. Perhaps the collective hive mind had just decided the time had come for feminism to trend upward.

Whatever the reason, the press had now established a new narrative it could use to talk about sex crimes in the social media era, especially sex crimes that involved famous and beloved actresses. Three years later, it would put that knowledge to use to break a series of stories about Harvey Weinstein as the decade-old Me Too movement re-energized itself.

Me Too saw reputational losses and criminal charges wielded against powerful men who for decades had been able to get away with sexual violence with impunity. It was able to do that because of what we all learned from The Fappening.

Constance Grady

A fringe, racist essay foretold the fate of a MAGAfied Republican Party

In 2016, a then-minor conservative writer named Michael Anton wrote what would become the defining case for electing Donald Trump. In Anton’s view, a Clinton victory would doom the country to collapse — primarily, albeit not exclusively, due to “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.” Whatever Trump’s faults, he alone stood in the way of national suicide. Therefore, all true conservatives must get behind him.

This sort of rhetoric may seem normal now: the kind of thing you hear every day from Trump and his deputies in the conquered Republican Party. At the time, it was immensely controversial — so much so that Anton originally published it under a pseudonym (Publius Decius Mus). But it became so influential on the pro-Trump right that Anton would be tapped for a senior post in President Trump’s National Security Council.

The essay’s emergence as the canonical case for Trumpism marked a turning point: the moment when the conservative movement gave into its worst impulses, willing to embrace the most radical forms of politics in the name of stopping social change.

The anti-establishment Trumpers have become the establishment

The title of Anton’s essay, “The Flight 93 Election,” points to its central conceit. United Airlines Flight 93 was the one flight on September 11 that did not hit its ultimate target, crashing in a field in Pennsylvania thanks to a passenger uprising. Anton argued that Americans faced a choice analogous to that of Flight 93’s passengers: either “charge the cockpit” (elect Trump) or “die” (elect Hillary).

Anton spends much of his essay castigating the conservative movement — what he calls “Conservatism, Inc” or the “Washington Generals” of politics — for refusing to acknowledge that immigration has made the electoral stakes existential. Trump “alone,” per Anton, “has stood up to say: I want to live. I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live. I want to end the insanity.”

The racism in Anton’s view of “Third World foreigners” is unmistakable. Yet there is no doubt that his basic theses are now widespread among the Republican Party and conservative movement. The anti-establishment Trumpers have become the establishment.

Anton’s essay was ahead of the curve, clearly articulating where the movement was heading under Trump. “The Flight 93 Election” marked the moment in which the unstated premises of the conservative movement’s most radical wings came out into the open.

That those premises are now widely shared goes to show what the movement has become — and why Anton, and many others like him, would later rationalize an attempt to overturn an American election.

Zack Beauchamp

The number that made the extinction crisis real

Scientists have known for decades that plants and animals worldwide are in peril — the tigers and frogs, wildflowers and beetles. But it wasn’t until recently that the true gravity of the problem, dubbed the biodiversity crisis, started sinking in with the public.

That shift happened largely thanks to a single number, published in 2019.

In spring of that year, an intergovernmental group of scientists dedicated to wildlife research, known as IPBES, released a report that found that roughly one million species of plants and animals are threatened with extinction. In other words, much of the world’s flora and fauna is at risk of disappearing for good.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” Robert Watson, IPBES’s director for strategic development and former chair, said when the report was published. “We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

Extinction is far from the only important metric for measuring the health of the planet. Some scientists argue that it obscures other signs of biodiversity loss, such as shrinking wildlife populations, that typically occur long before a species goes extinct.

Yet this number marked an evolution in the public’s understanding of biodiversity loss.

Extinction is an easy concept to grasp, and it’s visceral. And so the number — calculated based on estimates of the total number of species on Earth, and how threatened different groups of them are — hit especially hard. It not only raised awareness but inspired an unprecedented wave of conservation action.

World leaders have since used the IPBES number to justify major efforts to protect nature, including a historic global deal, agreed on by roughly 190 countries in 2022, to halt the decline of wildlife and ecosystems. It has also been cited by government hearings, state resolutions, corporate actions, and hundreds of scientific papers — not to mention countless news reports.

The concept of biodiversity loss is vague. This number made it concrete, and more urgent than ever.

