Robots don’t get sarcasm – don’t link directly to bad content on social media!

Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.

-Thomas Jefferson

Skeptics are quite fond of sarcasm and ridicule.

It’s understandable, really. How many blurry bigfoot films or bizarre alt-med claims can one person take? At some point you feel compelled to resort to humor. Or perhaps you just want to point out the most ridiculous claims to show how far from reality our cultural competitors are.

And so the skeptic blogosphere has long been rife with sarcastic takedowns and snide remarks. Now that social media is a big part of online skepticism, sarcasm and ridicule has come along for the ride there as well. When you’ve got to fit your comment in 140 characters there isn’t room for much more than a punch line.

But there are some side-effects to this approach that you may not have considered. I’m going to show you what those side effects are, and why you should think twice before linking directly to a pseudoscience or paranormal site from social media such as Twitter or Facebook.

Examples

I’m not trying to call anyone out here, frankly I’ve probably done it myself at some point. But so you know what I’m talking about, here are some examples from Twitter:

All of these tweets link directly to homeopathy websites that are chock full of bad science.

Why is this a problem? Measurements.

This is a problem because there are many folks out there watching and measuring social media activity. There’s the “trending topics” on Twitter, of course, but for lesser topics the number of links to a given site or page can be quantified and measured for just about anything.

Consider the screen shot fragment here (at right for most of you). This is a typical social media response box for a popular news story. See the numbers? They register the number of times this page has been posted on different social media services (from left to right: Facebook, Twitter, Email and Google Plus).

The higher those numbers go, the more of a signal you are sending to the content creator. Whether you realize or not, you’re telling them to produce more content like this.  Many of them do not care whether you hated the content, only that you looked at it (and therefore saw some ads).

Why would we want to tell someone to create more pseudo-scientific non-evidence-based crap?

And of course, just because you don’t see these numbers displayed on a given site, that doesn’t mean nobody is looking at them. There are numerous tools that let you track and measure this activity quietly in the background.

Indeed, someone other than the site owner might be measuring the popularity of content for competitive value.  I’m currently researching a future post to show skeptics how to do this for non-skeptical content you don’t own – it’s a great way to research the competition. And so this can have effects even if there is no site advertising involved.

The argument here is similar to my original point regarding including NOFOLLOW on skeptical links. Namely, that we have an ethical obligation as skeptics to avoid promoting bad information, even if it is only in a very small way.

A More Visible Case: Social Search

I bet some of you are not yet convinced. Skeptics often seem to be a small minority in the marketplace of ideas, how could our numbers possibly sway these statistics in any meaningful way? Well there’s another new development that is making these links much more visible to people you care about.

In January Google introduced a new feature of search called Search Plus Your World, that integrates social media metrics into normal search results. If you are logged in to Google while using the regular Google search, you will see answers boosted up in the results based on the recommendations of your friends and acquaintances in Google Plus. For example, here’s a small slice of the results I get for “reiki” when I search in Google:

That second result only appears because Angela Meadon and I are connected on Google Plus. Now, in this case that result is a skeptical page. But what if I were a non-skeptic, and Angela had posted something sarcastic that linked to a pro-Reiki site? Nothing in this result clues me in to what Angela’s attitude toward this post is, just that she shared it. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a way to get back to the original post that caused this to appear.

This month Twitter revealed similar enhancements to its Discover feature. Stories will appear here based on tweets by people in your circles. It looks like this:

You can see the original sarcasm (if any) by clicking “View Tweet”, so that’s an improvement. (But note that link only appears once you hover your mouse cursor over the story).  But these tweeted stories still get added visibility to people who are connected to you on Twitter (directly or indirectly).

Finally, Microsoft’s search engine Bing introduced a social side-bar feature this month. This seems a bit less integrated into the results than Google and Twitter. But it still can surface content based on posts from your friends, and it also does not show the content of the posts themselves by default.

Admittedly, these features have limitations. Google’s search is oriented almost entirely around Google Plus – if neither you nor any of your friends use that service, then there is no danger. Similarly, Bing’s feature seems biased toward Facebook (though not entirely). Perhaps you can avoid certain services and avoid the problem?

