August 13, 2013 21 Comments
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.
If 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.