Benji Jones

One state’s chilling ban was the beginning of the end for abortion access in America

In May 2019, Alabama banned almost all abortions. It was the most aggressive abortion law passed by a state in decades, and clearly flouted the protections set forth in Roe v. Wade.

With no exceptions for rape or incest, the Alabama law hit a new level of restrictiveness amid a slate of state abortion bans passed in 2018 and 2019. These measures marked a major change in anti-abortion strategy: After 10 years of pushing smaller restrictions aimed at closing clinics or requiring waiting periods for patients, abortion opponents had begun aiming squarely at the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision establishing Americans’ right to terminate a pregnancy.

Emboldened by Donald Trump’s presidency and two new conservative Supreme Court justices, these activists believed that the constitutional right to an abortion was finally vulnerable. They were correct.

A gavel hovers above its stand, which is shaped like a female sign.

The Alabama abortion ban was expressly designed as a challenge to Roe, with sponsor and Alabama state Rep. Terri Collins telling the Washington Post, “What I’m trying to do here is get this case in front of the Supreme Court so Roe v. Wade can be overturned.”

At first, Alabama’s ban, along with six-week bans in Georgia and elsewhere, were tied up in lower courts. In 2020, however, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and a third Trump nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, was confirmed, creating a rock-solid conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Less than two years later, the court held in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that Roe “must be overruled.”

With the federal right to an abortion gone, Alabama’s ban went into effect. While it was once the most restrictive in the country, now more than a dozen other states have instituted near-total bans. Several more have imposed gestational limits at 15 weeks or earlier. Alabama was once again on the front lines of reproductive health restrictions in February of this year, after a  judge ruled that frozen embryos used in IVF count as “children” under state law.

The landscape of reproductive health law in America has been utterly remade, and anti-abortion activists are far from finished. While the Alabama ban once seemed to many like radical legislation that would never survive the courts, it was in fact an early look at where the country was headed, and at the extreme circumstances under which millions of Americans are living today.

Anna North

Avengers: Endgame forced an entirely new era of storytelling

There will probably never be another movie like Avengers: Endgame, the 2019 film with a lead-up that wholly altered the movie industry and even the way stories are told. For over a decade, Marvel told one central story — Earth’s mightiest heroes working to defeat the great villain Thanos — through the MCU’s plethora of interlocking superhero blockbusters. In that era, each film, with its Easter eggs and credit scenes, built toward the culmination known as Endgame.

By signaling to its audience that all 23 movies mattered to the larger story, Marvel ensured each was a financial success, including a slew — Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Infinity War — of billion-dollar worldwide box offices. Marvel’s grand design made Endgame the second-biggest movie in history.

It’s not surprising that seemingly everyone in Hollywood tried to replicate this triumph, often at the expense of creative achievement. Studio heads hoped that they could grow and cash in on properties with extant popularity, the way Marvel had with its comic book characters, and began investing in sequels and spinoffs of proven IP. Marvel’s parent company Disney developed countless new Star Wars projects and capitalized on its hits like Frozen and Moana by lining up continuations of those stories. The company created Disney+ not just to sell its existing properties, but to house its avalanche of spinoff TV shows. Amazon’s take on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings franchise and HBO’s interest in multiple Game of Thrones spinoffs could certainly be seen as trying to capture Marvel’s magic.

Across the board, the people in charge of the purse strings became less interested in original ideas, as well as in mid-budget films; it was blockbuster or… bust.

Marvel changed what kind of stories were being told, but also how they were being told. Competitors became convinced that audiences wanted a connected cinematic universe, a format that mirrored comic book structure. Warner Bros., which owns the rights to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, tried its hand at creating the DC superhero universe. Universal also played with the idea, teasing a linked movie world featuring classic monsters like Dracula. Neither of those fully panned out — some movies were critical flops, others didn’t find large audiences — signaling how difficult it is to execute what Marvel had.

This tactic spread beyond the big studios too; indie darling A24, for example, has tapped into connected worlds and multiverses to tell expansive stories. Marvel’s other innovations have also lodged themselves firmly in the pop culture firmament. Easter eggs — embedding “secrets” into art — are commonplace today (see: Swift, Taylor), and foster fan loyalty. Post-credits scenes have been added to all kinds of films.

