Category Archives: Best Practice

These articles highlight what I consider to be best practices for skeptics who are active on the Internet. These are proven techniques that achieve results, and should be emulated whenever possible.

Follow me on TwitFaceTumblTubeGram! Why? Here’s why.

Social Media IEver wonder why big brands and major websites often have an array of icons somewhere on their homepage, leading to popular sites like YouTube and Twitter? Follow us on Twitter! Like us on Facebook! It all seems so needy and desperate, as if the business or site has a self-esteem problem.

And why try to lure you off to another site? They’ve got you there on their site looking at their stuff, which is usually a big part of the battle in promoting anything on the Internet. Wouldn’t getting people to go elsewhere be entirely counter-productive? Well, maybe. But there is a method to their madness.

You may be inclined to say, “Well social media is the thing these days, that’s all it is.” But there’s more to it than that.

If you are trying to promote anything – be it a charity, or a good idea, or a product – a key technique on the modern web is to maintain a presence on as many popular sites as you can manage. In this post, I will attempt to explain the rationale behind that, and how you can take advantage of it in your own efforts.

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Tools for monitoring skeptic-relevant legislation in the US

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, CC BY-SA 2.0

U.S. Capitol in daylight by Kevin McCoy, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Government regulation (of quacks and so on) has always been a key part of the skeptic puzzle. A major avenue for skeptic activism in recent years has been simply lobbying agencies to enforce existing regulations by calling their attention to cases. Groups such as Nightingale Collaboration in England and Friends of Science in Medicine in Australia have created major skeptic wins by doing just that. Rank and file skeptics can pitch in by helping with these campaigns, sometimes using tools like Fishbarrel.

So it only makes sense that skeptics should pay close attention to impending legislation as well. We can certainly support rules changes that would work in our favor when possible.

In my TAM2012 plenary talk, I told the story of a major failure of skeptics to do this in the spring of 2010. A serious effort to amend the flawed DSHEA regulation had been put forward in Congress, and had the backing of nearly every major organization in US sports. It went virtually unnoticed in the skeptic community. But alternative medicine supporters deluged Congress with negative feedback about the bill, and it died very quickly.

Since documenting this, I’ve been investigating tools that skeptics can use to avoid a recurrence of this sad story. Some really excellent new ones have been released just in the last year. As Congress is coming back into session after their summer break right now, I thought it would be a good time to review these tools. Every skeptic should have a few of these in your personal toolbox.

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Reverse image search as a skeptic tool – with a twist

The Beast of Trowbridge - in duplicate

The Beast of Trowbridge?

I must confess I’ve been remiss in not blogging about this particular topic earlier.  Investigating anomalous photos has always been a skeptic mainstay – for over a century and a half in fact. Ghost photos of one type or another have existed practically since the invention of photography. Those have been subsequently joined by photos of cryptids, UFOs and other alleged anomalous phenomena.

Now that practically everyone has a camera in their pocket all the time (in the form of a mobile phone) photos of this type pop up constantly – along with opportunities to investigate them. And so we need as many skeptics as possible to have some skills in investigating the latest local ghost or UFO photo.  There are just too many of them to send them all to Joe Nickell or Richard Wiseman.

Because photos are ubiquitous, and doctoring photos using software is so incredibly easy, tools for detecting photo manipulation (like FourMatch and Tungstene) are becoming more common.  But software like that can be quite expensive – out of the range of the average skeptic.

But today I’m writing about something far, far simpler.  In fact, it’s an incredibly easy way to detect obvious hoaxes based on stolen or misrepresented photos.  It should be in every skeptic’s toolkit, along with a trick for using it that I’ve never seen suggested before.

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Do Not Link allows you to ethically criticize bad content

Be sure to check the update at the very end of the article.

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.

Do Not Link: link without improving "their" search engine positionIf 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.

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How To Report A Suspicious Email

© Copyright Patrick Mackie and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

Royal Mail … Junk Mail (Patrick Mackie) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Skeptics sometimes must deal with threats and harassment in emails. This week, our old friend “David Mabus” has started using email again, which means I’ve been sent all manner of reports. While I appreciate these reports, most of them are merely forwarded emails. It turns out that forwarded emails are are all but useless to a forensic investigator.

When you forward an email, key details of where it originated and how it was delivered are left behind. These details are exactly what an investigator needs to do their work. So forwarding doesn’t help.

