Paying Attention Pays Off

Please accept my apologies for the sudden dearth of posts here. As you know The Amazing Meeting 2012 is fast approaching, and I must prepare for my the workshop I am presenting.  So don’t expect any 5,000 word opuses in the next four weeks, although I will definitely be posting a few things, including my annual digital guide to TAM.

Today I thought I would offer a quick object lesson on skeptical preparedness. Things in the online world move quickly. One minute you’re the new darling (think Instagram) and the next minute you are yesterday’s lunch (think Myspace).

This extends to the skeptic sphere online as well. Sites go up and sites go down, and skeptics need to be ready to react. Last week UK skeptic Keir Liddle noticed something unusual in the logs of his website. By following up on it, and mentioning it on Twitter, he allowed skeptics to get a crucial leg up on reacting to a new attack.

The Referer

Whenever you click a link from one site to jump to another, a little piece of information comes along for the ride. Called the “Referer” [sic] it allows the target web page to see the address (URL) of the original web page where its visitors are arriving from. This can be very useful to webmasters trying to promote their site.

What Keir noticed early on the morning of Tuesday June 12 was a referer to his site (The Twenty-First Floor) from a site he had never heard of before: “jamesrandiusa.org”. He took a look at the site, and then he took to Twitter:

The other skeptics on Twitter (including Hayley Stevens as you see above) also looked at the site and were amazed at what they found. It was full of a scurrilous set of allegations, which long-time skeptics will recognize as old half-baked fictions stemming from a lawsuit decades ago.  I don’t need to go into them here, see below for some follow-up.

The Reaction

Several skeptics chimed in with suggestions of what to do, such as reporting it to JREF:

Sharon Hill suggested reporting it to the web hosting company that owns the server. She suggested this to several skeptics because each of us was named on the site as “affiliates” of James Randi and his “Skeptic Society”. (Suffice it to say that among many other deficits, the site was poorly researched as well).

I looked at the site, and was amazed to find my own picture! Apparently the site aimed to attack me too, but my biography page (like that of several people listed) was currently blank. I replied that I thought it might be good to adjust the Web of Trust rating for the site.

Skeptics made short work of that, its rating is well down in the red already.

I did some research in Google and the search engine could neither find the site itself, nor any other site that linked to it. The only links to it on social media were the skeptic conversations I quoted above.  Clearly either the person creating it had done absolutely nothing to promote it yet.

I suspect that this was because it was unintentional that the site was even visible in the first place. (The incomplete biography pages were another clue).

So where did the “referer” hit come from? Simple, it was probably the author of the site testing out a link while editing Keir’s bio page (that he links above). Sure enough, there’s a link to Keir’s website on that page.

And then a surprise came.

The Surprise

Sometime between 9am and 9:30am Eastern U.S. time, the whole site suddenly disappeared, replaced with a generic login prompt that indicated the site was in “Maintenance Mode”, seen below.

Joomla login from jamesrandiusa.org

Perhaps the site owner had noticed us visiting it and/or talking about it. Perhaps they just coincidentally noticed they had accidentally put the site in a “live” mode. Either way, they definitely fixed their mistake. Several of us who complained to the hosting company got an email reply hours later that said:

Thank you for contacting the Legal Department.

At the time of this reply, the site was not active so we were unable to verify your claim. There are two methods by which you could pursue your complaint if the site goes back online…

At this point, several of us captured what we could from the caches in our browsers. (Most web browsers keep copies of what you’ve been looking at, so if you know where to look you can retrieve the pages from your own hard drive). We shared the pages and screen shots we got with each other.

We also looked at the IP address and WHOIS information for the website, and found it was hosted at the same server as several pro alt-med sites that had gotten into fights with skeptics before. That seemed to point to a certain suspect being involved.

Several blog posts resulted. They included one from Keir himself, from Mad Skeptic and from legal eagle Popehat. You can read more about what was included on the site in those posts.

But the bottom line is, if this site ever reappears, skeptics will be ready for it. And that is because Keir Liddle was paying attention.

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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.

2 Responses to Paying Attention Pays Off

  1. sgerbic says:

    Great job. Love to see when everyone comes together and has each other’s back. Crowd-sourcing works.

  2. Pingback: Content Roundup for June 2012: TAM is Almost Here! « Skeptical Software Tools

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