See how to debunk viral photos in seconds using image search

Google Image SearchBack in August I wrote about how Google Image Search and other reverse image search engines are a valuable tool to debunk viral hoaxes. Last week yet another example popped up that shows just how easy these types of debunks can be.

The new example involves social media posts about animal rights and animal testing. Photos of suffering animals are always compelling, and often go viral. While most people sympathize with the animals pictured, there is a secondary lesson here – don’t forget to apply skepticism to viral content even when the message confirms your own beliefs and pet causes.

I’m an animal fan myself – we have both a dog and a cat in our household. The purpose of this post is not to criticize animal rights activists, but show how to verify photos. So lets see how it’s done.

Warning: If you are particularly sensitive to pictures of animals in medical situations, you might not want to see the photo in this post. Try reading my previous post on this topic instead.

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Reverse image search as a skeptic tool – with a twist

The Beast of Trowbridge - in duplicate

The Beast of Trowbridge?

I must confess I’ve been remiss in not blogging about this particular topic earlier.  Investigating anomalous photos has always been a skeptic mainstay – for over a century and a half in fact. Ghost photos of one type or another have existed practically since the invention of photography. Those have been subsequently joined by photos of cryptids, UFOs and other alleged anomalous phenomena.

Now that practically everyone has a camera in their pocket all the time (in the form of a mobile phone) photos of this type pop up constantly – along with opportunities to investigate them. And so we need as many skeptics as possible to have some skills in investigating the latest local ghost or UFO photo.  There are just too many of them to send them all to Joe Nickell or Richard Wiseman.

Because photos are ubiquitous, and doctoring photos using software is so incredibly easy, tools for detecting photo manipulation (like FourMatch and Tungstene) are becoming more common.  But software like that can be quite expensive – out of the range of the average skeptic.

But today I’m writing about something far, far simpler.  In fact, it’s an incredibly easy way to detect obvious hoaxes based on stolen or misrepresented photos.  It should be in every skeptic’s toolkit, along with a trick for using it that I’ve never seen suggested before.

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Do Not Link allows you to ethically criticize bad content

Be sure to check the update at the very end of the article.

I’ve written many times about how skeptics need to take care when linking to bad information that we intend to rebut. Because links are used by search engines to measure the importance of content, linking to a piece of pseudoscience or misinformation (in the process of rebutting or debunking it) might actually have the effect of making it more visible to others. That’s not desirable. I would even say it is unethical to increase the visibility of such content, insofar as it has the potential to cause harm.

Do Not Link: link without improving "their" search engine positionIf you doubt my thesis, read this New York Times article. It tells the story of how negative reviews of a particular business actually had the effect of catapulting that business to the top of the relevant search result, thereby bringing it more customers. Talk about a skeptic backfire!

In blog posts and other web content, I’ve long recommended a best practice for skeptics to use the HTML NOFOLLOW attribute to prevent this from happening. It’s straightforward, it’s an industry standard and there’s no good reason not to do it. Australian skeptic Joel Birch even built a WordPress plugin to make it easy for bloggers on that platform.

In another post, I’ve documented how a similar problem is now happening in social media settings. Although social media websites usually NOFOLLOW user supplied links, the importance of Twitter & Facebook has led many search engines and analytics packages to ignore that use of NOFOLLOW. Not only that, but it is now known that linking to content in Facebook (even in private messages) actually adds to the “like” count on that content!

All of this activity serves to boost the visibility of nonsense and makes it look more popular than it is. It matters not how brilliantly snarky you were in your Tweet, the measuring algorithms only care about the fact that you included a link to the Daily Mail. This encourages publishing entities like newspapers to create more of the same crap. I think we can all agree this is not a good thing.

Thus I’ve long recommended avoiding this by linking in your social media posts to a critical blog post or via the corresponding Doubtful News item instead. But with breaking stories and the like, there isn’t always such a good alternative. Courtesy of Eric Weiss at Skepticsonthe.net, I’ve become aware of another solution to this problem.

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How To Report A Suspicious Email

© Copyright Patrick Mackie and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Royal Mail … Junk Mail (Patrick Mackie) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Skeptics sometimes must deal with threats and harassment in emails. This week, our old friend “David Mabus” has started using email again, which means I’ve been sent all manner of reports. While I appreciate these reports, most of them are merely forwarded emails. It turns out that forwarded emails are are all but useless to a forensic investigator.

When you forward an email, key details of where it originated and how it was delivered are left behind. These details are exactly what an investigator needs to do their work. So forwarding doesn’t help.

Thus it is very important when you report a suspicious or threatening email that you use the right method, that captures all the forensic information. This method is not always obvious in modern email clients.

I will show you the method for common email clients in this post, and provide some links to other resources. Read on.

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Finding the Paper Behind the News Story: Two New Tools

Skeptic bloggers have always had a a love-hate relationship with science journalism, as Steve Novella mentioned on his blog last week. On one hand, they keep us in business by making mistakes that we can blog about. But on the other hand those mistakes also damage the public perception of science.

