The right way and the wrong way to file skeptic complaints

Complaint Department grenade by Adam the atom , distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Complaint Department grenade by Adam the atom , distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Complaining about things is pretty central to being a skeptic. Most skeptics are good complainers by their nature.

But if you want to be an effective skeptical activist, you need to know how to target your complaints properly. A blog post complaining about something (often the first resort for many skeptics) is only immediately effective if your blog has a large following. That’s nice for those that have it, but the rest of us usually need to take our complaints to a more effective venue. I’ve written before about complaining to government regulators using Fishbarrel, for instance. Complaining to the police via a petition was a crucial step in getting a notorious Twitter spammer arrested.

In online activism, complaining often involves using the specialized complaint procedures of a particular website or platform. Most of the larger, well-established sites (Facebook, YouTube and so on) have relatively robust complaint procedures. Smaller sites will have less well-thought-out procedures, or perhaps none at all. But the key is to know what’s there, what the rules are around them, and when it is appropriate to use them.

There were two stories in the news recently about complaints involving websites that caught my eye. One involved skeptical activists using complaints to target Scientology. The other involved complaints in the opposite direction – from paranormalists about skeptics on Wikipedia. Let’s take a quick look at these two cases and see what we can learn about effective complaining.

The Good

If you’re interested in news from the world of Scientology, former Village Voice journalist Tony Ortega’s blog The Underground Bunker is a great site to have on your reading list. He recently reported that that the Anonymous hacktivist group has been battling the secretive cult over ads on Craigslist. Digging deeper we find some good lessons about how to use complaints effectively.

For the few who may not be familiar with Craigslist, it’s a classified ads site available in 570 cities in 50 countries. Most ads placed on the site are free. Because of that attractive price and the success of the site, there are naturally various terms of service to limit abuse. The company earns money by selling certain types of ads to companies, such as job placement ads, allowing individual ads to remain free.

Scientology watchers noticed that some outreach people in local branches of the church had adopted the practice of creating hundreds of free ads on Craigslist to recruit new members. The ads would usually not explicitly mention they were for the church, of course. They would be posted in self-help categories, and categories for people dealing with life problems or depression. Here’s an example of one of the ads, for a Group titled “Are you a truth seeker at heart?”

Do you like reading books about life and truths about the universe?
Do you think that you possess untapped potentials that you would like to develop?
Have you ever had “spiritual” experiences before?
Does the move “The Matrix” touch you in an unexplained way?
Join our group. We have classes, speakers, books, and friendly people. Call….

No indication there that you are actually being recruited to join a church. Essentially, Scientology was targeting vulnerable people and being dishonest about it. Ortega uncovered internal documents from the Church that explained the procedures they used and indicated they would often have 200 ads going at one time in a single city.

After noticing this, the Anonymous campaigners knew these ads were probably violating the Craigslist rules. In order to keep ads free, you are limited to running certain numbers of ads at a time, and not posting multiple ads per day – especially for the same thing. They carefully checked the Craigslist terms of service, determined exactly what rules were being broken, and set out to find the ads and flag them to the operators of Craigslist using the tools provided on the site.

They’ve even recently posted a handy guide on how to do this, with admonishments to do it within the rules of Craigslist. Elsewhere I’ve seen comments where they take care to correlate the phone numbers in the ads with known Scientology phone numbers, so they don’t put block requests on coincidentally similar self-help ads.

Anonymous been running this program under the name “ClearCraig” since about 2009, according to Ortega. And it’s been very effective – even Scientology’s own internal memos on Craigslist note that the ads get flagged on a regular basis, Ortega reports.

The Bad

The second story runs in the opposite direction, in several ways. It involves supporters of the paranormal complaining about skeptics.

