Author Archives: Tim Farley

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.

New fact checking websites of interest to skeptics

True or FalseOver at the INSIGHT blog on Monday, I wrote about how newsrooms and journalism non-profits are increasingly building tools that are of use to skeptics. This is happening because the rise of viral misinformation (driven by social media) has made fact-checking and debunking a key need for journalists.

Skeptics who are not politically active may not frequent sites like Politifact or FactCheck.org, but they are multiplying. A recent survey counted as many as 89 of them worldwide (though some are only active in election years). Even if the political statements being covered there aren’t of interest to you, the sheer fact that fact checking is becoming normalized should be a good thing for skepticism online.

But this brings up another problem – there are so many sites specializing in debunking falsehoods now, how does a diligent skeptic keep up? Perhaps we need a fact checking aggregator! And are any of these sites covering science stories that are the meat and potatoes of skepticism?

I’ve got some good news related to those questions and three new sites to check out.

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The Food Babe tries (and fails) to thwart skeptics with technology

Vani Hari by the Charlotte Video Project, licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vani Hari by the Charlotte Video Project, licensed CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Vani Hari, aka “The Food Babe,” has been a recent repeated target of criticism both from skeptics and the mainstream media.  She has not taken this criticism well, lashing out at her critics.

She has also been caught deleting content from her social media pages and her own website after it became the target of derision. This is not new to skeptics; it happens all the time. That’s why I’ve recommended on this blog that all skeptics be very familiar with the use of web archiving tools. You never know when the content you criticize might be “disappeared” by its embarrassed author, so it is always good to have a copy safely archived.

But Ms. Hari (or her technical staff or SEO consultant) have noticed this, and have started taking measures to thwart skeptics. In November 2014 they made a change on her web server that prevents skeptic use of the most popular archiving tool, the Internet Wayback Machine, for her site.

And just this week they have attempted to prevent skeptics from using another tool that entered our arsenal right from the pages of this blog – Do Not Link.  This is a URL shortener I recommend for linking to pages you wish to criticize without giving them a “Google boost.” Last week the Food Babe made a change that would cause any Do Not Link URL to the site to fail to arrive – denying her own site readers while annoying skeptics.

But this latest technical measure has completely failed. Read on as I explain what they did, how you can work around it, and why measures like this will always fail.

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More twists and turns in the saga of David Mabus

Dennis Markuze at the provincial courthouse in Montreal, Friday Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Phil Carpenter for Montreal Gazette

Dennis Markuze at the provincial courthouse in Montreal, Nov. 21, 2014. Photo by Phil Carpenter for Montreal Gazette. (Note the Depeche Mode shirt)

The long story of Dennis Markuze (aka “David Mabus”) did not end today, as expected. We had expected him to be sentenced in his second guilty plea.  This was the plea to threatening both myself and a Montreal Police officer, and violating his previous plea agreement to refrain from posting on social media and Internet forums.

Instead, his sentencing hearing was called off at the last minute – and in an unusual twist I got the word of this literally while I was talking about the case live on an online webcast!

The hearing today was presaged yesterday by a very interesting article in the Montreal Gazette by Paul Cherry, who has been following the case for some time. (I am quoted in the article).

The article points out that Markuze has nodded in agreement and admitted to his crimes while in front of the judge on multiple occasions. That includes the threat made at the time of his second arrest, quote: “You bitch. The same thing will happen to you like what happened to the (World Trade Center) twin towers in 9/11.” Markuze has never disputed any of this in court.

But does Markuze truly believe his own plea? Cherry gives reason to doubt.

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Facebook adds feature to reduce spread of viral fake news

Facebook IconLike it or not, Facebook is now central to the propagation of news and other media online. Links to online articles from Facebook posts often constitute the lion’s share of traffic to that post. So savvy publishers do anything they can to increase the likelihood that you will post or repost their content. At the same time, many legitimate journalists are a little freaked out that a private company like Facebook has so much power over what we all see.

This has led to the rise of click bait – posts with headlines and/or graphics that all but dare you not to read them, sometimes with salacious or silly content that will encourage sharing. One annoying variety of click bait that became prominent starting in 2013 are “fake news” sites. They post content ostensibly similar in intent to the comedy site The Onion, without any of the clever or hilarious writing. Some of them deliberately design their sites to encourage confusion with well known media properties. One of them (National Report) even basically admitted in an interview that what they are doing is trolling extreme conservatives for clicks.

I’ve recently written about these sites, and how Facebook’s engagement numbers sometimes exaggerate their true reach. But exaggeration or not, Facebook still sends millions of readers every day to these sites and myriad other sources of misinformation. That’s a problem central to what skeptics are all about.

But last week Facebook made a change that might help solve this problem in a general way – and which also might be useful to skeptic activists. Read on.

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My Year in Review: 2014

Measuring TapeIt’s time once again for my year-in-review wrap-up post. I encourage skeptics to measure what they do, so this is part of my effort to practice what I preach.

Something different for this year, I’m going to include some non-skeptical, personal items because – what the heck.  I’ve spent a bunch of effort losing some weight and making other improvements in my life. In the spirit of quantified self why not look back on that too?

So here we go…

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Crowdsourced climate feedback via the newly launched Hypothes.is

hypothes.is logoBack in the fall of 2011 I wrote about a new web annotation tool called hypothes.is. At that time it was just a Kickstarter project that I recommended everyone support.