Perhaps the real testament to Endgame’s singularity, though, is that it wasn’t only rivals who were unable to replicate what Marvel was able to do. None of the studio’s post-Endgame movies have had pre-Endgame box office results, and Marvel is no longer an unstoppable force. The studio’s cinematic universe looks as vulnerable as ever.

What Marvel didn’t realize was that Endgame was truly the end of the game. In its wake — for better or worse — we’re left with new ideas about what kind of stories we tell and why we tell them.

Alex Abad-Santos

The manifesto that changed China’s place in the world

Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era — a definitive manifesto known as Xi Jinping Thought for shortfirst appeared in China in 2017, laying out the ideology and priorities not just of China’s president Xi, but of the entire Chinese Communist party-state under him.

Xi’s policies and consolidation of power didn’t start with the document itself; they were developed over time, starting even before Xi became president in 2012. But given the opacity of the Chinese political apparatus and increasing censorship, the compiled doctrine provided a historic window into how Xi sees the world and his own place in it.

And what he wants is a dominant China that harks back to its former greatness, with himself at the center.

Xi Jinping Thought is, according to the document, the roadmap for “a Chinese solution for world peace and human progress, and of landmark significance in the history of the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, the history of the development of Marxism, and the progress of human society.”

Xi Jinping Thought articulates a vision that harnesses military development and aggressive diplomacy

Rather than lay low and just use its economic growth and the decline of US influence to propel China to world power status — as the country’s former president Deng Xiaoping advocated — Xi Jinping Thought articulates a vision that harnesses military development and aggressive diplomacy as critical factors in China’s dominance.

That has translated to China deploying its increasing military might to assert dominance in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait and cracking down on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, in addition to further opening the economy and becoming a global investment powerhouse via the Belt and Road initiative. It has also meant taking significant geopolitical leadership positions — expanding the BRICS economic bloc, brokering a deal to restore relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and attempting to negotiate peace between Ukraine and Russia.

Arguably, China and the US would have ended up on a collision course with or without Xi Jinping Thought. But that tension really kicked into higher gear after the introduction of the doctrine at the start of Xi’s second term, according to Neil Thomas, Chinese politics fellow at the Asia Society — and after the US itself started to explicitly attempt to contain China’s rise. “Looking from Beijing, you start to see this big pushback,” starting with the Trump administration’s trade war and continuing under Biden. “That has fed into a much more securitized view of the world in China,” Thomas said, as well as the notion that geopolitics “was increasingly zero sum.”

Lately the aggressive policy seems to be faltering due to China’s economic troubles. Thomas says Xi has “become increasingly aware of the costs of war [to] diplomacy and has adjusted his tactics to pursue the same ambitious strategic goals but with a more sensible strategy that focuses more on making friends than making enemies.”

That has not deterred the US military buildup in Asia to counter China, though diplomatic relations between the two countries have warmed somewhat in recent months. But cutting down the bluster doesn’t mean a change in priorities, just a change in tactics — for now, anyway.

Ellen Ioanes

The 2016 election made us realize we know nothing about class

Since Donald Trump eked out an electoral college victory in 2016 and reshaped the GOP, journalists, academics, and politicians have been trying to explain what, exactly, happened. One  prevailing narrative is that Trump spoke directly to a forgotten voting bloc — poor and working-class white people, especially those living in rural America.

There’s a kernel of truth in that theory; Trump did indeed outperform previous Republican candidates among that demographic. But the stereotype of the average Trump voter that’s been born out of that narrative — the blue-collar union worker who hasn’t seen a meaningful raise in decades — is misleading at best. In fact, one of the lessons of 2016 was that there is no universal definition of what constitutes a “working-class” voter, and that class solidarity is still deeply misunderstood.

As it turns out, Trump’s biggest, most reliable voting block wasn’t the downtrodden white worker; it was largely white people from middle- and high-income households. When voters were divided up by income in various exit polls, Trump was only able to beat Joe Biden in one of three tiers: those making over $100,000 a year.

Trump’s win wasn’t a high-water mark for the role of class in elections like many thought, but rather for the media focus on the role of class in elections. Even still, we haven’t really figured out how to measure our class divides or even talk about them.