One small aspect of this is the common failure to link to sources online. The bread and butter of science reporting is an article about the results in a new scientific paper. And yet many of these articles will never mention the title of the paper, much less hyperlink to where it could be found online. This leaves skeptical readers at a loss to dig further on the topic.

Ben Goldacre has long hammered on this issue, and even badgered BBC to change their linking policy for quite some time.  Late in 2010 he succeeded in getting BBC to change their policy and to link to sources. But the BBC hasn’t been consistent about applying this policy since, and of course they are only one website.

Two new services emerged this week to attack this particular issue. Read on for more details.

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How to Monitor the Reputation of Your Website

Because we criticize the claims of others, skeptics are often attacked. In the world of Internet skepticism, these attacks often come in digital form.

I’ve often written about using Web of Trust (and tools like it) to warn unsuspecting users about dangerous misinformation websites. It is inevitable that the owners of these sites will become aware of the negative ratings we’ve given them.  But what if they decide to retaliate against skeptics?

It’s not really a question of if.  Judging from a few instances I’ll document here, some are not only fighting to repair the reputations of their own sites in Web of Trust, but some are voting against skeptic sites in Web of Trust and other online site rating services as well. (Yes, there are other services that rate websites for end users beyond WoT).

So what’s a skeptic webmaster to do?  What’s the best way to become aware of malicious activity like this as quickly as possible?  Unfortunately there’s no one silver bullet, but I can recommend a few tips and one site that will let you monitor your site’s reputation in 30+ services in one fell swoop.

Read on for more details…

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How to build link strength for your skeptic web site

Recently a skeptic webmaster who runs more than one site asked me for some advice on driving more traffic to their newer sites. They knew I talk about SEO on this blog and figured I could give them some tips. I’m always happy to help out another skeptic.

One of the first thing I did was look at the number of inbound links to the new website. A key element of any SEO strategy is always inbound links – other sites linking to yours. The more links to your site, the more weight your pages will be given in search engines. And search engine hits are often a third or more of your traffic.

In this post I’ll show how you can measure this, and give some skeptic-specific tips for generating some good back-links to your site.

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How To Edit Wikipedia, Part II: Patrol for vandalism

This is the second in a series of articles aimed at first-time editors of Wikipedia, but also contains tips useful to anyone who spends time on that site. Please be sure to read Part I, here. Come back the same time next week for the next article in this series.

In the first part of this series, you set up your account on Wikipedia, and began to add articles to your watch list. You should be comfortable with looking at the watch list regularly, and recognizing the types of editing activity that typically occurs across the articles you have chosen to watch.

In this second part, you will begin to use your watch list as a practical tool to find places where you can pitch in and help. We will continue slowly building up your level of activity over time, and before you know it you’ll be making very significant edits to Wikipedia.

As I explained in the first part, the reason for this slow build is give other editors a chance to develop trust in you. Or even if they aren’t aware of you, by the time they notice your edits you will have a significant history built up.  That will help them understand that you are not a vandal but someone genuinely interested in improving the quality of information on Wikipedia.

This week, we start to create that edit history.

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How To Edit Wikipedia Part I: Set up your account

This is the first in a series of articles aimed at first-time editors of Wikipedia, but also contains tips useful to anyone who spends time on that site. Come back the same time next week for the next article in this series.

In the three plus years that I’ve been recommending that skeptics make an effort to edit Wikipedia, I often hear objections from skeptics who have tried, failed and given up. Some have anecdotes of factual edits they attempted, only to be slapped down by more experienced editors. Others report they attempted to bring some sense to a controversial article about a particular pseudoscience, and ended up battling with believers.

The common element in many of these stories is that these editors assumed that it was sufficient to have science or fact on their side.  Surely the others editing Wikipedia will see the truth inherent in their additions?

Perhaps in an just, ideal world. But in our flawed, real world the other editors of Wikipedia are fallible humans who are constantly encountering troublesome edits that must be undone. In order to have your work accepted, you have to be aware of this. You have to earn their trust.

In this first of a series of posts, I’ll give you some tips on how to get started on this.

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Case Study: How a notorious spammer was brought down via Twitter

Today the Montreal Police announced that an arrest has been made (in French here) in the “Mabus” case. It wouldn’t have happened but for Twitter. This post explains how.

Twitter has been around for five years now, but there is still much confusion about what it is good for. How can you post anything useful in 140 characters? Isn’t it just people posting what they had for lunch? It’s a massive time waster. Those are typical complaints.

And yet there are several thousand self-proclaimed skeptics actively using Twitter quite effectively as a means of communication and organization. I quite like it myself. Unlike some complicated multi-purpose websites like Facebook, Twitter is dead simple. And you can do amazingly useful things with it.

“Like what?” you might ask. Well in the last week the science, journalism, skeptic and atheist communities on Twitter organized to pressure a law enforcement agency to take action on someone who has been a copious source of spam and death threats on the Internet for at least 15 years. Today’s arrest came about in under 10 days from the first moves.

I think the sequence of events of how this came together are quite interesting, and perhaps an object lesson in online activism. As it was happening I was capturing links to the relevant posts so I could document how it came about. Read on…

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