Recently complaints about skeptics on Wikipedia arose from Craig Weiler, a paranormal blogger notorious for ignoring scientific evidence about psi. It was about the editing of Rupert Sheldrake’s biography on Wikipedia. Most recently Sheldrake himself became aware of and blogged on the alleged issue. Both Sheldrake and the other blogger attempted to pin the blame for the situation on Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. (Fair notice: that project was inspired by my posts and talks about skeptics and Wikipedia, and so I am a supporter, of course).

Rupert Sheldrake, distributed under a public domain license.

Rupert Sheldrake, distributed under a public domain license.

It is true that Rupert Sheldrake’s biography has had quite a few edits recently – over 750 since June. This was kicked off when a brand new user user made a huge number of edits to the article that supported Sheldrake’s claims, but couldn’t be supported by references. (Notably, this was just after a controversy back in March over a talk Sheldrake gave at a TEDx – a controversy stoked in part by Craig Weiler).

That anonymous Wikipedia user attracted attention with their rule-breaking edits, and other more skeptical editors stepped in. The user was eventually blocked from editing Wikipedia because they simply weren’t following the rules. But other editors continued to improve the article, and what some would call an “edit war” erupted.  Heated words have been exchanged on the various talk pages – again apparently stoked in part by Craig Weiler. (One notes that his editing history shows no constructive contributions to articles – only to talk and administrative pages. Wikipedia admins take an understandably dim view of that sort of meddling by non-contributors).

At least one editor involved has responded, disputing almost everything Weiler and Sheldrake have said. I’ve looked at the history of the edits involved myself.  I’m familiar with many of the GSoW editors, and as far as I can tell none of them have been working on Sheldrake’s page!

Just to repeat that – the central claim, that Guerrilla Skeptics are controlling Sheldrake’s bio, is demonstrably false.  It is a classic conspiracy theory. I asked Susan Gerbic directly, and she confirmed that Sheldrake’s bio was not on their current project list. But you don’t need Susan’s word, just search for the name “Sheldrake” at the project blog and you find only a post about a related article, and no indication they had worked on Sheldrake’s bio. (Believe me, they’re not shy about showing off their work – it’s part of their outreach efforts).  Look in the editing history of the people actually editing Sheldrake’s article, and you’ll find only cursory overlap with articles the guerrilla skeptics have bragged about editing.

So Sheldrake and Weiler are actually complaining about the wrong thing entirely! Instead of floating conspiracy theories about the Guerrilla Skeptics, they should be studying the Wikipedia rules and trying to understand why it is their edits keep getting rejected.

The Take Away

There’s a stark contrast between those two stories. The Anonymous campaigners saw a problem (misleading ads) that could be solved through online complaints, and crowdsourced a very smart, targeted solution. The supporters of Sheldrake saw what they thought was a problem in Wikipedia, jumped to an incorrect conclusion as to who was to blame, and complained in blogs and on talk pages, to little effect so far.

So we can see that complaining can be effective, but it must follow some principles:

  • Make sure you are complaining about the right thing
  • Make sure you are complaining in a place where it will have effect
  • Use the appropriate complaint measures on the platform
  • Follow all the rules of that platform (both in your own activities, and in your complaints)

Much of this can be boiled down to – do your homework first.  Always a good rule of thumb.  As is often the case, in these two stories the skeptics have done theirs and the paranormalists have not.

16 thoughts on “The right way and the wrong way to file skeptic complaints

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  2. sgerbic

    Wonderful Tim. As usual you are on top of the research. I’m sorry for these people forever living in a world of conspiracies. And I’m sorry that Sheldrake was drawn into this as I’m sure it must be very frustrating to know your online presence is being changed in ways you have no control over. He had no idea what to expect next. His supporter person is guilty of crying wolf without doing the research, and that speaks volumes to what kind of care he puts in the rest of his work.

    Wikipedia rules can be very confusing, and editors write in some odd language of links to articles that are full of more links.

    In this case I think it is a case of someone with a little knowledge jumping to conclusions in a place where more knowledge is needed.

    As you said, I and my team have not touched his page. We have far more important projects to deal with right now.

    And I love the Tony Ortega Blog.

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