This lack of clarity has underscored a big problem in American politics: We have categories that are used as proxies for class — like someone’s college education level or union membership status — but they are imprecise substitutes that blur the bigger picture of the US electorate.

As a result, analysis has exaggerated, or even distorted, reality, painting the Democratic Party, for example, as a political organization that’s growing more and more elitist and out of touch, and the GOP as the party that’s winning over the working class.

That’s despite the fact that Democrats have embraced the most ambitious anti-poverty agenda since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency — championing programs that are, by and large, supported by the poor — while Republicans continue to advocate for programs that almost exclusively benefit the wealthiest members of American society.

Trump’s victory may have turned people’s attention to class politics, but there’s still a long way to go before Americans get a clearer picture of how class will shape, or even determine, the election in November — and those in the years to come.

Abdallah Fayyad 

A photograph of a 3-year-old refugee’s death altered global opinion on migrants

A camera takes a photo of a rose on a beach.

There are certain photographs that stop the world. The “Tank Man” of Tiananmen Square. A nine-year-old girl, on fire from napalm during the Vietnam War. A migrant woman in 1936 California.

To this list we can add the image of the body of a three-year-old refugee boy, face down in the sand of Bodrum, Turkey, after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea on September 2, 2015. Alan Kurdi was fleeing the Syrian civil war, one of an estimated million people who were seeking safe refuge in Europe. Minutes after Kurdi and his family left the Turkish city of Bodrum in the early hours, hoping to reach the Greek island of Kos and European territory, their overloaded rubber dinghy capsized. Kurdi, along with his brother Ghalib and mother Rehana, slipped beneath the waves.

That morning the Turkish photographer Nilüfer Demir came upon what she would later call a “children’s graveyard” on the beach. Alan’s body had washed up on the shore, his sneakers still on his tiny feet. Demir took the photograph.

Alan Kurdi was only one of an estimated 3,700 other asylum seekers who drowned in the eastern Mediterranean that year, desperately trying to reach Europe. But Demir’s photograph, shared on social media by Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch, spread to every corner of the world, where it was viewed by an estimated 20 million people. At a moment when Europeans seemed unsure whether to accept the unprecedented flow of asylum seekers, the image of a three-year-old left to die on the very edge of Europe galvanized political leaders, opening up a route for hundreds of thousands of refugees to find safety in the EU.

But the story doesn’t end there, for the compassion for asylum seekers generated by Kurdi’s image proved to have a short half-life. In the years since 2015, Europe has largely turned against asylum seekers, tightening its borders and closing off the Mediterranean. A little more than a year after Kurdi’s death, Donald Trump would win the White House, leading to a sharp reduction in the number of asylum seekers admitted into the US. That same year the UK voted for Brexit, in large part over concerns about immigration and asylum policy. The European Parliament elections held later this year are expected to cement policies that will make the EU even less welcoming to migrants and asylum seekers.

Yet with some 114 million people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes, nothing will stop the flow of refugees. We know there will be more Alan Kurdis in the future. And they will likely be met with less compassion than his photographed death generated.

Bryan Walsh

What Kim Kardashian wrought when she “broke the internet”

One of the most circulated images of the past decade is of a reality star’s rear end. In November 2014, Paper Magazine unveiled its winter issue starring Kim Kardashian with a photoshoot centered around her most notable asset and the ambitious goal of “break[ing] the internet.”

On one cover, Kardashian creates a champagne fountain with her curvaceous body, unleashing foam into a glass perched on her PhotoShopped backside. (The image is a recreation of controversial photographer Jean-Paul Goude’s 1976 “Carolina Beaumont, New York” photo, but drew even more fraught comparisons to Sarah Baartman, an enslaved South African woman who was made into a freak-show attraction in 19th-century Europe for her large buttocks.) The other cover, however — where Kardashian flashes her impossibly small waist and cartoonishly round butt — is what we mainly associate with the issue. She’s wearing nothing but pearls and a self-aware smile. What was once a source of mockery for Kardashian in tabloids had now become the culture’s most coveted possession.