Thus it is very important when you report a suspicious or threatening email that you use the right method, that captures all the forensic information. This method is not always obvious in modern email clients.

I will show you the method for common email clients in this post, and provide some links to other resources. Read on.

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How to Monitor the Reputation of Your Website

Because we criticize the claims of others, skeptics are often attacked. In the world of Internet skepticism, these attacks often come in digital form.

I’ve often written about using Web of Trust (and tools like it) to warn unsuspecting users about dangerous misinformation websites. It is inevitable that the owners of these sites will become aware of the negative ratings we’ve given them.  But what if they decide to retaliate against skeptics?

It’s not really a question of if.  Judging from a few instances I’ll document here, some are not only fighting to repair the reputations of their own sites in Web of Trust, but some are voting against skeptic sites in Web of Trust and other online site rating services as well. (Yes, there are other services that rate websites for end users beyond WoT).

So what’s a skeptic webmaster to do?  What’s the best way to become aware of malicious activity like this as quickly as possible?  Unfortunately there’s no one silver bullet, but I can recommend a few tips and one site that will let you monitor your site’s reputation in 30+ services in one fell swoop.

Read on for more details…

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How to build link strength for your skeptic web site

Recently a skeptic webmaster who runs more than one site asked me for some advice on driving more traffic to their newer sites. They knew I talk about SEO on this blog and figured I could give them some tips. I’m always happy to help out another skeptic.

One of the first thing I did was look at the number of inbound links to the new website. A key element of any SEO strategy is always inbound links – other sites linking to yours. The more links to your site, the more weight your pages will be given in search engines. And search engine hits are often a third or more of your traffic.

In this post I’ll show how you can measure this, and give some skeptic-specific tips for generating some good back-links to your site.

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A Lesson from Neil Denny: Outside Funding for Skeptic Projects

British Airways jet landing at LCY by Senseiich, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

My “Wishlist Wednesday” posts are all about finding interesting new ideas on which to base a skeptic project. But sometimes it isn’t the idea you need, it’s the means to execute on it. Many impediments can arise including access to people or places, lack of materials or equipment, or simply lack of time.

Starting today Neil Denny (host of the excellent Little Atoms skeptic podcast) is beginning a month-long road trip across America. His goal is to discover (as he explains in his excellent Guardian article introducting the project) how rational is America?  My question is: how can he afford to take a month off and do this?

The answer to that is something other skeptics can learn from, a great example of cleverly figuring out a way to execute on an ambitious skeptic idea.

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Get free publicity, organization tools for your skeptic event via Lanyrd

Skeptics love to throw events. Today the Reason Rally in Washington, DC is kicking off a big year of events in the US, and there are two other big events next month. We love our events for good reason – they help build the community and foster interaction and discussion between skeptics. Indeed, it was attending TAM 5 in 2007 that led directly to my creation of What’s the Harm and this blog.

As any event organizer knows, you must relentlessly promote your event for it to be successful. If you listen to a selection of skeptic podcasts like I do, over the last few months you probably heard an ad or plug for QEDcon which was held in Manchester earlier this month. The Merseyside Skeptics who organized it did a terrific job of getting the word out.

I noticed one of the things they did was list their event in a London-based online service called Lanyrd. This web-based service, launched in 2010, is a social conference directory. That means it uses your social media connections to identify the speakers, attendees and staff at conferences. They are primarily oriented toward Twitter, which is appealing since there are several thousand skeptics who actively use that service. This month Lanyrd got some good coverage at South by Southwest (SXSW) where they provided some fantastic tools to attendees.

I think Lanyrd could be a great new tool for skeptics. Some more details on how to use Lanyrd to your advantage in the rest of this post.

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Follow up on NOFOLLOW – still a good idea for skeptics

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” Louis Brandeis (Other People’s Money: and How the Bankers Use It, 1914)

Linking directly to Internet misinformation and explaining why it is wrong is skepticism’s answer to Brandeis’ sunlight. But because Google and the other search engines use hyperlinks to determine the importance of web pages, many skeptics are fearful of linking to pseudoscience and paranormal sites. They fear that doing so will help (in some small way) boost the visibility of misinformation on the Internet.

They are right. Every time we link to the sites of our cultural competitors, we give them a tiny boost up in the search engines. It’s as if we’ve contributed ten cents to a fund for them to eventually buy a billboard. Those coins eventually add up.

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