But since then it was successfully funded to the tune of $100,000, it has received additional funding and support from major foundations, and the software has been successfully completed. The tool launched this past October 27! It can now be used in most desktop browsers – it has plugins for Chrome and Firefox and a bookmarklet for Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera.  I highly recommend it to all skeptics.

So what is web annotation?  It’s very simple – it’s a way of attaching comments, criticism and so on directly to original content on the web. Unlike conventional comment threads, which are often a distant scroll away from the text to which they refer, annotations appear right next to the original. And since annotations reside in hypothes.is, they are not subject to the censorious whims of the owner of the original content.

As you can imagine, this could be a boon for skepticism, as it allows skeptics to directly respond to claims exactly where they are made.  Anyone who has the hypothes.is plugin installed would be able to see the original content and the skeptical commentary too. That solves the crucial problem (also solved by other tools such as RBUTR) of how to lead readers from the misinformation to the correction.

But of course, there’s the additional problem of deploying skeptics to create good annotations on content that needs it. There’s an opportunity here for curation projects along the lines of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia.  GSoW has set its sights on improving content on Wikipedia, and targeted particular articles for improvement. Similar groups of skeptics could take on the task of creating web annotations pointing out misinformation online. To be effective, such groups should definitely plan to target their efforts, perhaps by topic area.

Well, for one specific topic – climate change – someone’s already formed such a group.

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On #GivingTuesday Don’t Forget to Smile

Giving Tuesday bannerThis time of year seems to be nothing but special shopping days. The news is full of talk of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. It seems like all talk is about shopping.

As a reaction to this, today has been designated “Giving Tuesday” – a day to think of others and to give back to the community. It was created by New York’s 92nd Street Y with the help of the United Nations Foundation two years ago. They have a variety of tools and ideas for giving on their site, which I encourage you to do.

One dead simple thing you can do requires very little effort, if you already are doing holiday shopping at Amazon. I’ve written before about how many skeptic websites and organizations can be supported by shopping using their Amazon affiliate links. You can even support this site by shopping at What’s the Harm.

Since I wrote that post, Amazon introduced an even easier way to support non-profit organizations – they call it Amazon Smile. It allows you to designate your favorite non-profit to get a donation when you shop at Amazon. Many of the national non-profits familiar to skeptics are available to designate in the program, including:

  • Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
  • Foundation Beyond Belief
  • James Randi Educational Foundation
  • Secular Student Alliance
  • Skeptics Society

There are many more, be sure to use the search function to find your favorite.  But don’t just think about national organizations, you may also be able to support a local skeptic group such as:

  • Bay Area Skeptics
  • Black Skeptics (Los Angeles)
  • National Capital Area Skeptics
  • New York City Skeptics
  • North Texas Skeptics

So if you do some of your holiday shopping at Amazon this year, make sure to start at smile.amazon.com and designate a non-profit when prompted.  You have to return to that link each time you start a new shopping session to have your purchases count.

To help you remember to do this, there are plugins for Chrome and Firefox (and bookmarklets for other browsers), you’ll be prompted to install the appropriate one when you pick a charity:
Firefox smile plugin prompt

This will provide a handy shortcut that you can click to be sure your purchases count.  Be sure to note your designated charity on the top line of every web page as you shop.

But most of all, have a happy holiday season.

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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My latest post on INSIGHT looks into Open Minds

Recently I drew your attention to a new skeptical group blog edited by Daniel Loxton over on skeptic.com called INSIGHT. It’s got a great group of skeptical voices writing for it including Blake Smith, Robynn “Swoopy” McCarthy, Jim Lippard and many others, including me!

Insight LogoToday my second post went up, and it’s all about the source of a well-known skeptical quotation or aphorism. “Keep an open mind – but not so open your brains fall out” is one of those sayings that skeptics love to repeat and post online. If you keep any eye out for it, you’ll see it attributed to a wide variety of people from Carl Sagan to Richard Feynman to Bertrand Russell. And of course now in the era of Internet memes it regularly shows up on social media with a picture of someone next to it.

So who was really the original source of this quote? I’ve long wondered that and have been digging into it periodically since at least 2011 – and so have several others. And just in time for Carl Sagan Day this week, I’ve finally posted what I could find out about it and brought together the results that three other researchers uncovered. It turns out this week might actually be the 75th anniversary of this saying – but the anniversary has nothing to do with Carl Sagan’s birthday at all! So head on over to my latest post at INSIGHT and find out the truth.

My first post ran early in October, and concerned the news of UK medium “Psychic Sally” Morgan getting into a dispute with skeptical campaigners. It’s quite unusual that I ever get to write about a breaking news story, and that one was a doozy. Morgan’s husband and son-in-law were caught on video making physical threats and homophobic slurs toward a skeptic who was quietly distributing leaflets on the sidewalk outside an event venue.

There have been many other great posts on INSIGHT. Jim Lippard wrote a terrific obituary for skeptic Gerald LaRue. Blake Smith looked into the question Who Invented Pasteurization? – a topic he had first explored at Ignite Skepticism at DragonCon.  There have been many more.

So make sure you check the INSIGHT main page periodically or use the blog RSS feed to subscribe to the blog. Or you can hit my author page at INSIGHT and see just my posts.