Lest we forget, these photos arrived at the tailend of a year all about butts. White artists like Miley Cyrus, Iggy Azalea, and even Taylor Swift were incorporating twerking into their music videos and performances. Hit songs like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” Jennifer Lopez’s “Booty,” and Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” were exalting curvy bodies. These moments contributed to the “slim-thick” physique becoming more accepted and desired outside Black and brown communities. (Twerking and voluptuous “video vixens” have long been features of rap videos.) However, it was Kardashian and, later, her sisters, who would come to represent the social complications this “trend” posed regarding the fetishization of Black bodies, cultural appropriation, and plastic surgery.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons found a 90 percent increase in Brazilian butt lift procedures from 2015 to 2019. The surgery, where patients’ stomach fat is injected into their butts, has a sordid history embedded in Brazil’s eugenics movement and the hyper-sexualization of the mixed-race Black woman, known as the “mulata.” BBLs have also garnered headlines for their deadly health risks, mainly a result of fat embolisms. Nevertheless, it became hard not to notice the amount of Instagram influencers who had apparently gotten the surgery or, at least, were digitally enhancing their butts.

Then, just as quickly, it seemed like the tide had turned once again for the “ideal” female body. In 2022, a controversial New York Post article declared that “heroin chic” was back in. Social media observers also began noticing that Kardashian was suddenly a lot smaller. At the same, the diabetes drug Ozempic emerged as Hollywood’s latest weight-loss craze. Thus, the media eagerly questioned whether the BBL era was “over,” despite the surgery’s persisting popularity.

The question illuminated the ways Black people — their culture, their aesthetics, their literal bodies — are objectified and easily discarded under the white gaze. As Rachel Rabbit White wrote, “to celebrate the supposed ‘end of the BBL’ is synonymous with the desire to kill the ways in which Black women, especially Black trans women, and especially Black trans sex workers, have shaped the culture.” Writer Ata-Owaji Victor pondered where the rejection of this trend leaves “Black women and people who naturally have the ‘BBL’ body.” The answer is seemingly: in the same position Black women have always been put — useful until they’re not.

Kyndall Cunningham 

The sweeping strike that put power back in teachers’ hands

In 2018, roughly 20,000 educators went on strike in West Virginia, protesting low pay and high health care costs. Their historic nine-day labor stoppage led to a 5 percent pay increase for teachers and school support staff.

With organizers galvanized by the victory in West Virginia, labor actions in states like Oklahoma, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, and Arizona soon followed. According to federal statistics, more than 375,000 education workers engaged in work stoppages in 2018, bringing the total number of strikers that year to 485,000— the largest since 1986.

The uprising sparked national attention and enthusiasm both about the future of school politics and the possibility of resurging worker activism more broadly. It went by the shorthand “Red for Ed” — a reference to the red clothing educators and their allies wore every time they took to the streets.

The momentum continued the next year: In 2019, more than half of all workers in the US who went on strike came from the education sector, with new teacher actions spreading to states like Arkansas, Indiana, and Illinois.

Red for Ed changed the national political narrative

To be sure, the movement didn’t create lasting change in all aspects of education policy. Average teacher pay has stayed flat for decades, and fewer people are entering the teaching profession. Union membership writ large has continued to decline. And despite educators’ pushback against school privatization, conservatives managed to push through new expansions of public subsidies for private and religious schools following the pandemic.

But the teacher uprising earned the support of parents and the public, who reported in surveys strong backing for the educators’ organizing and for increased teacher pay. This strengthened support likely helped explain why parents largely stood by their kids’ teachers during the tough months of the pandemic, when educators again banded together for stronger mitigation standards to reduce the spread of Covid-19.

During the Obama era, a powerful bipartisan coalition for education reform spent much of their time attacking educators and their unions — a scapegoat for public education’s problems that most people ultimately did not buy. Red for Ed changed the national political narrative around teachers, and in many ways was a fatal nail in the coffin for that movement.

Rachel Cohen

Malaria in Maryland (and Florida, and Texas, and Arkansas) showed that the future of climate change is now

Last year, for the first time in two decades, mosquitoes transmitted malaria on American soil. The geographic range was unprecedented, with cases in Florida, Texas, Maryland, and Arkansas. 2023 was the hottest year on record since 1850, and for the mosquitoes that spread malaria, heat is habitat; the US cases occurred amid an uptick in malaria infections on a global scale.