Maybe, but not for long. The competition between Google and Bing in particular guarantees that these features will be enhanced over time to cover more content and more services. They will be harder and harder to avoid.

You have to face up to the fact that just the act of tweeting a remark is going to to make the linked content far more visible than it would have been. And this visibility is maximized for your friends and loved ones, the people you are trying to protect.

Alternatives to direct linking

You might be tempted to make a copy of the content somewhere, and then link to that. For instance, you could take a screen shot and link to the photo. I can’t recommend this, because of potential copyright violation issues. Some content providers take this very seriously.

But there are many ways to go:

Write a blog post about the bad content. If you have a blog, take the step to write a post first before Tweeting anything. If you feel you must link to the original content in your blog post, be sure to include NOFOLLOW on the link. Then trumpet your blog post on social media instead of the original content. The social metrics will accrue to you and not to the bad content.

If you are not up to a full-fledged blog, there are certainly services like Tumblr and Posterous that offer lightweight ways to post short pieces of content without all the overhead.

Link to someone else’s blog post. There are tons of skeptics out there writing some great content. Even if you have your own blog, sometimes its better to let someone else take the lead on a given item. Skeptics should support one another, we are on the same team.

Link to the Doubtful News story. Sometimes a news story isn’t worthy of a full skeptical debunking, but demands some comment. Many of these will be posted on the skeptical news site Doubtful News. Give them a boost and link to their page for the story. Participate in the comments too!

Link to an archived version of the story. If the content has been around for at least six months, it might already appear in the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Find the cached copy there and link to it. Wait, why is this not copyright violation? It isn’t because the Internet Archive provides easy standard ways for web sites to opt their content out of being archived. Many, like most news sites, do.

Update: See my 2013 post on DoNotLink for another alternative to direct links!

Bottom line: don’t link directly, link skeptically. Don’t help amplify nonsense.

Thanks to Martin Robbins who inspired this post with this post on Twitter.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

8 Responses to Robots don’t get sarcasm – don’t link directly to bad content on social media!

  1. You know, I was thinking about this recently from a different perspective. Do you know if it would still count links the same way if it was appended to a bacolicio.us sort of thing? What I mean is I’d love to have a thing like the bacon slice–but that says: WRONG! or #FAIL or DANGER! or something customizable possibly. Then you could tweet the item, it would carry your comment, and maybe not count the same way? But I don’t know. I did try tweeting baco links and they converted well with bitly.

    I have no idea how one makes one of these, but it would be very handy.
    Example: http://bacolicio.us/http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vegetarianism

    • Tim Farley says:

      Oh you know, that’s an interesting idea. I assume that bacolicio.us is creating an IFRAME around the original content. I need to do a little research on whether that would properly shield it from being counted.

  2. idoubtit says:

    Thank you so much, Tim, for this post. And of course, for the shout out to DN. One of our goals was to provide the skeptical view when people search for the topic so linking is VERY important for us.

    I have used WebCite not only to preserve a pages content but also to show people something aggregious. I do not want it showing up as a link on the blog so the archive is great.

    Is there a quick way to add ‘no follow’ on wordpress links other than manually? (ex. Click box for ‘target blank’).

    I think the key point is don’t reshare these stories. I say that because I USE these stories as blog content. So I need someone to tell me about them. Also, in some cases it may be useful as a call to provide comments to a piece.

  3. Pingback: Content Roundup for May 2012: Summer is Coming « Skeptical Software Tools

  4. Tim Farley says:

    A new wrinkle on the phenomenon I describe in this blog post just came to light, involving when you send a URL over a private message on Facebook. Facebook automatically increases the “likes” counter on that URL, as if you had clicked the Like button – but without attaching your name.

    Bottom line: do not pass links to pseudoscience sites to other skeptics over Facebook PMs.

  5. Pingback: Morning Toolbox – October 5, 2012 – Yet More Facebook News « Skeptical Software Tools

  6. Pingback: Virtual Skeptics, Episode 9 (10 Oct 2012) « The Virtual Skeptics

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