Do Not Link has added new features

DoNotLink Nonsense IconDoNotLink.com is an excellent tool for all skeptics to have in their toolkit. I’ve written about it before. I noticed recently that it has added some new features over the last few months. I thought it would be worth calling them to your attention.

The problem this tool solves is sort of an online skeptic variation of the Streisand Effect. When you critique a bad idea that has been posted on the web, you often start by linking to it. The link allows your readers to understand what you are debunking. In addition to allowing your readers to see the source, the link itself will become input to various algorithms such as Google PageRank, Facebook’s news feed algorithm and Twitter trends. But these algorithms share a crucial limitation – they all treat any reference to content as positive. (It is illustrative that there is a “Like” button on Facebook, but no “Dislike” button.) To these algorithms, there’s nowhere to go but up.

And so skeptical links literally send mixed signals out on the web. While you are telling all the humans, “This content is bad!” your hyperlink is telling all the robots “This content is good!”

DoNotLink.com solves that problem for social media, by providing a way to link to something while disabling the algorithms’ ability to measure it.  The link still works, the site still can get visitors and can still count a hit and show visitors some ads and so on. The site is in no way damaged by this way of linking! But the algorithms can no longer add that hyperlink to the site’s popularity score.

That makes it very valuable to skeptics.  So lets look at the new features, which make it even better.

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Facebook “like inflation” exaggerates the scope of Internet hoaxes

Don't Trust This NumberOver 70 thousand people shared a story about a totally fake Sarah Palin quote! Over 5 million people shared a hoax story that Macaulay Culkin had died!  It gets depressing hearing how many people get fooled by these hoaxes, doesn’t it?

The problem is, the numbers in those reports are wrong! Often, wildly wrong. They’re exaggerations caused by the confusing way that Facebook reports engagement.

Now, the underlying problem is real – social media hoaxes and rumors are bigger than ever. As a result debunking these things has become a popular pastime, well beyond the circle of organized skepticism.

Even the Washington Post runs a regular feature on Friday called What was fake on the internet this week. The science fiction site IO9 regularly debunks fake images that are making the rounds. And of course there are the old standards such as Snopes and Museum of Hoaxes, still in the business of debunking this stuff.

Read on to see how many of these well-meaning debunkers are being misled by Facebook into over-reporting the problem.

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Online science of interest to skeptics this week at #ICWSM

I know many tech-oriented skeptics are paying attention to the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco this week, wanting to find out what’s next in Macs, iPhones and iPads. But I’d like to call your attention to a different conference – a scientific conference – also going on this week. The conference is the 8th International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, it runs through tomorrow in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

ICWSM logoIt might surprise you to learn there is a great deal of peer-reviewed science going on around blogs, social media and other newer online technologies. Curiously, while I see skeptics blogging about studies in alt-med, psychology, biology or physics almost daily, I rarely see skeptic blog posts about studies on Internet technology. (There are exceptions, of course). I see much more interest in this among the computer scientists, data scientists and journalists I follow online.

I suspect one of the reasons is studies in older scientific fields have more application to pseudoscience, the paranormal and other things skeptics seek to critique. But this newer Internet research can address the methods and techniques of skepticism itself. Many skeptics these days do a great deal of our work online. We should take advantage of the available science in this area to make our online efforts more effective.

One nice thing about the AAAI conference going on this week is much of it is published online already – indeed, full copies of all the papers to be presented were available online before the conference started.  I find a number of them cover topics that will be of interest to skeptics. One of them is specifically about sending Snopes.com links to people on Twitter – a common pursuit. And another may confirm some things we know about trolls.

Let me give you a peek.

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Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) pleads guilty for the second time

Dennis MarkuzeEarlier today in Montreal, Dennis Markuze – better known to skeptics and atheists online by his online persona “David Mabus” – pled guilty to three counts including harassment, threatening a police officer, and breach of probation. The victim of harassment in this case was the author of this blog.

Paul Cherry in the Montreal Gazette was in court and has the full story:

Dennis Markuze, 43, a man who often uses the alias David Mabus when he makes threats, appeared before Quebec Court Judge Jean-Claude Boyer at the Montreal courthouse on Thursday where he entered a plea to three charges in all, including a breach of his probation.