Scientists have been warning us for years that without more public health resources, climate change was bound to push infectious threats into environments and populations unprepared for their consequences. Malaria’s reappearance in the US signaled to many that the future has arrived.

Wild weather turns previously inhospitable areas into ones newly suitable for lots of so-called vector insects to live. It’s not just different species of mosquitoes whose migration is changing disease trends. Ticks — different species of which spread diseases like Lyme, babesiosis, and ehrlichiosis — have progressively moved into new parts of the US in recent years as they’ve warmed. Changing weather patterns also cause many of these insects to reproduce in higher numbers in their usual habitats.

Insect habitats aren’t the only ones affected by climate change. Weather is pushing animals that serve as disease reservoirs into new environments, which can lead to more “spillover” events where germs get spread from one species to another. That’s thought to explain, at least in part, the fatal borealpox infection transmitted to an Alaska man by a vole bite last year; it’s also a concern when it comes to rabies transmission.

Extreme and unseasonable heat waves are also turning a progressively large part of the US into newly comfortable digs for fungi — including molds that cause severe lung and other infections in healthy people. Warming fresh and sea waters more frequently become home to noxious blooms of toxic algae and bacteria. What’s more, the heat is kicking pathogens’ evolution into overdrive: The microorganisms that can survive it are more likely than ever to also survive in our bodies, making them more likely to cause disease — and harder to fight.

As with many health risks, the consequences of climate-related infectious threats land hardest on the people with the fewest resources — and are almost incomparably worse in lower-resource countries than inside the US.

There’s a lot we still don’t understand about how climate change interacts with communicable diseases, including malaria. Some of the shifts caused by severe weather may reduce certain risks even as they amplify others. And disentangling the effects of severe weather from changes in policy, behavior, and human immunity, especially during and after a pandemic, is a formidable task.

Still, the comeback — or debut — of peculiar pathogens on American shores makes understanding these links viscerally urgent. Our warming planet isn’t going to wait until we’ve reformed and funded our public health system, seamlessly integrated disease surveillance into health care, renewed public trust in vaccines, and realigned incentives for novel antibiotic production before the fallout of climate change quite literally bites us in the ass.

Keren Landman

Letting language models learn like children tipped the AI revolution

Imagine you have a little kid. You want to teach them all about the world. So you decide to strap them to a chair all day, every day, and force them to stare at endless pictures of objects while you say, “That’s a banana, that’s a car, that’s a spaceship, that’s…”

That’s not (I hope!) how you would actually teach a kid, right? And yet it’s the equivalent of how researchers initially tried to teach AI to understand the world.

Until a few years ago, researchers were training AIs using a method called “supervised learning.” That’s where you feed the AI carefully labeled datasets. It actually yielded some decent results, like teaching AI models to tell apart a banana and a spaceship. But it’s very labor-intensive because humans have to label every bit of data.

Hopscotch with 0s and 1s in the squares.

Then some researchers tried a different method: “unsupervised learning,” where the AI learns more like a real child does, by exploring the world freely, vacuuming up tons of unlabeled data, and gradually picking out the patterns in it. It figures out that bananas are those yellow oblong-shaped things without ever explicitly being told that.

Turns out this leads to much more powerful AI models, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini, which can explain complicated topics better and use language more naturally than the older, clunkier models. Of course, AIs are not actually kids, and there’s a lot we still don’t understand about what’s happening inside the models. Yet when these companies realized that the key to unlocking progress wasn’t spoon-feeding AI every bit of information but letting it play around until it figured things out, they ushered in the AI revolution we’re seeing today.

Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at Berkeley, was an early voice arguing that studying kids can give us useful hints about how to build intelligent machines. She’s compared children and AIs — for instance, by putting four-year-olds and AIs in the same online environments to see how each is able to learn — and found that the kids make much better inferences.

Others are catching on. A team at NYU released a study this year in which a baby wore a helmet camera, and whatever the baby saw and heard provided the training data for an AI model. From a total of just 61 hours of data, the AI learned how to match words to the objects they refer to — the word “banana,” say, to that yellow oblong fruit.

Researchers are pinpointing some of the qualities that make kids such amazing learning machines: they’re embodied, they’re curious, and they’re able to interact socially with others. Perhaps that’s why the researchers are now trying to create embodied multimodal AIs that can take in not just text, but sights, sounds, touch, and movement. They are, maybe without realizing it, embarking on an effort to replicate what evolution already did in making babies.

