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.
photo of supplements by Sage Ross distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.
On February 3, the Attorney General of the state of New York, Eric Schneiderman, announced his office had taken action against several major retailers regarding some herbal remedies sold in their stores. The state’s investigators found that about 80% of the products contained none of the active ingredients on the label! Further, some products contained allergens or other substances not listed on the label. The testing was done using a DNA barcoding technique. A “cease and desist” order was issued, requiring these products to be removed from shelves in the state of New York.
Skeptics were generally supportive of this action, of course – we’ve long argued that many herbal supplements have poor evidence of efficacy and are poorly regulated. The supplement industry, needless to say, is not happy. They have attempted to rally opposition to this move, and to get supporters of herbal supplements to call, write and Tweet the Attorney General about this issue.
Only the Attorney General’s office knows how many letters or phone calls were generated. But Twitter posts are, by default, public. This means we can peek at their efforts to lobby on this issue. Let’s do that and see how it is going.
The popular photo manipulation software Photoshop celebrated its 25th birthday this week. Photoshop and other tools like it have made it incredibly easy to manipulate digital photos. That in turn makes it easier to create photographic hoaxes – including ghosts, cryptids, UFOs and other targets of skeptical investigations.
It is not surprising that photo hoaxes are quite common these days and are constantly passed around on social media. Thus skeptics need good tools for debunking them.
I think it is a good time to remind everyone of the proper context for using different tools to avoid algorithmically boosting bad content. This is important for all skeptics, because the very act of linking to something you are debunking can make it more visible on platforms like Facebook and Google.
I’ve also noticed that in addition to many people on social media who’ve adopted DoNotLink, some bloggers are also using it for links within their posts. Frankly, this is overkill and I don’t recommend it. There’s already a standard HTML feature for handling this on web pages – it is called NOFOLLOW. In this post I’ll compare the two and offer advice on when to use each.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.