The breach of probation charge was from his first guilty plea on May 22, 2012 and was what led us to campaign for his arrest the second time back in November 2012.  As my earlier blog post explained, the authorities were not supervising Markuze, and seemed unaware that he had resumed posting online in violation of his plea agreement.

The news article has more on Markuze’s mental state:

On Thursday, Markuze’s lawyer, Richard Bellefeuille, told Boyer that a psychiatrist who evaluated Markuze in February again attributed his actions to an abuse of cocaine and alcohol. The psychiatrist also noted that Markuze is being treated for a delusional disorder “which could explain his Internet activities.”

An expert at the Philippe Pinel Institute who examined Markuze earlier in the current case had determined that Markuze’s mental health problems could not be used as a defence if his case ever went to trial.

I had been told of the additional threats Markuze made at the time of his second arrest, but not their exact nature.  The article reveals that he told the police officer, “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Centre) twin towers in 9/11.”

As in previous stages of this long case (in which skeptic activists had to exhibit patience at every step) we will have to wait for a full resolution. Sentencing has been set for November 21 (six months from now) to give time for the Crown to verify that cocaine and alcohol abuse “are the only problems Markuze has.”

I sincerely hope that investigation will finally result in Markuze getting the treatment he clearly needs.

Misleading posts in Deepak Chopra’s Twitter feed verge on trolling

Deepak Chopra

Deepak Chopra, photo by Mitchell Aidelbaum licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Susan Gerbic contacted me the other day. She was confused by an unsolicited message she had received from none other than Deepak Chopra on Twitter. To save you the click – it’s just a bare URL in a tweet, no other explanation. Presumably Chopra wants Susan to read that blog post?

More on that later, but I told Susan I’d seen odd behavior before in Chopra’s Twitter feed. He sometimes seems almost obsessed with the idea of getting those who criticize him to read his columns and blog posts. I had made a note to myself to investigate this as part of my bad behavior series. I thought it would be an interesting follow up to my previous post about Deepak Chopra’s employee acting as his sock-puppet on Wikipedia.

It used to be that digging around in old tweets was very difficult, because Twitter’s search function only went back a few weeks. But last year Twitter enhanced search to include years of old tweets. Using Twitter’s advanced search function (which has also been recently enhanced), I dug deeper into Chopra’s Twitter feed to see how often he does things like this.

What emerges is a sad pattern of a man who has almost 2 million followers (and a verified account!) acting as if it is vitally important his followers see that he is debating with certain key atheists on Twitter. He also seems bizarrely obsessed with getting certain people to read his blog. In the process I believe he’s skirting the Twitter rules on spam, and encouraging bad behavior in some of his co-authors as well.

So let’s use that enhanced Twitter search and look a little deeper….

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The Skepticism Convention Guide opens events up to all

Lanyrd logoTwo years ago this month here on the blog I introduced skeptics to Lanyrd – a website that compiles information about multiple speaker events like conferences, symposia and workshops. It can compile all the info about an event in one place for easy reference by attendees and others.  Since I’ve been promoting the site, it has been adopted by many skeptic organizations.  It has become the official scheduling application for The Amazing Meeting, several Center for Inquiry events, Skepticamp, Germany’s SkepKon, Skeptics of Oz and more.

As a convenience to skeptics and skeptic event organizers, I and others have been curating what Lanyrd calls a “guide” – a special list of just the skeptic conferences that are upcoming and listed on the site. The guide acts as an entry point to Lanyrd for skeptics.  It has other uses too, for instance an RSS feed from this guide automatically populates the list of upcoming skeptic conferences that is visible on the right here at the blog.

Of course, numerous skeptics cannot attend these events in person due to cost or travel involved or for many other reasons. Some skeptics only attend them rarely. If you fall in this category, you might wonder why I mention Lanyrd repeatedly here, on my blog and on the Virtual Skeptics webcast.

Last week I launched social media feeds associated with the guide, to promote its value better.  Let me explain why I think this is a useful thing for all skeptics, not just those who regularly attend these events.

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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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