Sigal Samuel 

The drug that supercharged a crisis also spelled a synthetic destiny

When doctors began liberally prescribing opium and morphine to Civil War veterans for everything from amputations to diarrhea, they inadvertently kicked off the opioid epidemic over 150 years ago. It wasn’t until pharmaceutical companies started pushing prescription opioids as painkillers in the 1990s that the problem escalated to a national emergency. By 2015, pills and heroin had already made the opioid epidemic the deadliest drug crisis in US history.

Then came the fentanyl boom.

The synthetic and extremely potent opioid, introduced in the 1960s, has been used as pain medication for decades. In 2016, it became responsible for the majority of overdose deaths. It pushed the number of US drug overdoses above 100,000 in 2022, more than doubling 2015’s death toll. Because of fentanyl’s potency, it takes much less to overdose: A fatal dose fits on the tip of a sharpened pencil.

Fentanyl put an already dire crisis into hyperdrive. But its spread also marked a deadlier, more prolific era of drugs where synthetics reign supreme.

Fentanyl’s rise hinges on its synthetic nature. It can be made from just a few chemicals, while heroin and opium require the slow cultivation of poppy flowers. Compared to Oxycodone — considered a “semi-synthetic” because its production involves chemically modifying natural opioids rather than brewing them from scratch — fentanyl is roughly 60 times more potent.

Fentanyl is also up to 50 times stronger than heroin, which makes smuggling it much easier since doses require far less of the actual drug. In the mid-2010’s, Mexican cartels trafficking opioids began “cutting” drugs with fentanyl to save money, since it provided a similar high with less volume. In some cities where heroin use was widespread, suppliers have altogether replaced it with fentanyl, leaving users little choice but to switch.

Before fentanyl, overdose deaths were concentrated among opioid users. But fentanyl can be found as a filler in cocaine and MDMA supplies, spreading the overdose crisis into new terrain. Variations of fentanyl — of which there are now more than 1,400 — are already making their way into the illicit drug supply. Take carfentanil, which was developed to sedate large animals like elephants, but is now showing up in thousands of human overdoses. Carfentanil is estimated to be 100 times more potent than fentanyl itself.

Pure synthetics like fentanyl are where drug development is headed. Despite progress along many measurable dimensions, life in the 21st century will remain painful and unhealthy and full of ways to kill us. The incentive to continue developing legions of new synthetic drugs will stay strong as ever, which will continue unearthing cheaper and easier to make substances. As those make their way to patients, the risk of adding novel, more powerful drugs to the illicit drug supply will follow.

Rising awareness of fentanyl’s harms has driven some progress, from reducing production and investing in harm reduction strategies like testing strips to combating stigma and addressing upstream factors like poverty. Optimistically, the fentanyl boom, for all of its tragedy, could help us prudently navigate the contradictory potentials of the synthetics that will soon become commonplace in medicine. Otherwise, we’ll keep facing new waves of the same deadly crisis.

Oshan Jarow 

One weird Twitter fight gave us insight into how extreme wealth works today

Billionaires often try to move quietly, hiring beefy PR teams to manage their reputations as successful, hard-working, generous, hopefully un-newsworthy members of society. Then there’s Elon Musk. He engineered the rise of his cult of personality, appearing on talk shows and magazine covers — and, most notably, amassing a huge Twitter following.

In 2018, when a Thai youth soccer team got stuck in a cave, he tweeted a plan to save them. A diver involved in the rescue said the idea had “absolutely no chance of working,” and Musk’s plan went unused. The billionaire retorted by calling the diver a “pedo guy”. The fracas set off a pattern of Musk lashing out at any scrutiny of his overpromising and underdelivering, a heel turn for the Silicon Valley hero that ultimately spelled the decay of Twitter and helped set a new mold for billionaire behavior.

In March 2020, Musk claimed that he would deliver over 1,000 ventilators to California hospitals, which Gov. Gavin Newsom called a “heroic effort.” When CNN reported that only a handful of hospitals had confirmed receiving some breathing aid machines, not ventilators, from Musk, he insulted the news outlet and called on Newsom to “fix this misunderstanding.” Musk’s charitable donations (or lack thereof) also faced hefty criticism, to which he responded aggressively.

They’re happy to take credit, but reluctant to accept scrutiny

Addicted to Twitter, as fellow antagonistic billionaire Donald Trump was, Musk complained of censorship and “wokeness” on the platform as people increasingly called out his inflammatory tweets, culminating in his $44 billion purchase of the company. As owner, Musk has fired thousands of employees, driven away advertisers, ruined features like identity verification, and reinstated Trump’s banned account. Now the platform, renamed X, is overrun with porn bots. Musk claimed he has improved the experience for most users. According to app data research firm Sensor Tower, daily traffic is down by almost a quarter since late 2022. Trump, despite being unbanned, doesn’t even post on X.

Musk’s use of social media has highlighted the way some of the world’s richest and most influential proclaim they’re changing the world for the better, receive praise, and react badly when there are questions about what they’ve really accomplished. They’re happy to take credit, but reluctant to accept scrutiny. While this was perhaps always the case, now it’s that much more likely to play out in public. Take billionaire investor Bill Ackman, who used his influence to help oust Harvard president Claudine Gay on plagiarism charges earlier this year; he cried foul (on X, of course, making use of Musk increasing the platform’s character limits from 280 to 4,000 if you pay for a monthly subscription) when his wife, former MIT professor Neri Oxman, faced similar allegations.

Still, being loud online is clearly doing something for these billionaires, be it market manipulation, the kind of exposure that wins elections, or just an ego win. Even if these now very public figures cause outrage — as Musk did in the Thai cave incident — they can always bounce back, refreshing their feed and composing a new post that’s sure to get tens of thousands of likes.

Whizy Kim

Trump’s outreach to Hispanic evangelicals was years ahead of its time

It was the third day of 2020 and Donald Trump was at a Hispanic megachurch in Miami. He had returned to South Florida to launch his campaign’s “Evangelicals for Trump” effort.

That rally at the El Rey Jesús/King Jesus International Ministry was an understated inflection point for American politics. In directly speaking to Hispanic evangelicals, the Trump campaign was demonstrating that they were serious about making inroads with Latino voters and dedicating resources to scrambling the Democratic coalition.

And scrambled that coalition became. Later that year Trump would make double-digit gains in his Latino support compared to 2016; Republicans would hold onto those gains in the 2022 midterms; and nearly every poll of voters this cycle shows Trump and his party continuing to hold or expand that support, while chipping away at Democratic loyalty among Black, young, and lower-income voters.

The King Jesus location was a “natural fit,” the Trump campaign said at the time — and political strategists who advised Trump’s outreach still remember it as a shrewd decision. One of the nation’s most prominent Hispanic evangelical pastors still leads the megachurch, attended by thousands of believers of both Cuban and non-Cuban descent.

That more diverse audience meant Trump was able to send out dual messages to dual audiences: a socially conservative and heavily religious pitch centered on abortion to his base, and a more flexible message about the American Dream, economic prosperity, and the threat of “socialism,” to persuadable swing voters in attendance (like those non-Cuban congregants, who aren’t as Republican as Cuban Americans). The goal of that dual message — which Trump would bring to future events — was to set in motion shifts of nonwhite swing-state voters across the country.

It’s not entirely clear what caused the surge in GOP support among Latinos. Perhaps it was something about Trump’s brand of masculinity, a bend-the-rules-til-they-break business persona, that appealed to nonwhite men. Or was it the lack of in-person, long-term campaigning by Democratic candidates amid the pandemic and racial unrest? Other Republicans have since done even better than Trump, and though 2024 is here, questions still linger from 2020.

What we do know is that Trump was able to accelerate a trend among our major political parties: ideological sorting, or the move of conservatives and liberals toward voting for the party that better aligns with their beliefs. That resorting of the parties picked up among Hispanics; conservatives who used to vote or identify as Democrats have slid toward Republicans since 2020. Beyond Hispanics and Latinos, partisan polarization based on race has also declined more generally, as educational attainment has become a bigger divide within the nonwhite electorate, as it has been with white voters. The work Republicans did in 2020 to reach voters they believed should be natural conservatives was crucial to pushing this trend along.

Christian Paz

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